Gender and technology are neither fixed nor univocal, but mutually constitutive.
–Nelly Oudshoorn, ‘The Male Pill’
This week marks the second annual ‘Men For Choice, And The Women Who Love Them’ event in New York. The event, organised by US-based campaign group NARAL Pro-Choice America, is intended as an opportunity to celebrate men’s involvement in the pro-choice movement. For readers unfamiliar with the group, NARAL is an organisation which has been heavily involved in promoting – and effecting – access to both abortion and birth control in both the US and elsewhere since the 1960s. It goes without saying that NARAL deserve much credit for their work. But the upcoming event for men (‘…And The Women Who Love Them’) speaks to a broader cultural climate surrounding contraception – and specifically, the contraceptive pill – that now requires further reflection.
In their campaign literature, NARAL state that the contraceptive pill is “about equality for women”. Used as a means of prohibiting pregnancy, it is said to give women the choice as to when to have a child (if at all). Since my feminism means I am in favour of ‘equality for women’, the fact that this specific technological device is said to provide just the ticket should make me nothing short of elated.
Instead, I’m seeing red. This vision has two parts.
I. The feminist question. Scholars recently dedicated an entire volume to questioning the extent to which technologies in and of themselves can be deemed feminist, and if so, on what terms. According to Linda Layne, the question of what constitutes ‘feminist technology’ has no easy answer. Wherein, asks Layne, lies the feminist aspect of a technology? Does it need to be designed by women, for women? Can a feminist technology ever be designed by a man? Is it feminist if the technology benefits some, but not all, women? And is it still feminist if it also benefits men? Can a technology be feminist if it addresses at the same time as it ultimately perpetuates inequalities between women and men?
Readers befuddled: the answer to that last question, at least, is no. But framing the debate about particular technologies in terms of whether they either ubiquitously offer choices for women, or are controlling of them, is not especially helpful. As Dion Farquhar forcefully argued in 1996,
“Because no technology stands outside of or occurs before its representations in discourse, there is no ‘real’, fixed, or essential technology. How a technology gets represented is always a result of historical negotiations that are subject to subsequent renegotiations.”
More than this, it seems that suggesting that a technology is ‘feminist’ or ‘pro-women’ without consideration of the motivations for its creation, or its reception or application, rests upon the idea that all women’s bodies – and their wishes for those bodies – are the same. It echoes an age-old confluence of women with nature (and men with culture) which has long been shown – by Sherry Ortner and several others – to be problematic. Most crucially, however, it forgets that gender and technology are, to use Nelly Oudshoorn’s terms, ‘mutually constitutive’, such that they are each critical, both to the existence of, and to thinking about, one another.
The mutual constitution of gender and technology lies at the heart of the problem with the contraceptive pill as a preventative measure for pregnancy in Britain today. To be clear, my concerns about the pill (and its most current correlate, the implant) are not because I’m an essentialist who believes that the ‘natural’ female body is one that menstruates (as if the male-is-to-culture-as-female-is-to-nature formula needed bolstering even further). Unsurprisingly, it’s also not because I’m a ‘frigid bitch’ who thinks that women don’t want to and/or shouldn’t have any sex at all. And it’s not because I’m against contraception in general (or the idea of a contraceptive pill specifically) or because I want to make an argument about the sanctity of human life. It is because the pill is a technocultural device which has been mobilised in such a way that does not provide ‘equality for women’. Rather, its development was both in part based upon, and today perpetuates, normative ideas about the adult female body – as fundamentally different to its male equivalent – that are problematic.
I deploy the term ‘technocultural’ here to reinforce Oudshoorn’s point that technologies are embedded within cultural contexts which shape the ways in which we think about them. In the case of the pill, in fact, it might be more appropriate to suggest that its contemporary application is more often than not not thought about, or at least not critically discussed within the public sphere. As Grigg-Spall writes, in its twenty-first century guise, contraceptive pill consumption is an assumed rite of passage. It is a cultural symbol which supposedly marks the transition from childhood to an acceptable form of femininity and womanhood, the latter of which is characterised both by reproductive capacity and by a specific mode of sexuality.
The idea in cultural circulation today – that all women should be regularly taking the contraceptive pill in order to prevent pregnancy – is underpinned by the assumption that all female bodies should be ‘up for it’ in terms that are in keeping with, and not physically disruptive of, monogamous, heterosexual sex (or so the argument against using condoms often goes). It also speaks to a wider discourse in which motherhood is deemed acceptable only under certain conditions (as Woollett and Boyle, amongst others, have argued, this means being of a particular age, socioeconomic status, and so on), and serves to stigmatise those who mother outside of this framework, or who do not mother at all. Most crucially, the idea that women who ovulate should be taking the pill is evidence of the fact that the responsibility of preventing conception from taking place continues to be conceived of as ‘women’s work’.
