Home Features Sex, desire and the Pill: Feminism’s last taboo?

Sex, desire and the Pill: Feminism’s last taboo?


After the recent death of Dr Carl Djerassi, the developer of the norethindrone molecule, Fran Lowe, Online Features Editor, considers the role of the contraceptive pill in female control over their sex life and the move towards gender equality.

On January 30th, Dr Carl Djerassi passed away at the age of 91. You’d be forgiven for not knowing who he is, but you will almost certainly be familiar with what he pioneered: he developed the molecule norethindrone. Still not with me? Norethindrone is one of the key components of the contraceptive pill.

The invention of the Pill was an event that shook up gender relations and feminism in the 1960s, and has remained a crucial factor in women being able to enjoy sex in the same casual, no worries way that men can, ever since. For many women, the Pill is the easiest way to ensure that there are no accidents, and reassures us constantly that we’re not pregnant. It’s nice to know. One third of women in the UK take the Pill or the (progesterone-only) Mini-Pill, so its impact on our lives should not be underestimated.

In a world where feminism is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, thanks to movements such as the #HeForShe campaign and writers like Caitlin Moran, and with issues like childbearing making the news all the time (for example, companies like Apple and Facebook have offered to freeze their female employees’ eggs until later in their lives), it seems as though now is the time to review what part the Pill plays in our lives, and if controlling our fertility with a daily tablet is really the best way forward.

The Pill has long been heralded as a means by which women can enjoy sex without needing to worry about the consequences: men never need to worry that they’ll get pregnant if they have unprotected sex, and now women don’t need to either. For many women the Pill is the sensible choice; we have enough things to worry about without having to fret about unwanted pregnancies.

It has been said, though, that the Pill encourages promiscuity among women. Without meaning to stereotype, this is the argument that is often heard from religious viewpoints, or more old-fashioned misogynist views. It has been suggested that any woman who is prepared to sleep with someone who she doesn’t necessarily want to settle down and have children with, is a ‘slut’. For some people, a woman who takes the Pill takes it so she can sleep around, not because she just wants to take control of her own contraception, rather than always relying on a man to use a condom.

The viewpoint that women who use the Pill are automatically promiscuous is more common than you might think: while I’ve been at university, I once had a guy spot the strip of pills on my bedside table, and comment “Oh, you take the Pill? You must have a lot of one-night stands then.” You won’t be surprised to hear that I threw him out of my house before he could say “combined oral contraception.” The Pill does not automatically mean ‘slut’; it means ‘sensible girl who is taking control of her own body’.

But, so what if it does mean ‘slut’? What is a ‘slut’ anyway? A girl who is willing to admit that she likes having sex? A girl who recognises that she has, and, god forbid, even gives in to, desires? A lot of recent feminist theory (Susan Bordo; Laurie Penny, for example) has suggested that women are frequently assumed to be desired beings, but not desiring ones. That is to say that women’s role in society is assumed to be the thing that is in demand, rather than a thing that actually wants stuff (sex, food, etc.) in its own right. It’s an interesting concept, and it certainly makes sense when we consider that women are frequently slated for being ‘sluts’ while men are called ‘lads’ for acting in the very same way; women are not allowed to desire in our society. It might be shocking to hear it said out loud, but women generally enjoy sex just as much as men.

The Pill is something that makes it possible for women to have desires, and to not have to worry about the consequences – just like men! However, as Laurie Penny writes in her 2014 book Unspeakable Things, ‘we have the technology to liberate women and girls from the shackles of biology. What we do not have, yet, over after a century of fighting for it, is the collective will to make that liberation real,’ touching on how, if only society would evolve, the real perks of the Pill would become visible: women and men can finally have sex on an equal playing field. The Pill, then, is a glorious invention; it just seems that society is yet to fully adapt to the concept of women actually being sexually liberated.

Of course, the Pill is not just for young girls yet to settle down. The Pill is used by a huge range of women, including those who have found the person they want to have children with, just not yet. It’s a choice thing: it’s about allowing women, rather than biology, to decide when we want to put our lives on hold for a couple of years or so and have a baby. Or allowing couples to decide that they want to wait a while, or that maybe they have enough children, and don’t want any more. The Pill isn’t just for women: it’s for couples and families too; it’s about security.

In my opinion, the Pill is the easiest way for me to stay in control of my body, and it has way more benefits than just preventing pregnancy. Perhaps one of its downsides, however, is that it is so often considered to be the only option for women, and the truth is that it doesn’t work for everyone. There are far more options available – coils, implants, injections, for example – that do the same task, and for many women, may be better than the Pill. They avoid any complications that come from forgetting to take a pill, and yet they are so often underrated. If women are to really get to grips with their bodies, it is important that they are properly educated about all the various options available, and I don’t just mean women in the UK. Options like the implant could be invaluable in developing countries, where it isn’t so easy to get regular medication to women who want to control their fertility.

As it is, though, the Pill is a real game changer. While we are yet to have the social equality that is such a huge part of gender equality, the Pill gives us a step in the right direction towards sexual equality. Good one, Dr Djerassi.

Fran Lowe, Online Features Columnist

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