June 5, 2010

UPDATED: Doggedly Raising the Contraceptive Point

Justin Katz

Frankly, the comments to my post on contraception were about what I expected. The Pill, condoms, and their less common company are secular sacraments, and people are very reluctant to place them on the table for skeptical scrutiny. (It might... or might not... go too far to imply an underlying sense of prickliness about their insinuation of naughty behavior.) One comment I'd like to highlight, though, comes from Dan:

I think not having three kids by the time I got out of school has worked out pretty favorably for me. A girl in my high school class did things the old fashioned way and is now a mother of three who works at a local Stop and Shop (along with significant government aid). I suppose for the 10% or so of young adults who can, voluntarily or involuntarily, plausibly commit to total abstinence until marriage it works out alright.

The first thing to say is that it's a little peculiar for a libertarian principalist to argue such things from anecdote. If that's the standard, I'll see Dan's "girl from high school" and raise him dozens of men and women with whom I've been acquainted, during my adult life, who've spent their lives childless and still wind up menially employed and in need of assistance. If readers wish to head in such a direction, we could take up the question of whether effective self-sterilization leads to perpetual adolescence among people who never face parental responsibility.

The larger point comes with the second thing I'd say in response to Dan. He's reluctant to accept the notion that modern contraception bifurcated the "mating market" into distinct "sex" and "marriage" markets, but it doesn't contradict the argument to ignore it. Indeed, his rejoinder is fully in keeping with the analysis that I cited by Timothy Reichert, who notes (for example) that two-income couples have decreased the value of labor and increased the cost of such essentials as homes. Reichert summarizes this aspect of his argument as follows:

By now, it should be clear to the reader that, in my view, contraception is, contrary to the rhetoric of the sexual revolution, deeply sexist in nature. Contraception has resulted in an enormous redistribution of welfare from women to men, as well as an intertemporal redistribution of welfare from a typical woman's later, childrearing years to her earlier years.

In other words, the benefit that Dan has derived has arguably come at a cost to young families — with an emphasis on women and children. In my earlier post, I suggested that the loosening of young women's inhibitions has overall been to the benefit of men. Dan's reply, as a young professional male, is that he's enjoyed that benefit quite a bit. Well, fine.

It's interesting, in this context, to introduce a recent study of teens' attitudes toward sex. I note, in passing, that contrary to Dan's 10% number, a majority of the teens reported having not had sex. As the full report (PDF) makes clear, teen sex has actually been decreasing. Unfortunately, there's a dark lining to the study:

It found that most teenagers do not frown on having children outside of marriage, however.

"The majority of teens -- 64 percent of males and 71 percent of females -- 'agree' or 'strongly agree' that 'it is okay for an unmarried female to have a child'," the report reads.

I offer the hypothesis that the bifurcation of the "mating market," following the contraceptive revolution, was among the factors that placed our society on a path away from the "marriage market," perhaps suggesting that the "sex market" will ultimately replace the "mating market." With the commonplace declarations that pregnancy and childbirth are ultimately the woman's choice and the market dynamics described by Reichert, men have been moving away from the sense of responsibility for their offspring, which is not an option for women, who have nonetheless had incentive to begin behaving, culturally and sexually, more like men.


As I began this post by implying, something strange happens when one raises this topic — or any topic having to do with the behavioral revolutions of the past half-century. It's as if we all become teenagers defending our habitual misbehavior.

To clarify what I'd thought was clear: I'm not suggesting that we could or should put the contraceptive cat back in the bag. There are circumstances in which they're necessary, and truth be told, I wouldn't restrict their usage by adults were I able to conform the law entirely to my liking. (Although, I would still argue that the residents of individual states should have that authority, acting democratically.)

But the fact that something is — on the whole — good, neutral, or just not worth repealing does not mean that it is beyond reproach, just as the fact that something has harmful effects does not mean that we must attempt to rip it out of the law and culture in its entirety. Rather, by openly discussing problems, we can make the slow cultural adjustments that conservatives tend to prefer on such matters.

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My anecdote, while admittedly for emotional impact, is valid and illustrative since it is widely acknowledged by economists that becoming an unwed parent (or parent) early in life is a major contributing factor to poverty (probably the biggest, actually). Your anecdote is meaningless since it is entirely consistent with the premise, and irrelevant or counter to the obvious causal relationship.

The point of my 10% figure was to counter the inevitable objection that young people could still reasonably shoot to beat the odds and be an exception to the overall trend. It was for those abstaining from sex before marriage, not abstinent teenagers. I was actually being generous, not inflammatory with the estimate I chose, since studies put the number of people in the US who have premarital sex closer to 95% (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16287113).

I have read similar studies showing that less teenagers are having sex, but unfortunately the same studies usually show that more of them are having oral sex, and that they mistakenly believe the activity to carry no risk of STDs.

Posted by: Dan at June 5, 2010 5:40 PM

Quite a bitter tone from Justin if you ask me. Choices are always difficult. Those feelings that you have missed out on something always are there in the early morning just before waking. But you have chosen the ascetics path. Be well. But don't try to conflate your journey into a dictate for others.

