Pulling Punches on Pulling Out

A few months ago, the Guttmacher Institute issued a report that argued that the withdrawal method “deserved a second look.” The report combined findings from a few different studies, both qualitative and quantitative, and found that withdrawal is “almost as effective as the male condom — at least when it comes to pregnancy prevention”. The report also found that the use of withdrawal as a method of birth control is underreported, especially to the extent that withdrawal is being used as part of a combination birth control strategy also involving condom usage and rhythm. The authors concluded the report by emphasizing the need for more information about how withdrawal is used “in order to better understand the role of withdrawal as a contraceptive method and to accurately estimate failure rates.”

As Miriam pointed out back in May, there are certainly valid reasons that sex educators have been hesitant to promote withdrawal; one obvious one is that it’s not effective at all in preventing sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. This is a big deal, and I by no means intend to ignore or even downplay the aspects of withdrawal that provide insufficient protection for folk in some situations.
Yet, this is no reason to dismiss the entire withdrawal report, which advocates finding out more information about withdrawal- a contraceptive method that is currently being used by millions of people worldwide- to get a better understanding of how people are using it, what its true failure rates are, and how it could be used to more effectively prevent pregnancy.

Despite this seemingly straightforward mandate, the report has caused a lot of controversy since its release in May, and attracted a lot of critics, in the blogosphere and beyond. But what’s really alarming about this is that these critics are attacking not only validity of the idea of using withdrawal, but the morality of those who dare to discuss withdrawal as a means of contraception publicly.

Abc.com reported that the lead author of the report, Rachel K. Jones, “was showered with criticism” in the aftermath of its release, and that “even sex educators” think that “very little could be worse”. Famously sex positive Tracy Quan of the Daily Beast penned an article called The New Unsafe Sex , in which she chides the Guttmacher Institute for endorsing “folk wisdom” and for providing facts to “amaze your drinking buddies with.” In the latest display of public shaming, NY magazine included the study in the “Despicable” category on its approval matrix last week.

Providing people with comprehensive information about sex, sexuality, and contraception has been proven over and over again to be more effective at curbing unwanted pregnancy and STD’s than leaving people in the dark about the contraceptive choices available to them. So what is at the root of this resistance to having a public dialogue on the real facts about withdrawal?

Ms. Jones told me that she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the reactions to the report. “Doing abortion research, I am kind of prepared for and used to people being dismissive and moralizing something that is, to me, a research topic…But I am taken aback that the criticism is coming from people who are supposed to be writing from a professional perspective, a more sex-positive perspective.”

Indeed, even the usual strongholds of sexual sanity have chosen to engage in the same folk wisdom that they supposedly detest. Rather than welcoming genuine public debate over an issue that affects millions of women- and men- across the world, many critics are endorsing knee-jerk reactions involving accusations of irresponsibility that trivialize the facts and sensationalize the discussion.
Ms. Jones questions, perhaps rhetorically, what it was about this particular topic that evoked the morally critical reactions that it did. I’ve got a theory: Invariably, conversations about contraception are conversations about sex, and public dialogue that shames or dismisses new ideas or information about contraception are grounded in shaming and dismissing news ideas and information about sex. These tactics, no matter who employs them, are related to the same old drive to exert control over other people’s bodies.

Upon the release of the withdrawal report, Jezebel asked “Can we stop shaming women who use withdrawal now?”

A few months later, as the criticism continues to pile up, I’d like to pose this (admittedly less concise) question: “Can we stop shaming researchers, scientists, journalists, and anyone else who attempts to further the public dialogue about sex, sexuality, and contraception now?”

Because if we encourage those people to pursue and promote the most scientifically accurate and truthful information they can about contraception, we just might have a shot at progressing the public dialogue beyond thinly veiled shaming tactics. We just might have a shot at granting more people access to sound information. And we just might empower an international population of sexual beings to make their own informed decisions about how, when, and whether they want to have sex.

Ironically, critics of the withdrawal report, in attempting to shut down conversations about withdrawal as a contraceptive method, are necessarily advocating another form of withdrawal- the withdrawal of information about how to have safer sex from the public eye. Now there’s some risky behavior. One might even call it a “pull and pray.” Instead of leaving it to chance, let’s take this opportunity to answer the call issued by Ms. Jones and the rest of the report’s authors and learn more about withdrawal by starting to fill in the research gaps that exist on the method.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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