To what extent the norms of heterosexuality structure women’s contraceptive choices?
The term heterosexuality can be defined as an aspect of social structure, a sexual identity, or sexual practices leading to confusion about the utility of ‘heterosexuality’ as an analytical concept (Jackson, 1999; Richardson, 1996; Smart, 1996). Jackson has argued that sexuality is an ongoing embodied process which develops throughout our lives; through a process of ‘active learning’ (1999: 25). A wide range of contraception is available to women in developed countries where contraceptive use is common among young heterosexual women of reproductive age (Newman et al., 2011). Available forms of female contraception include vaginal rings, intrauterine devices (IUDs), implants, injectables, a range of oral contraceptive pills and emergency contraception (Lucke, Watson, & Herbert, 2009). In contrast, the condom is the only available male form of reversible contraception (Oudshoorn, 2004).
Over the past 50 years, meanings attached to female contraception are evolved. As a result, women’s contraceptive practices are surrounded by a web of discourses shaping heterosexuality. Hollway (1989) acknowledged three competing discourses, that reinforce the meanings and practices attached to heterosexuality, to understand how women and men are positioned by within these discourses. The ”male sex drive” discourse realizes men as biologically wanting and needing sex, whereas women’s sexuality is absent and passive objects to men’s desire. Within the ”permissive” discourse, equal and free sexual expression between women and men is shared, with a focus on pleasure. Finally, within the ”have/hold” discourse, (hetero)sex is encouraged to take place within a long-term relationship. Apparently, gender neutral, this discourse is more strictly applied to women in collaboration with the ”male sex drive” discourse (Wigginton, B., Harris, M. L., Loxton, D., Herbert, D., & Lucke, J, 2015). Lowe (2005) argues that the ”male sex drive” and ‘have/hold’ discourse construct men as both ”powerful” and ”uncontrollable” in their sexual desire and women as sexually passive and rational, which together reinforces women’s responsibility for contraception. So, the assumption is that women are more likely to use contraception because of their risk to pregnancy as well as their state of rationality (Lowe, 2005b).
In Braun’s (2013) work with young people, she figured out that they mobilised these discourses to discount the need for condoms. She concluded that ”such accounts work to conceptually separate condoms from ‘desirable’ sex; condoms are constructed as not synonymous with, or even oppositional to, things that sex is or should be about, such as passion, or romance” (p.372). Therefore, with cultural understandings of (hetero)sex as spontaneous, pleasurable, and intimate, condoms become a less desirable contraceptive method. “Particularly, female contraception allows women to be prepared for sex without necessarily expecting sex – reinforcing the notion of spontaneity” (Lowe, 2005b).
According to a report that presented the results of a survey on contraception and sexual health carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2008/09, estimated contraceptive use among women under 50 was 75%. The most popular methods were the contraceptive pill with 25% and condoms with 25%. Among the users, younger women were more likely to use the pill or condom compared to older women. Oppositely, older women were more likely to rely on sterilisation or partner’s vasectomy compared to younger women. Users who were single were more likely to use the pill or condom than those who were married. On the other hand, reliance on surgical methods to prevent pregnancy was most popular among widowed, separated, or divorced women and least common among single women. It has been found that women with no educational qualifications were least likely to use contraception and sterilisation was more common among these group of women compared to those with educational qualifications.
On the other hand, results showed that in previous years almost all women (91%) had heard of hormonal emergency contraception also known as (the ‘morning after pill’). However, only 48% of these women knew the morning after pill remains effective within 72 hours after sexual intercourse. Few women with only 40% were aware of the emergency intrauterine device (IUD). Finally, only 4% of these women incorrectly believed the morning after pill was only effective to prevent pregnancy until the next period and less than 1% believed it protected against sexually transmitted infections. Therefore, we can conclude that women should be educated and need to have a greater access to information regarding the effects of contraception (including side effects, potential long-term effects, and risks) and the different contraceptive options that are available to them.
Undoubtedly, condoms are one of the most important contraceptive methods in heterosexual relationships as it is the strongest method to fight sexually transmitted diseases such as STIs. However, condoms are not often chosen to be routinely used in sexual relationships because users typically negatively view condoms – and non-users – (e.g. Chapman and Hodgson, 1988). People usually attach negative meanings around condom use as it is generally seen to reduce the physical pleasure. Chapman and Hodgson (1988) argue that condom use results in having sex like a “shower in a raincoat”. Condoms are also claimed to reduce the sense of emotional closeness and not liked as they disturb pleasure, kill the moment, and make sexual spontaneity impossible. The idea of ‘the heat of the moment’, another common trope around sex, again appeals a ‘natural’ trajectory for heterosex that is linear and cumulative (Lowe, 2005). Sex involves a build-up of passion (heat), and any disruption to this is consequently a disruption to sex. Such accounts work to conceptually separate condoms from ‘desirable’ sex. The metaphor of condom-as-killer and the evocation of a battle between sex and the condom construct an ideal form of heterosex, where sex should be a natural, continuous process, without the ‘interruption’ of a condom, following a linear route towards penetration and ultimate pleasure/orgasm (Braun, 2013).