Posted by: Davd S at June 5, 2010 6:31 PM

You're talented at avoiding the substantive argument for rhetorical superficialities. Your anecdote (like mine) was not illustrative of the argument actually underway because it did not compare a woman in a society free of contraception with a man in a society in which such technology is commonplace. Clearly, your high-school acquaintance had access to all of the contraception that you did and yet had a significantly different outcome. There's a degree to which such arguments are simply unfair, inasmuch as I cannot argue in full view of the facts about people you know.

But if we take her as a general case, it seems to me that she'd count on my side of the argument, not yours. I'm suggesting that widely available contraception has helped to effect a society-wide bifurcation of sex from marriage, with the effect being a detriment for women. (On the broader analysis, the detriment is to all of the various disadvantaged categories.)

As I said, the young professional male (you) has benefited at the expense of those with fewer advantages. The young unwed woman has the responsibility for the children. The young fathers... well, perhaps they work in the office next to yours or the jobsite next to mine, for all I can say.

None of this is to say that cultural changes that result in detriments are, on the whole, bad, but my point all along has been to suggest that we need to be more aware of unintended consequences as we rush to anything tagged "liberation."

As for the statistical points, I'll register, for the record, the minor objection that your link relies on data of Planned Parenthood's research arm. I note, for example, that the graphic accompanying the article shows 75% of people having had premarital sex by the age of 20, while mine shows a minority having had sex before 19.

It's more important, though, to note that your initial claim was phrased in such a way as to suggest promiscuity. So, fine, I'll cede that very, very few people make it to the age of 44 without having sex at least once. Your source doesn't cite numbers of partners, so we cannot know how many of that 90-something percent were functionally abstinent, with a lapse or two, or (for that matter) how many people had sex only with a person with whom they were on course to marry.

But again, per your tactic, in this discussion, you're focusing on a note that I explicitly made in passing.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 5, 2010 6:34 PM


I'd suggest that you don't know very much about me, but considering that you've appeared to assume that you do since you've been commenting, here, I won't bother.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 5, 2010 6:40 PM


There are some very real, necessary, medical reasons for contraception. I am a reasonably comfortable, well-educated, gainfully employed, married woman in my mid-thirties. I gave birth to a baby in December and had to be induced early due to severe preeclampsia. Since that time, I have continued to have high blood pressure and continue to need medication to control this problem. Along with my blood pressure medication, I am taking a progestin-only pill - one of the few that won't raise my blood pressure. It would be very foolish and medically not advisable for me to try to get pregnant again before my blood pressure goes back to normal. If it does not return to normal, my husband and I have accepted that we may just have one biological child and will probably try to start looking into adoption for a second child next year when I am finished with my doctorate. (Side note: Working on doctorate + baby + teaching = my absence from this site for awhile.) I am surely not the only person out there with a medical reason for requiring birth control. The only other option would be for my husband and me to start embracing a sexless marriage in our thirties. That is surely not a reasonable expectation.
Just food for thought as you consider the pros and cons of contraception.

Posted by: Tabetha at June 5, 2010 8:21 PM

Condoms are secular sacraments? That's funny!

Such backward and luddite views are not even worth discussing. If you don't like sex, then don't have it. For the rest of us, I would suggest having responsible and loving sex as much as possible.

Many religions, BTW, glorify sex for pleasure.....

One thing for sure - person stories are each different and have little relevance to the overall picture. In our case, we had two children when we were very young, and I am glad of it! I truly believe that younger people are more able in ALL ways to deal with children. Some might say that is why God made us to have healthier kids between the ages of 16 and 30 or so.

But it is all about choice...for those with the education or intelligence to even understand that.

One of my first employees was an Italian Catholic who ended up getting his young GF pregnant, then got married, and then divorced soon after.

Turns out he didn't know (honest) that you could get a girl pregnant the FIRST TIME you did the deed!

Well, that's what that great lack of condoms and lack of education does! I suppose Justin wants more of that.

Posted by: Stuart at June 5, 2010 9:55 PM

Tabetha's comment seems to imply that Justin was condemning contraception entirely. Certainly contraception is a good thing, especially compared to its absence, or the use of abortion. But it's reasonable to ask if its wide availability has had some social side effects.

Posted by: William Braden at June 5, 2010 11:58 PM

I am going to stay off the contraceptive question, but will say the observation of division into the "sex market" and the "marriage market" is an observation I had failed to make.

It did make me reflect on the enormous change from the chick flicks of the 50's (pre pill) such as "How to marry a millionaire" to current TV fare where "cougars" sit around a club trying to decide on whether, or not, to "smack a twenty something" before going home.

