Conception by deception

Why do women get away with "accidentally" getting pregnant -- when if a man tried to pull the same manipulative stunt, he'd be Bobbitted?

Published September 23, 1998 5:41PM (EDT)

"In a relationship, you reach a point where the woman's going to get pregnant on you, unless you stop seeing her, and that's what was happening with Kim."

David, a programmer in his 30s, is a year younger than me, and we've known each other since infancy. But as I listen, I momentarily have to remind myself that we grew up in the same era. Throughout my sex life, aware that previous generations of women had almost no control over their fertility, I have taken comfort in the way technology protects me from the whims of nature. Yet David seems to think his sex partners are as untrustworthy as nature itself.

(Names and other personal information about sources in this story have
been changed.)

David's assertion that sooner or later his girlfriend would "get pregnant on" him makes him sound like a throwback to the Eisenhower era. In some circles, the fashionable view is that males are responsible for unwanted pregnancies. A public service ad aimed at young women features a manipulative teenage boy pressuring his girlfriend to prove her love by having risky sex, but there are no Planned Parenthood posters warning young males about girls who say they're on the Pill when they're not.

These days, when a man blames a woman for getting pregnant, he is likely
to be dismissed as a Deadbeat Dad. There's some reason for this: Prominent among the men who accuse women of "tricking" them into fatherhood are athletes and other celebrities who ignore their own kids while seeking to discredit the mothers who raise them.

But public health ads and tawdry headlines don't always capture the emotional nuances, the many things left unsaid, in people's relationships. These familiar stereotypes of low-life Lotharios and scheming gold-diggers don't always explain how males can become fathers accidentally by design -- woman's design.

When I was in my early 20s, a boyfriend informed me that his buddy -- a devoted father and husband, as far as I could tell -- had been "screwed": Apparently, he had become a father because his wife had lied about using her diaphragm. I was never sure what to make of this: If the woman had really done this, why did she ever admit the ruse to her husband? Was she an Amoral Supermom -- so determined to exercise her "fertility rights"
that her partner's wishes barely registered? Did she ever feel guilty?
These weren't questions I could ask her on our next double date.

A few years ago, Bill, a relative in his early 30s, told me that the woman he lived with, Lucy, had made a post-coital announcement: She wasn't using her cap anymore. She was playfully vague about revealing when she had stopped. I was astonished. Didn't she owe it to Bill -- and their potential child -- to make sure he was willing to be a father beforehand? When I bluntly suggested that she wasn't mature enough to be a parent, he said I was being ridiculously clinical, that this was Lucy's way of asking for a commitment. Bill was clearly touched, even flattered, by her behavior.

Yet imagine if the situation were reversed. Suppose Bill was in charge of birth control, and he informed his girlfriend that he had stopped using contraception some time ago, was coy about the exact date and chose to break the news to her in bed after a successful frolic. Lucy would feel violated; most women would regard him as a man so predatory as to be unfit for fatherhood. Bill's pushy bid for a commitment would look downright pathological.

The fact is that despite our egalitarian efforts to turn reproduction into a rational process, men and women don't always hold each other to the same standards. Women, at times, can get away with behavior that we wouldn't tolerate from men -- and many of us exploit the inequalities that are said to work against us. As the anti-suffragette feminist Emma Goldman said in a discussion about "woman's inhumanity to man," "woman is naturally
perverse." Women can be presumptuous about deciding how and when to breed, and some women would argue that what we do with our wombs is nobody's business but our own. A woman I know was told by her mother that "men are never ready for babies," and that consulting the prospective father of her child was therefore pointless.

It's quite easy to play to a man's laziness or selfishness where sex and
birth control are concerned. Often, men aren't so much tricked as they are led into fatherhood by women who take advantage of the fact that most males regard birth control as a hassle. Many feminists would say it's unfair that we bear the responsibility for birth control, but for a woman determined to procreate against her partner's wishes, it's a bonus. The Pill, in particular, gives women the power to plan behind a man's back. Factors that might make it "better" from a guy's point of view -- no bothersome IUD string rubbing against his flesh, no awkward pause to hunt for condoms and no raincoat-in-the-shower symptoms -- also make it possible for him to be deceived (or to deceive himself).

Why do some women think it's OK to plan parenthood without a partner's
consent, while others -- like me -- recoil in horror? Why do some men feel betrayed by this strategy, while others excuse it? To find out, I asked a number of men to talk about their experiences with accidental fatherhood.

