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
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."

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  • Cassandra

    This whole thing is so sickening. And even I, the stalwart feminist, hadn’t thought of how screwed up it us that they’re telling women to not get pregnant (while still forbidding abortion) instead of telling men to leave women the hell alone. Ugh I hate it when I miss the obvious.

    Great piece!!

    • Morag999

      I hate when I miss the obvious, too. But it’s bound to happen. When contempt for women is ubiquitous, when sexism passes for “just life,” and when gas-lighting is systemic, just seeing things as they are, all day, every day, is impossible. We certainly need each other to bring parts of our landscape into focus!

  • oh the hue manatee

    This is so good. I was thinking the exact same thing – nobody is telling the men in these countries to keep their sperm the hell away from any uterus. Because it’s universally assumed to be men’s human right to jizz inside a woman. Universally – not just in the countries where this virus is being addressed. I would say that young women in the US have very little choice in #s 1-4 on Jeffries’ list. Thanks to the Cotton Ceiling, not even lesbians are allowed to say no to penis.

    • Rachel

      Yep! It’s universally acceptable for men to jizz wherever the fuck they want. Ugh.

  • Melissa Cutler

    Thank you for the link to the introduction of The Male in the Head. Quite frankly, it floored me with its articulate, logically presented truth telling about heterosexuality and sexual agency. I *was* the young women the study speaks of. We really all do have males in our heads. When my eyes were opened by the teachings and truths of radical feminism, I felt like I’d entered the Matrix (for lack of a better analogy). And reading The Male in the Head findings felt like pulling open another curtain to reveal even more of the dangerous secrets and lies that govern our lives as women.

    • Rachel

      That’s exactly how it feels when you first discover radical feminism isn’t it. All the lies start coming to light and it’s like you come out of this drunken haze thinking “how did I ever believe all that bullshit? What the hell is wrong with the world.” I’ve had a few subjects come up with the younger girls at work, and I can hear their ambivalence about what they “should” believe about men and women, so I gently try to push them in the direction of ‘go with your gut. Your gut is right. Fck what society says’. But I can tell that there is the fear there clouding them – fear of losing their partner if they stand up for what they fee is right, and fear of rejection from other men for not being a “cool chick”, and fear of being alone. I hope they come out of the haze and don’t just brush what I plant in their minds as a past it frumpy woman’s nonsensical words. I hope the see the light because it will save them so much time and heartache being alone spiritually, but together in a socially acceptable relationship, where they sell their soul to the patriarchy.

      • Roseanna Danza

        Rachel, did you mean ‘when you discover rad feminism is ‘it’?

  • Sally Hansen

    Thank you for this piece. This was something I aways thought about even before I was a feminist, the contradiction that we women are expected to remain abstinent when men are always pressuring us to have sex. In high school this was all too clear to me. I had several boyfriends pressure me during those years, to the point where it became ingrained in my head that the only way a man could ever love me was if I gave it up to him. And that’s sadly the contradiction many of us face. The irony is that even when we do give it up, they still don’t necessarily love us. What a sick and sad society we live in. I, for one, am tired of it.

    • Rachel

      Well said. Me too. God it must make men so high to have all that power. Even if they don’t want to openly admit to themselves that they do have the power – just the double standards are ridiculously comforting for them.

  • andeväsen

    Guidance for men’s behaviour has been issued in the travel advice by the UK’s public health body, followed belatedly by the U.S.’s CDC, in reaction to the instance of sexual transmission in Texas.


    “However, if a female partner is at risk of getting pregnant, or is already pregnant, condom use is advised for a male traveller:
    for 28 days after his return from an active Zika transmission area if he has not had any symptoms compatible with Zika virus infection
    for 6 months following recovery if a clinical illness compatible with Zika virus infection or laboratory confirmed Zika virus infection was reported”

    Countries with ongoing transmission haven’t yet issued guidance for men as far as can be ascertained. Some (Puerto Rico and Peru) are including condoms in Zika prevention drives but it is possible the target audience will still be women.

    It is frankly ridiculous how illogical public health messages are, given that they must be made to fit with the norms of the gender hierarchy.

    Especially in the fields of sexually transmitted diseases and maternal and newborn health, public health messages are like really unhelpful weather warnings. “You might want to wear an extra layer today as it will be frosty, but wearing an extra layer is dangerous and can land you in jail”. Penetrative sexual activity is as uncontrollable and banal as the weather. That penetrative sexual activity will happen to a woman is a guarantee. She has to busy herself in dealing with the effects. Hers is not to question the cause.

  • Roseanna Danza

    I’m an optimist “[The pope] said that contraception may be justified for women in regions affected by Zika to prevent the birth of children with microcephaly. According to Francis, in these extreme circumstances, contraception can be seen as the ‘lesser of two evils’—the greater evil, according to the church, being abortion…The contraception news, though, is still a big deal. While Francis has previously chastised the church for its ‘obsession’ with contraception and abortion—and even caused some confusion with the comment that Catholics need not breed ‘like rabbits’—he had never previously challenged the church’s contraception prohibition. He has supported the church’s ban on condoms even in places like Kenya and Uganda, which have some of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world.” ~Rachel E. Gross. SLATE