I also wonder if there is not misplaced nostalgia for the bad old days. Members of earlier generatioms have reported that having married "for sex" did not work out so well. And then, there must have been some impetous for all of those tired old jokes about the housewife and the milkman/mailman.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at June 6, 2010 6:32 AM

[If this commenter had found or waited for a post that was even remotely related to his subject, the content would have been fine. But the comment sections are for discussion of topics that we raise, here; we can't allow them to become a bulletin board for entirely unrelated political attacks. (See the Sakonnet Times for the end of that path.) --- JK]

Posted by: TCC, Caught Lying Again! at June 6, 2010 8:58 AM

I refuse to be made to feel guilty about behavior that harms no one. It is a control mechanism and I reject it as a free and responsible individual.

If a majority of the community ever does come together and "vote" to violently prohibit me from making decisions about my own body, or engaging in consensual activity within my own home, I will break their immoral dictates without compunction.

Posted by: Dan at June 6, 2010 11:33 AM

Thank you for the wonderful illustration of how libertarianism can create (or grow from) a me-based lens. You're the one who's brought up guilt, and you've thoroughly closed off your mind to the joint possibilities that (1) your behavior might harm others through the social mechanism and (2) you have some responsibility to decrease those effects as much as possible. So much is this true that you can't even entertain other perspectives to the extent of understanding what folks are arguing (me, in this case).

You don't have to feel guilty in order to acknowledge that we're ultimately interconnected and to participate cooperatively in discussions about strategies for adjusting cultural norms in order to reduce the harms that free behavior can cause. Such a mindset ultimately results in the winner-take-all battles that libertarians simply can never win.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 6, 2010 12:03 PM

"(1) your behavior might harm others through the social mechanism"

Any "harm" to others resulting from my decision to have consensual protected sex in my own home is so speculative and far removed that it constitutes no meaningful harm at all. Even if one could make some kind of tortured argument about lower collective quality of life, the liberty and property interests of the individual in such a case would be far too strong and the slippery slope too precarious. The notion that majoritarian voting (or some variant thereof) adds any legitimacy to a use of violent coercion against a peaceful individual is just another form of ruthless authoritarianism and mythology, veiled in the wide dispersion of blame. What difference does it make to an individual if their liberties are taken away by a shah, a president for life, a fuhrer, or some misguided dystopian moralistic majority?

Posted by: Dan at June 6, 2010 2:34 PM

Wow. You really can't see the wide field for discourse and action between jealously guarded individual freedoms and government-imposed regulation of our lives, can you?

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 6, 2010 3:11 PM

I guess I don't much care for the "how much violence should we use against Dan when he hasn't harmed anyone" discussion. That is not a legitimate debate to me, because your right to control my behavior attaches when my behavior begins actually harming you in a meaningful way, not before.

Do you know why politics does not make for polite dinner conversation? For the same reason why it is not polite to walk up and punch somebody in the face. What you are really discussing, under the thin veil of our democratic system, is what liberties you are willing to violently deny the person across the table. It should not be a surprise that they generally respond poorly to that topic of conversation.

Posted by: Dan at June 6, 2010 4:15 PM

Dan is 1000% right in this, Justin.
As I said, if you don't like sex with contraception, then don't have it.

To even politely discuss it or judge it as a societal "problem" with potential "solutions" (government or societal rules or customs) is completely ridiculous, akin to you telling me not to look up at the sky and enjoy the beauty of the clouds. Sure, I might get hit by a car if I look up too much, but that is not enough of a reason to bar me from it.

Given the long history of guilt being used by religion to control people....especially in matters of sex....it might be a subject which you want to keep to your inner circles of Catholic philosophers. The cat is long out of the bag in this one.

Sure, you could write many books on the effects of birth control. But, then again, the history of sex is pretty much the history of the world and also the driver of the majority of what people do even today! So let's not simplify these complex subjects.

All in all, I'd rather live in Germany, the Netherlands or another place where sex was liberally treated...than live where the other end of things (which you seem to prefer) is followed...that being countries where genital mutilation, honor killings and other such practices make certain their women don't stray.

Posted by: Stuart at June 6, 2010 11:39 PM

Sounds like somebody would rather live in a third world theocracy where contraception is not available and the birthrate way outstrips the resources available for these children.
If contraception cuts down on the need for abortions, that's good.
I prefer the good old days when conservatism meant NOT sticking unwelcome noses into people's bedrooms.

Posted by: rhody at June 7, 2010 1:10 AM

Rhody, there was no such period in American history, or in the American conservative movement. This is why I am a libertarian and not a conservative, and why I call for evolution rather than revolution. At the end of the day, whichever party comes out ahead, I know that there is going to be a gun pointed in my face and orders being barked at me by an egomaniacal authoritarian who thinks that I have no right to make my own decisions, even when I am not hurting anyone else. It makes little difference whether they are called a "progressive" or a "conservative," they will still be denying me my rights as a free and responsible human being. The entire voting process is a farce, a wrestling match over who gets to have their turn with the gun for a while. It will continue until those of us who value liberty are allowed to peacefully leave the system or until both "sides" agree to put down the gun.

Posted by: Dan at June 7, 2010 2:58 AM
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