Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Sex Talk

[Usually here is where most bloggers would warn their dad not to read the post. But my father knows about my birth control use, he knows I've had sex (and with whom)... my parents raised me not to be afraid to talk about sex with them (or, apparently, with the entire internet). I hope they'd say it worked out well.]

A couple weeks ago you may recall that Dan and I went to a Catholic marriage prep class called "Married in the Catholic Church." Since then I have had this half-written post about why "The Sex Talk" bothered me so much, but I haven't been able to formulate much beyond wanting to shout "Lie! Lie!" That's not very productive, but I couldn't get past it.

Because that IS what bothered me so much. Basically none of what they said was the truth. Or, if that sounds a bit harsh, it was certainly heavily coated in Spin. Let's review:
  1. Birth control has all these negative side effects. It will give you cancer and depression and make you fat and pimpled and is just terrible for your body.
    Lie! Lie! Oh, sorry, there I go again. Ok, yes, birth control has negative side effects for some women. It also has positive side effects for many women. Sometimes you have a mixture of both. I'm pretty lucky in that the pill has always been pretty positive for me. (TMI disclosure: I was on Yasmin and then Yaz, both forms of "the pill," for many years, but am now on Nuva Ring, which is not a daily pill but a monthly vaginal insert.) I actually went on the pill as a freshman in college, years before I became sexually active, because my cycle was so irregular it would sometimes be months between periods and I would have PMS-type mood swings that lasted for weeks beforehand. Birth control gives me short, light, predictable periods, and no crazy mood swings.
    As for the cancer part, hormonal birth control has been shown to increase the risk of certain types of cancer, but it also decreases risk of other types of cancer so that's kinda a tie on the pro/con list.
  2.  Birth control is an abortifacient.
    This one about made my mental lie detector explode. I guess I just run in the best pro-choice circles, because I had never heard that before and it blew my mind that the presenter would say such a ridiculous thing. So I came home and I googled it, and found plenty of pro-life literature on exactly that. Color me shocked, seems a good deal of people actually believe that and have some YouTube videos to "prove" it. As this post discusses, however, it's all a bunch of bullshit. (As a side note, that post promotes the idea that being anti-birth-control is about controlling women to not be slutty. I don't think that this is the Catholic view, for a number of reasons that would make this already long post become absurd. It does seem true of the evangelical Christian standpoint though.)
  3. Even if you are on birth control for a medical reason, go see this Natural Family Planning specialist and she will show you how diet and lifestyle changes can replace all those nasty chemicals you are pumping into your system.*
    Oy vey. We aren't really worried about "nasty chemicals." Because as far as I know, the Catholic church does not oppose any other types of "nasty chemicals," from Advil if you have a headache to antibiotics that might save your life. They don't even seem to be overwhelmingly opposed to childbirth interventions from epidurals to C-sections. Certainly if we are truly concerned about modern medicine being bad for you, we should worry about ALL types of medicine and interventions, not just this one.
  4. Couples who use NFP have a lower rate of divorce that the general population
    While the study did find this, it was certainly not conclusive that NFP is the reason those couples had a lower divorce rate. Correlation does not imply causation! (the battle cry of statistics fans everywhere) The "divorce argument" is a scare tactic of sorts- people our age have watched so many marriages in their parents generation fall apart and are terrified of becoming part of that "50% of all marriages end in divorce" statistic. The threat of divorce is a common theme in the MICC lectures, accompanied often by the vague assertion that doing it the Catholic Church's way will save you from that fate. But the study does not support the attitude that NFP is a magic bullet to a good marriage.
  5. "God" thinks this type of birth control is ok, but none of the others are.
    This might be my greatest disappointment from the sex talk, because I was hoping that finally someone could cohesively explain why it matters to God the method with which you have sex but don't make babies. The "explanation" is that to have a proper sexual union you must be "giving yourself entirely to the other, not withholding your fertility." Except that you still are withholding your fertility, by not having sex when you are fertile. They will say in one sentence that NFP is 98% effective, close to the same effectiveness as hormonal birth control. Then in the very next sentence they'll tell you that you are not "subverting the procreative nature of sex" because you are still open to giving of life (aka to getting pregnant) using NFP. What?! I would buy that God wants you have as many babies as you can (that's the Jewish view) and thus opposes all birth control methods. I still wouldn't do that, but it is a logical argument backed up by both scripture and science. I suppose that, recognizing that most people would not be up for having a dozen children, the Catholic church is finding a middle ground. But it's not a very well supported argument. (I personally believe that God doesn't care if you want to have a ton of children/just a few or how you do that, which is also a logical argument backed up by Jewish theology and science. More on that some other time.)
I knew of NFP, and I was not (and am still not) opposed to it, but I also will not be using it anytime soon. While I continue to support overnight shifts every month or two, I cannot use my body's natural cues to determine my fertility. This is another issue I have with the NFP lecture (and specifically argument #3), which is that there is no answer for people who can't use NFP for this or other reasons. What are their alternatives? Don't have sex with their spouse ever? Have 15 children? No thank you, on both counts. (Possibly they would suggest a third option, which is to get a job that wouldn't interfere so much with either NFP or being a mother. Again, no thank you.)

I voluntarily gave non-anonymous (email) feedback to the organizers, and in reply to an unrelated topic they suggested that attendees should have known that the weekend would represent the Catholic Church's views. I don't disagree. I knew I would have to sit through an NFP lecture and did not expect them to tell me to pop BC like candy and "wrap up those penises, girls" (the terminology used by the campus health services presenter at my college freshman orientation... right before she handed out condoms). But this does not change that their argument is problematic and not entirely truthful. I suppose a good portion of the feedback they received that she considers a problem with presenting the "Catholic way" is more discontent with the arguments not standing up to scientific fact or logic.

 *A large portion of the trouble with NFP is it being billed as an opposition to medicine, when in reality NFP methods are highly scientific. Faith Permeating Life has 2 posts (here and here) on why the approach taken by Catholic NFP promoters is creating enemies rather than helping the cause. Both are excellent. NFP should seek to ally with both OB/GYNs and holistic/Eastern-medicine types. It's kind of the perfect balance of science and "hippie." Instead they distance themselves from both by making it all about faith. Faith only works on the faithful, but if you want to gain a footing sometimes you have to cater to the audience.
Additionally, if you get a variety of non-Catholics practicing, you actually have a fighting chance to prove causation on the divorce-prevention argument (if a causative relationship exists), which in the long run could actually help your argument to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.


  1. 1) There does seem to be a bit of a blind spot w.r.t. the health benefits of hormonal on the anti-contraception side, but the whole topic might be a red herring. There's still a (probably unresolvable at this time) debate about contraception, vs. a debate about taking drugs that happen to also act as contraceptives, which I think should probably be separate.

    2) The Catholic Church opposed the earliest chemotherapies because they were treatments for syphilis, which it viewed as God's punishment for infidelity. Granted, that was a hundred years ago and the Church has made (relatively) rapid progress on women's issues in that time, but preventing sluttiness as a partial motivation for anti-contraception wouldn't be historically inconsistent. I'm interested to know what leads you to believe that that isn't part of the current position.

    3) This argument is also generally weakened by the less systemic forms of hormonal birth control. You've already cited the Nuva Ring, but there's also the Mirena IUD, which Shannon uses. Both have risks, but less than, say, oral orthotricycline.

    4) As a wise man once said, correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively while mouthing "Look over there!" Both the researcher and the author of the article point out that more research is necessary. My hypothesis is that the features of couples that can successfully implement NFP (to the extent that such a thing can be "successful") also lend themselves to relationship longevity. To quote another wise (but less funny) man, all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

    1. 2. Note I said "controlling women to not be slutty," which is different from "controlling people not to be slutty." The latter I do believe is part of the goal. But I do have a ton to say on the subject as a whole, so I will get to that in a follow on post sometime.

      4. Yes the study says they want more research, but the course presents this "finding" as already proven truth. Which is actually part of the overall Catholic strategy of claiming they are the one arbiter of truth as to what God wants.
      (This bit I also learned at the counseling course, when they mentioned that not all religions believe to be the one true church so obviously you should raise your kids Catholic. I guess I should have figured it out, since they believe the pope speaks for God- or is God?- something like that. But I didn't know any religions actually put it right out there and said "we are the only answer." Dan, for his part, was surprised that any religions DON'T say that. Depends on your frame of reference. Jews only believe that Judaism is the right answer if you are born Jewish.)

  2. 2) Ah, I missed that nuance. Excellent point.

    4) In defense of the Catholics (now there's something I never thought I'd say...), they aren't much more guilty of this than anybody else. Most people present research as final and complete, particularly ones who've never done it, and more particularly with sociology (for... reasons).

    The spiritual power of the Papacy starts with Matthew 16:18-19, which makes Peter the key-holder of Heaven and capable of making laws that apply both there and here. Popes are the inheritors of Peter's position.

    One of the weird and interesting features of the Catholic cosmology is that increased power implies decreased agency, and the Pope is the extreme example of this. Because the Pope can make laws in Heaven and God's will is absolute, the Pope is incapable of making laws (for very loose definitions of "laws") that aren't in accord with God's will, therefore any laws he creates must be in perfect accord with God's will.

    About "we are the only answer", I propose that this is another part of the R-selection of Christianity. It's a little less motivating if your position is "we are an answer that might work for you, if you're interested" or "we are the only answer for a very particular group". Well, I suppose it's the extreme version of the former, where the particular group is "all people".