When the Supreme Court ruled on Monday morning that a wide swath of U.S. companies can exclude birth control from their insurance coverage for employees on religious grounds, it was easy to get caught up in frustration with Justice Samuel Alito’s torturous attempts to justify allowing employers to deny coverage for contraception, but not blood transfusions or vaccinations. But the big picture is as infuriating as the petty details.
Among the ideas validated in the Hobby Lobby decision is that, as I wrote when the ruling came down, prescription birth control “is some accessory for dizzy dames, rather than a service to men AND women,” as well as a treatment for non-reproductive issues for many women. Or, as conservative commentator Erick W. Erickson put it, “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer subsidized consequence free sex.”
Mass culture gets a lot of credit for shaping our expectations about sex, but as I have written before, one area where it is curiously silent is contraception.
Unexpected-pregnancy plots abound, generally ending in a woman deciding to keep the baby rather than choosing to have an abortion. But for all the kicky career women headed out to smart jobs and sophisticated relationships, no morning-prep montage ever includes an actress popping a birth control pill. It is the tremendously rare sex scene where anyone reaches for a condom, or even brings up the prospect of a barrier method. If anyone is rocking an intrauterine device or getting Depo-Provera shots, they go unmentioned.
There are plenty of logistical reasons for this. Programming and movies that are eager to fit into certain time slots on certain networks, or to come in at a certain ratings threshold, tend to avoid discussing the mechanics of sex altogether. Plotwise, an unintended or inconvenient pregnancy provides more for the characters to work through, even if staging conversations about sex and contraception might strengthen our sense of the relationship between those characters. These imperatives leave us with a cultural landscape that is rather fundamentally divorced from the real world in unsettling ways.
Birth control in pop culture exists at the margins. It is used by the criminal bikers in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” as part of an arcane code of sexual morality that lets these men sleep with women other than their wives or committed girlfriends, as long as they use protection. In “Fifty Shades of Grey,” sexually dominant billionaire Christian Grey requires that his young, naive lover start using oral contraceptives before they begin their affair.
The young lovers in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 romance “Love and Basketball” reach for condoms. The attention given by that film, already so unusual for its black director and leads, to the emotional lives of African American men, and its refusal of pathology narratives, broke with tradition in this case, too.
And contraception is the provenance of genre fiction. Sometimes, its function is dystopian. In Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” which is being adapted for film, the citizens of an authoritarian state are given birth control medications that quench their sexual desires, and reproduction is outsourced to a class of unmarried women.
In rare cases, creators use genre conventions to present birth control as a positive thing, and the responsibility of both men and women. In Tamora Pierce’s fantasy novels, for example, women can buy inexpensive (and over-the-counter) charms to prevent pregnancy, and some men are thoughtful enough to take their own precautions.
“If my characters are going to have sex, they’re going to do their utmost to be responsible about it,” Pierce told me in a 2011 conversation. “They are going to be thinking about the kids that might result.”
None of this is to say that if only pop culture was more responsible and more mainstream in its discussions of contraception, we might be seeing a different result at the Supreme Court today.
There are, after all, powerful interests with significant interests in making birth control less accessible, and with plenty of resources to advance ideas like the suggestion that only bad women use contraception. It is a trope that even shows up in cultural artifacts such as Mary McCarthy’s novel “The Group,” in which a young woman abandons a diaphragm under a park bench out of shame. But if mass culture were less inclined to treat this aspect of life so primly, it might be somewhat more difficult to convince so many people that birth control is a trivial, immoral luxury good.