Sex & Zika: On contraception and the coital imperative


It has been hard to miss the growing media coverage of the Zika virus. With a possible link between the infection of pregnant women and birth deformities, much of the attention has turned to women’s reproductive rights — and rightly so. But, as with most reporting on issues of contraception and abortion, a discussion of the social realities of heterosexual sex is absent.

A potential, causal connection between Zika and children born with microcephaly has led authorities in a number of affected countries to recommend that women “delay pregnancy” for between six months and two years. As a number of commentators, academics, and women’s rights advocates have pointed out, this advice is practically nonsensical in localities where contraception can be difficult to obtain and, currently, more than half of all pregnancies are “unplanned.”

The critical coverage of the “pregnancy delay” directives has mostly focused on nations such as El Salvador: a predominantly Catholic country, where state laws forbid abortion, and less than 10 per cent of the population uses temporary forms of birth control like condoms and the contraceptive pill.

Such a scenario clearly puts women in an invidious position. In reading any number of these reports, however, it would be easy to think that women magically become pregnant. The message wasn’t relayed as: “Men! Keep it in your pants!” or “Men! Always wear a condom!” The message came across as more: “Women! Don’t get yourselves pregnant!” It shouldn’t need to be said, but men are part of this equation too.

To be clear, I am not about to jump off a “what about the men?” cliff, here. Rather, my point is that the power relations of heterosexuality and, in particular, men’s assumed entitlement to engage in penetrative, procreative sex with female partners, is the missing background to these discussions. Contraception and access to abortion are just the tip of the iceberg.

Reflecting on the Zika reports reminded me of a useful list that Sheila Jeffreys was often fond of drawing up in her Sexual Politics classes as a way of exposing the superficiality of arguments around “choice” and abortion. She would write up a version of the following:

1) Choose to be sexual or not.

2) If yes, choose to have sex with another person, or not.

3) If yes, choose to have same-sex or opposite-sex sexual relations.

4) If opposite sex, choose whether or not to have coitus.

5) If yes, choose affordable, accessible and safe contraception, or not.

6) If no, or if contraception fails, choose an abortion, or not.

Her point was, that if the options from 1-5 cannot also be freely chosen then there is little point in considering abortion simply as a “choice.” The problem goes beyond the more obvious end of reproductive rights and back to women’s sexual autonomy.

And the lack of women’s sexual autonomy is all too evident. What if, instead of the threat of unwanted pregnancy under the cloud of the Zika virus, we thought about what it would be like if women had to negotiate the risk of contracting a potentially life-threatening illness through coitus?

Oh right, we already did that. During the height of public health campaigns around HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. The Women Risk and AIDS Project (WRAP) in the UK, for instance, was labelled “the most comprehensive British research yet on the workings of male power in heterosexual relations,” by Stevi Jackson, and it was pretty damning.

One of the most powerful pieces of work that came out of the WRAP was The Male in the Head: Young people, heterosexuality and power. (The introduction is available to read for free online.) The title comes from the authors’ delineation between “the surveillance power of male-dominated and institutionalized heterosexuality”, as represented by the “male-in-the-head”, and the “man-in-the-bed of everyday experience.”

At one point, the researchers note their initial belief that they would find opposing forces of masculinity and femininity colliding in young people’s negotiations of heterosexual “safe sex.” Instead, they conclude:

“Heterosexuality is not, as it appears to be, masculinity-and-femininity in opposition: it is masculinity. Within this masculine heterosexuality, women’s desires and the possibility of female resistance are potentially unruly forces to be disciplined and controlled, if necessary by violence.”

Add to this that “real sex” in the context of heterosexuality is seen as penetrative, procreative sex: coitus. Indeed, sex is equated with coitus to such an extent that “sex” is simply taken to mean coitus in day-to-day conversation. If you need further evidence that this is a construction of male power, it’s worth considering that, while the concept of coitus requires male orgasm, more than two thirds of women do not orgasm regularly during penetrative, procreative sex, and many never expect to.

But this is not just an issue of equality as measured by number of orgasms. Notions of acceptable heterosexual desire and pleasure are intimately linked to the material realities of risk, whether that be risk of pregnancy, risk of STI transmission, or risk of physical and emotional harm. As The Male in the Head lays bare, the institution of heterosexuality is founded on male power, male sexual pleasure and female risk. It is these circumstances which help to explain why knowledge of, and access to, condoms (and various forms of contraception) are not always decisive factors in determining their use:

“Dissemination of knowledge on safer sex clearly did not ensure that young people would put what they knew into practice or think that it concerned them. Accounts of their sexual relations were shaped by the definition of ‘proper sex’ as penetrative vaginal intercourse that starts when the man is aroused and stops after his orgasm — making her orgasm his production — a notion of sex that privileges male needs and desires in a sexual division of labour in which he is the sexual actor while she is acted upon. The dominant discourse of femininity… through which these young women made sense of their sexual selves stood in direct contradiction to their sexual safety.”

And so it is now, with Zika. Contraception will only be — at best — a band-aid solution if men’s sexual entitlement goes unchallenged. Women’s sexual and reproductive safety requires women’s sexual autonomy.

Meagan Tyler is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of “Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West” and an editor of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism.

Meagan Tyler

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. Meagan is the author of "Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West" and co-editor of "Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism."