By Angela Jones
The womb, and hence the female body, is a site of incessant surveillance. Policed through medicalized norms, women are losing power over their own bodies. The unctuous tone of the medicalized mouth imposes norms upon the womb, while the influx of female contraceptive technology has left women to acquiesce to the unjust gaze imposed by medical discourse. The female reproductive system is now under constant examination, left to be “qualified,” “classified,” and “punished.” The owners of these wombs are left dizzy as if they were running circles around a newel, in an attempt to keep up with the discourse that would render their bodies deviant if they chose not to internalize these mechanisms of normalization.
The burden to control the population has been placed on the backs of women. Though women are said to have power over their own reproductive systems, it is actually medical science and the discourses pervaded by specialists that struggle for power over the womb. Betsy Hartman tells us, “Research has focused overwhelmingly on the female reproductive system. In 1978, for example, 78 percent of the public sector expenditures for the development of new contraceptives was for female methods, as opposed to only 7 percent for males.” According to Hartman, population control programs have been designed with women in mind; it is white male hegemony that controls the realm of contraceptive research.
I would posit that this burden is handed down to women not only to further perpetuate gender norms, in that it is a woman’s function to procreate, but also to blame the female body for quagmires like overpopulation and teen pregnancy. The female body’s “responsibilities” are constantly changing. However, we have found at present that the female womb, more specifically the female reproductive system, has been constructed by norms, the discourses that control them, and the new technology that has disrupted both of the former.
If we are to understand this problem, the Foucauldian tradition buttressing this work must be expounded. “The power of the Norm appears through the disciplines…it is established in the effort to organize a national medical profession and a hospital system capable of operating general norms of health. Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age.” Reproductive contraception functions today not to control the birth rate but rather to control the female body. With a decline in barrier methods and an increase in systemic and surgical birth control methods, the female body has become an occupation zone: IUD’s, sutures from tied tubes, abrasions from chop-shop abortions, hormonal shots, patches, rings, diaphragms, and pills. It is controlled by the apothecary and observed by specialists.
Specialized medicine – gynecologists and obstetricians – use technologized knowledge to advise their patients. It is propounded by medicine that women who do not use new contraception are deviant. Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of all that science has to offer? Because you are not a healthy woman, perhaps overly lascivious. Worse, you are dirty and not clean. Moreover, you are pathological. You must suffer from low self-esteem. One who does not embrace the technological “advances” surrounding the womb has been infected by an apathetic disease, the likes of which might need to be quarantined.
I am sure it comes as no great shock to anyone that cyberspace now presides over the technological world. Cyberspace serves as the cardinal vehicle that transports and carries information to its kibitzers who ogle over it. Victoria Pitts enlightens us by saying, “Though cyberspace has been excitedly hailed as a new space for women’s empowerment, it has brought with it new opportunities for promoting gender and body disciplines.” In the technological age we find that new apparatuses of communication serve to further the disciplines and discourses that once had to report on their own, through their own means of specialized service centers. The world of postmodernity grows megabyte by megabyte.
In cyberspace, via the Internet, we find medicinal and so-called health erudition seeping not only into our homes, but consequently into our minds. I plugged into cyberspace in order to discover the disciplinary travels of female contraception.
I maneuvered through the open space. It has been suggested by postmodernists like Susan Stryker that this open space is free from ordinary representations of sex and race. Stryker asks her readers to ponder the following queries: what “subjective qualities produced by the flesh persist in a technologized space that stages the body’s absence? Do discourses like sex and race that operate through visual performativity of the flesh cease to matter in the new media domains, or do they signify differently?” In cyberspace, there are no defining subjective characteristics of the flesh that can be displayed. It is suggested by scholars like Stryker that discourses such as sex and race magically disappear like cotton in snow in the transparency of cyberspace. I navigated through cyberspace and into many spaces of so-called knowledge to see if this supposedly liberated space was free from oppression. I found the following sites to be the most telling: familymeds.com, birthcontrol.com, and contraception.net.
On my unearthing expedition, I found that the medical community has now offered up to women over 25 methods of contraception. Within the behavioral realm, the female body is given instructions on “proper” behavior. Sites offer the following suggestions for healthy living: abstinence, fertility awareness, an ovulation testing pack, and the rhythm method. The female body may use barrier methods of contraception such as female condoms, dental dams, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Hormonal contraception is revered on the Internet. Cyberspace suggests the pill, the combined pill, mini pill or progestin only pill, Norplant (an implant), Implanon (an implant), Depo-Provera (an injection), Noristerat (an injection), the patch, the ring, and cyclebeads. Women, if wise, can choose to use an intrauterine device or intrauterine system. Wait, spermicides are always fun. Offered are creams and jellies, films, foams, contraceptive sponges and sea sponges, and suppositories. Less revered, and referred to as “Emergency Only” contraception, is the morning after pill. Cyberspace under its patriarchal conservative direction would not endorse abortion outright. One must navigate to special sites to find such information. In a more severe form of contraception, the female body can undergo further medicalization, should it choose. The female body can, of course, undergo tubal ligation.
Divergent in name, but analogous in content, all the sites probed are structured like identical gingerbread men aligned on a cooking sheet. The sites provide statistics on effectiveness rates. They all have their special links, where you can find all the latest technological advances in female contraception and what is hot off the FDA press. As expected, they all offer abstinence as the number one form of contraception for the female body. In small print, usually towards the end of their information outpost, we find side effects. Not all sites even offer this information. For example, on contraception.net, visitors are given information about the implant, its effectiveness, and its side effects. The site says implants may cause headaches, menstrual bleeding irregularities, weight change, depression, ovarian cysts, and breast tenderness. It wasn’t surprising to me that the site uses an entire paragraph to discuss weight gain, while providing no elaborate discussion of the possibility of developing ovarian cysts. Do we live in a society that would have us worry more about weight than ovarian cysts? In all cases, these sites provide no statistics. They simply speak in terms of “may,” “could,” and “might.”
The IUD, a foreign object that is placed in the female body, is known to cause bleeding and pelvic infection in some women. This device has been linked to a higher risk of contracting an STD. In addition, we might recall the Dalkon Shield to remind us of how much drug companies really care about women. “IUD’s caused uterine cancer, infertility and when they didn’t cause death – tore the insides of many women’s bodies asunder.” The pill, in all its forms, is known to cause nausea and lethargy. It can lead to blood clots in women who smoke. The pill may also cause mild depression, weight gain and decreased libido. In addition, the pill, “causes heart problems, irritability and migraines, has been linked, unlinked, re-linked to cancer, and synthetically dictates one’s entire physical agenda.” Implants like Depo-Provera and Norplant, first seen on the contraceptive market in the 1990’s, are armed and highly dangerous. According to Inga Muscio, “Side effects of hormonal implants are far-reaching and extremely detrimental.” Spermicides contain chemicals foreign to the body that cause allergic reactions in many women. Diaphragms have been known to cause urinary tract infections. Toxic Shock Syndrome is also listed as a side effect. The female body, if it is to accept and utilize the contraception discourse offered in cyberspace, is liable to be a bloody, infectious, lethargic, depressed, fat, rash covered, possibly dead body that won’t have a desire to engage in sexual activity anyway. There is only one device advertised with no side effects. The cyclebead, “the new and easy way to use a natural family planning method,” is available only on the Internet, for the bargain price of $12.95. Guess what – if you don’t want to get pregnant, this product suggests you also use a barrier method.
The womb is used as a synecdoche, pervading messages about the female body under a hidden mask. Deviant bodies become the recipients of epithets and their deviance makes them deserving of any punishment, such as an STD, that should befall their “unhealthy” bodies. Not only are further gender norms constructed through the discourses surrounding female contraception, labeling those bodies that are not aware or engaged in dialogue with this discourse deviant, but now technology has enabled the female body to be further commodified. My journey in cyberspace made me feel trapped in a two-inch by two-inch box, strapped down and forced to watch reoccurring pop-ups. As I wiped the spam from my brow I still felt drenched in advertising. Had I just interfaced with postmodern capitalism? Familymeds.com, under the subheading “family care – female contraceptives,” displays 11 types of foams, films, and gels that can be purchased. On all of the sites I explored in cyberspace, I encountered an opportunity to purchase all the female contraceptives about which I am educated.
The idea of choice pervades these sites, as they claim to provide women with the information they need to make informed decisions about birth control. But do they? For example, birthcontrol.com reads, “I believe contraceptive information and products should be easily accessible to create a fully informed life and safe family planning.” The site creator continues, “At birthcontrol.com we offer the largest selection of birth control products to be found anywhere. Plus we offer information and links to help you make a positive choice that suits your needs and lifestyle.” The site’s motto is, “Helping you to make the right choice.”
First, there is no way a woman can make an informed decision about birth control based on the information provided. In the case of the implant, for example, I’d like to know how many women have reported cases of ovarian cysts as a result of using it – one out of 10? One out of 100? One out of a million? It makes a difference. If the pill is going to make me nauseous, how often will it make me sick?
Second, the sites supply little information about the morning after pill. They’ve labeled it “emergency contraception,” or “EC,” and do not engage in a discussion of abortion. In this way, the sites are exclusive and reflect a moralistic judgment rooted in Judeo-Christianity. Hence, these sites are creating the illusion of choice. In essence, choosing a birth control method becomes a crapshoot. What kind of choice is that?
Members of women’s and feminist groups might find themselves privileged in regards to female contraception discourse in cyberspace. Because of ties to the feminist movement, these women are more likely to be aware of an organization called the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC), which can be accessed at fwhc.org. However, many women are not aware of sites like FWHC. I noticed that unlike all the other sites I observed, there are culturally inclusive pictures heading the FWHC site. To my mind this sends a message: here is information for all women. Also on FWHC, information is provided about EC. While I still do not like the term “emergency contraception” and all that it connotes, I do like the fact the site includes six pages about it, and provides enough information for women to make an informed decision about whether to use the product. As opposed to hiding EC as if it were not an option, this feminist site poses EC as an exercise in empowerment. On this feminist site there are links to information about alternative forms of birth control and abortion. There is also a link providing the information in Spanish, unlike the sites that dominate female contraception discourse in cyberspace.
It would be ideal if there were more sites like FWHC. But the problem is, there aren’t. Most women don’t even know about the ones that do exist. When you use a search engine and type in “birth control,” you get to sites like birthcontrol.com and contraception.net. This is probably no accident. Sites with easily remembered names have been gobbled up by big business conglomerates. I cannot help but wonder, although unfounded, if such sites have ties to right wing think tanks. Sites like FWHC, on the other hand, are unrecognizable and virtually impossible to find by the laywoman.
In the end, we find that the information in cyberspace functions to promote an ideology that does not celebrate reproductive freedom. The female contraceptives offered in cyberspace function to carry out a specific agenda. Prevention is rallied, as information on abortion disappears into the conservative smoke-filled Internet. Contraceptive methods like the morning after pill are labeled “emergency only” or are not mentioned at all. Moreover, prevaricating discourse aims to inveigle the female body with its smoke and mirrors. Female contraception discourse is conveniently selective in the information it disseminates. It neglects the stories of the women who, because of constant cuts to welfare and who suffer the wounds of an apathetic government, have lost the access to free abortions and free contraception. It neglects to tell the stories of the women who have no access to the morning after pill because it is not offered over the counter. Female bodies, particularly bodies of color, are despairingly limited in their access to healthcare and important means of contraception. Rather than discuss these issues, female contraception discourse has found it easier to bury these facts.
As female contraception discourse fills its arsenal with weapons of mass deception, it continues to pursue a war, not a conflict, with women. It continues to stock up on enough barrier and hormonal forms of contraception, so that it might continue to oppress and label those female bodies that exercise their reproductive freedom and utilize abortion and emergency contraception. This war inevitably is against the empowered female body, labeled by female contraception discourse as a “despicable body.” Female contraception discourse in an insidious manner removes abortion and emergency contraception from the female body’s list of options for maintaining a healthy body. In order to not be labeled a despicable and unhealthy body, the female body must disgorge its reproductive freedom and offer up its womb to the female contraception discourse gods.
I am not suggesting for a moment that we toss prevention and abstinence out with the bath water. I am not declaring that we should do away with birth control and simply rely on abortion and the morning after pill. I am not here to engage moral arguments about abortion. I am here to grapple with reality.
Reality – Each year in the U.S., according to the CDC, 800,000 to 900,000 adolescents, 19 years or younger, become pregnant. In 1997, the pregnancy rate was approximately 95 out of 1,000 teenagers, 15-19 years of age. In the same year, approximately three per 1,000 women under 15 became pregnant.
Reality – Public costs from teenage childbearing totaled $120 billion from 1985 – 1990. (Obviously, prevention and abstinence are not working!)
Reality – We live in a supposed melting pot with millions of Americans for whom English is not a first a language. However, female contraception discourse in cyberspace is only disseminated in English.
Reality – We live in country where poverty is far-reaching. Female contraception discourse in cyberspace cannot help these women who are often forced to make classic economic “trade-offs,” choosing not between “guns & butter,” but between things like food and birth control. Moreover, constant cuts to welfare have done away with free abortions; poor women are left to wire hangers and back alleys or, when faced with this reality, giving birth to children they cannot afford to have.
Reality – We live in a country with no universal healthcare. This means millions of women have no access to contraceptives like the morning after pill, which is only offered with a prescription. These issues affect women of color disproportionately.
My suggestion to sites that claim to help women make informed decisions: really help women by giving them all their options, rather than trying to increase profits by informing women about methods and devices that will enhance monetary gain. This writer is concerned, as a woman and as a feminist, that female contraception discourse is already accepted knowledge. I fear that in time, it will have the power to be unquestioned knowledge, if we do nothing to confront this oppressing discourse.
Cyclebeads. April 23, 2004. www.cyclebeads.com.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Hartman, Betsy. Reproductive Rights & Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control & Contraceptive Choice. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
IUD. April 23, 2004. weddingsutra.com/lovelife/sex_contracept.asp.
Muscio, Inga. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. California: Seal Press, 2002.
Pitts, Victoria. “Popular Pedagogies, Illness, and the Gendered Body.” Popular Culture Review. Vol. 12, No. 2, August 2001.
Stryker, Susan. “Transsexuality: The postmodern body and/as technology”. The Cybercultures Reader. Ed. David Bell & Barbara M. Kennedy. New York: Routledge.
“Teen Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion.” www.siecus.org/pubs/fact/fact0010.html.
Angela Jones is a Ph.D student in the Sociology Department of the New School for Social Research. She is currently an adjunct lecturer of Sociology within the City University of New York, teaching undergraduate courses at both Baruch and York Colleges. Angela is also working on her dissertation, entitled “The Niagara Movement 1905-1910: Intellectual Networks, Social Change, & the Making of Black Publics.” Her research interests are expansive. While her dissertation speaks to the existing sociological literature on social change, intellectuals, African American historiography, and publics, she also conducts research in gender and queer studies. When Angela is not teaching, writing her dissertation, conducting ethnography, or reading, she also enjoys watching the game and drinking a Miller Lite.