Given that, for now, at least, pregnancy is something that happens to some bodies and not others (and these bodies are often, but not exclusively, self-defined as female), it is clear that the terms upon which pregnancy are generally not yet gender-neutral – a point with which, paraphrasing Sarah Franklin, it is difficult for even the most determined social constructionist to argue.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many women choose to take the contraceptive pill. But making the conceptual leap from ‘some women can become pregnant’ to ‘all women ought to be the sole receptacles for pharmaceutical products which can pose a risk to their health so that they don’t become pregnant and are able to partake in condom-free sex’ is a bit like suggesting that women
ought to stay in the kitchen so that men and women can together enjoy delicious, home-cooked food, even if some women are harmed by – or don’t like – cooking, and/or would never choose to eat with a man.
It fails to appreciate the heterogeneity of female experiences with the contraceptive pill. More crucially, it is an argument stripped of its historical context. And as scholars have meticulously shown, the history of medical practice is a history in which the female body has continually been subject to medical intervention. Given this fact, Oudshoorn argues, “it will come as no surprise that the development of the first physiological contraceptives focused exclusively on women.”
II. The male pill. So what about a contraceptive pill ‘for men’? This question is, of course, not new. In fact, over the last few decades, scientists, in concert with potential users, have trialled a male contraceptive pill. Several times. But at every stage of research and development, the so-called male pill has been met with resistance from the scientific community, pharmaceutical companies, and wider society. The question of whether men would ever be willing to take a contraceptive pill, first raised in preliminary discussions by the World Health Organisation in the 1970s (several years after its female equivalent was in full circulation), has since been asked innumerable times. More worryingly, it seems that the development of the male pill has been specifically and deliberately stifled by arguments based on ‘natural differences’ between men and women: that is, that preventing the production of millions of sperm is much more difficult than stopping the monthly release of an egg.
The recognition of these facts is not intended to discredit the great deal of work – scientific and otherwise – that has gone into the male pill thus far, but to tell us something about the cultural milieu in which this technology seems to be taking shape. Several arguments made in favour of the male contraceptive pill are also here worthy of note. Indeed, much like NARAL’s emphasis on ‘love’ as underlying the experiences of pro-choice men, many advocates of the male pill have seemingly adopted a heteronormative(-ly problematic) lens through which to view it. In particular, those in favour of the male pill have settled upon the cultural trope of prospective user as ‘caring man’ – who may be willing to take the pill in order to relieve his partner the burden of doing so.
The reasons for this being the case are complex, and are as much to do with conceptions of what Connell has termed hegemonic masculinity as they are to do with dominant narratives of heterosexism, monogamy, and gender more generally. Here, Oudshoorn’s argument about the ‘mutual constitution’ of gender and technology again presents itself with full force. Crucially, the ‘caring man’, so it was said, would be more concerned with his partner’s health and happiness than he was with his sperm count or sexual virility. On this point, it is worth remembering that the most debated side-effect of the male contraceptive pill has been its impact upon sexual function: a question only raised in scientific debates in relation to the female contraceptive pill three decades after its implementation and use.
But what’s love got to do with it? I certainly don’t love all men who think in pro-choice terms, and I wouldn’t necessarily love one who thinks that a male pill is a good idea. It goes without saying that all men should be interested in the rights of individual women to make choices about their bodies, and that their reasons for advocating a male contraceptive pill should extend beyond them caring about their (specific female) partner. These are obvious points which ought not to be undermined by a representation of pro-choice or pro-male pill men as thinking or feeling in a way that is ‘unusual’, ‘special’, or indeed ‘caring’. Most crucially, pro-choice and pro-male pill men ought not to be thought of as automatically motivated by, and/or deserving of, affection.
Framing the contraceptive pill as product and producer of gender allows for the unpicking and unpacking of dominant cultural narratives, both of such technologies specifically, and of gender in general. And far from betraying the hard work of feminists and others who have fought to ensure women’s reproductive autonomy, it seems that thinking about the ways in which contraception might now be specifically mobilised against dominant narratives of gender might be useful. In other words, in addition to repeating the your body = your business mantra which of course applies to individual women (and men, and indeed those who do not subscribe to the gender binary), it is high-time we scrutinised the ways in which ideas about women as a social group may have led to the production of gender-specific contraceptives which, in turn, perpetuate ideas about women as the sole users of such contraceptives, at the expense of more creative thinking about what gender is, or what it could be.
Connell, R.W. (1987) Gender and power. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Farquhar, D. (1996) The other machine: Discourse and reproductive technologies. London: Routledge.
Grigg-Spall, H. (2013) Sweetening the pill, or how we got hooked on hormonal birth control. Hants: Zero Books.
Layne, L.L., Vostral, S.L. & Boyer, K. (2010) Feminist Technology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Ortner, S. (1972) Is female to male as nature is to culture? Feminist Studies, 1(2) 5-31.
Oudshoorn, N. (2003) The male pill: A biography of a technology in the making. Durham: Duke University Press.
Woollett, A. and Boyle, M. (2000) Reproduction, women’s lives and subjectivities. Feminism and Psychology, 10 (3), 307-311.