I recently interviewed journalist Rachel Hills about her new book “The Sex Myth” in which she argues for a new sexual revolution that honors the choice not to have sex as much as it supports the choice to have sex – that is to say, a culture that respects those who decide to abstain, whether temporarily or permanently. One of the main contentions in the mainstream discussion of the Fertility Awareness Method centers on the component of the teaching and practice that suggests, but does not require, a couple choose not to have full sex while the woman is fertile if she does not want to get pregnant.
The reactions to this – the idea of planned periodic abstinence – have been both concerning and fascinating. Many seem to be repelled by the idea of discussing the potential outcome of sex with their partner, making decisions about sex based on their fertility cycle, and not being open to having sex at any time. In this way Fertility Awareness does stand in opposition to the increasingly publicized benefits of using a long-acting, invisible, contraceptive method like the implant or IUD, that supposedly doesn’t get in the way of unplanned, spontaneous, around-the-clock sex and requires little or no conversation with your partner. The mainstream reactions suggest that those who chose the latter are sexually liberated and those that chose Fertility Awareness, including periodic abstinence, are prudes.
Not only does this reveal how narrow-minded our concept of sex has become in that we cannot fathom eschewing full sex for other kinds of sexual experiences, it also reflects what Hills defines as the “Sex Myth” – this culture that insists that if we’re not having sex there’s something wrong with us and that if we’re choosing not to have sex (even temporarily), then we’re seriously defective. The horror at the idea of periodic abstinence, at least from liberal feminist quarters, seems to be reactionary – a kneejerk response to wider social issues like abstinence-only sex education and purity balls. Despite the fact that who knows how many women could benefit from the unsuppressed libido coming of the Pill or a long-acting hormonal method might provide.
Desiring sex, but making the rational choice not to have full sex because of the context of your life situation, is received as counterintuitive to “natural” human behavior. The time around ovulation can be a time of high sexual desire for some women (and men) and some cannot imagine denying themselves full sex. As such, of course, some FAMers chose not to abstain and are happy enough with the effectiveness rates of condoms or withdrawal or a combination of methods to use those when fertile, and that’s okay. But it’s worth considering that choice in more depth and thinking about whether it is rooted in the “natural” or the “social.”
It should also be okay if – whether for religious reasons or from a desire to be super-safe about avoiding pregnancy – some people chose not to have full sex for part of the month. Not only should it be okay, but it’s not actually all that abnormal. Hills reports in her book on how the majority of couples have sex a few times a month, not the “twice a week” we are prescribed by Dr Oz, Cosmopolitan et al. So, the outrage some may present online, may partly spring from a desire to appear more sexually active and as such fit in with the perceived social norms.
I, for one, look forward to the new conversation, and the new sexual revolution, in time, that might come from the provocations of Hills’ book.
A little bit about Holly and her awesome work!
Holly Grigg-Spall is a writer and women's health advocate. Her book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control has been featured in Elle, the Sunday Times Style (UK), Marie Claire, New York magazine, the Guardian, and on CBC and the BBC, amongst others. The book was optioned by Ricki Lake and is the inspiration for a forthcoming feature documentary. She also currently writes frequently for LadyClever.com.