- - - - - - - - - -

Men who say they have unknowingly or unwillingly impregnated a woman are
hard to pigeonhole. They're not all sexist jerks trying to evade their obligations. They don't all blame the woman, nor are they always to blame. A few had made an honest effort to ensure that contraception was used. (One
man even said he sometimes inserted his girlfriend's diaphragm.) As for their reactions to the prospect of unplanned fatherhood, some propose abortion, some end their marriages, while many, as one put it, "swallow hard and decide to make the best of it."

Accidental fathers can't always be sure they were "set up." Ambiguous conditions can cloud the issue forever. But some have good reason to believe they were duped. Occasionally, a woman confesses her subterfuge to her partner -- believing, perhaps, that a first glimpse of the heir to his DNA will make deception forgivable. "It works often enough to give other women the idea that it will work for them," one man told me.

But women who set out to "steal a bit of seed," as a girlfriend of mine once put it, are engaging in a risky venture, one that can backfire disastrously. There's no guarantee that a man will stay involved with a woman simply because he is devoted to their offspring. One father told me that he lost respect for his wife because she neglected to tell him that she had stopped using birth control, after he had made it clear that he didn't want a child. The emotional rift led to a divorce, complete with shared custody. While he loves his child unconditionally, he judges the behavior that conceived his son harshly.

Not all men are able to draw this line in the sand, however. Another father, whose daughter is now in kindergarten, says he no longer passes judgment on his ex-wife's actions, even though he was initially angry.

Phillip, a public interest lawyer whose ex-wife became pregnant during a difficult break-up, decided that he "owed Rebecca some loyalty because she had been with me for a long time." Rebecca went off the Pill without telling him and, he feels, became pregnant "to get me to come back." When it became clear that she was having their child, he told her he would be "as present or as absent as she wanted me to be, within the constraints of not being her husband or lover."

Phillip's attempt to extract his parental obligations from the ongoing emotional confusion led to deeper complications. Rebecca's pregnancy didn't
restore their marriage, but it meant that her presence would be acutely felt elsewhere. When Phillip told Ann, his new girlfriend, that he had agreed to attend Lamaze classes with his ex and to be present at the birth,
she was initially pleased that her boyfriend was acting so honorably. This upbeat attitude lasted about a month: As the reality of Rebecca's pregnancy
sank in, Ann's mood reversed. She came to see Rebecca's pregnancy
as a declaration of war, and she retaliated. Phillip's new relationship didn't stand a chance because, in this emotional war, he was both coveted territory and despised traitor. The moral power of a pregnant woman can be as infuriating as it is formidable. Ann began "accusing me of disloyalty and was obsessed with how much of a hold Rebecca had on me," Phillip said. "I was always having to defend myself." Like other expectant fathers, Phillip wore a beeper so that Rebecca could contact him in the event of an emergency. Ann expressed her territorial rights by beeping him, then arguing about how long it took him to return her calls. "Nothing I did or said could improve the situation," he says, clearly upset about having to recall the experience.

The stereotypical gold-digger who puts her womb to work may certainly exist, but women who secretly plot their pregnancies don't necessarily do it for financial security. Phillip's ex, for example, was earning double his income when she became pregnant. Despite such stories as this year's Sports Illustrated report on deadbeat dad athletes, most men who say they were set up for fatherhood aren't celebrity millionaires or pro athletes --
and some aren't even close to being financially secure. A female friend told me she couldn't understand why her son, a 20-year-old with somewhat flaky employment habits, was viewed as suitable father material by a young woman who was also struggling financially. At the other end of the scale, I
once dated someone who attended French conversation classes so that he could converse with a daughter living in Paris: She had been conceived during a casual fling at a ski resort with a woman he hardly knew, he told me. He sent money to Paris on a regular basis, and expressed a wistful desire to know his child. As a culture, we're more forgiving when a woman is driven by emotional need than we are when a woman's motivation is economically rational -- even though both kinds of women are playing with other people's lives. Some aspect of our official morality prefers a weak, deluded mother to a calculating one.

Like many women, I say that I wouldn't engage in one-sided planning because it's unethical, unfair to the child -- but the real reason is that I recoil at the idea of using pregnancy as a weapon. I enjoy the mating game's hunting rituals but, when it comes to pregnancy, I'd rather not play games. I'd like the father of my child to be my partner, not my prey.
I also feel that pregnancy would make me helpless rather than powerful.

"I never wanted children, so I can't understand why a woman would use pregnancy to hold onto a man," says my female friend Sam. "Women who do this are members of a different tribe. Motherhood gives them 'moral authority' and they sometimes feel that having a child justifies their actions."

In many ways, women do divide into tribes over sexual and emotional issues. Like Sam, I never wanted to use my body to "get pregnant on a guy" and I doubt I could be best friends with a woman who did. But Sam
and I are the kind of women who think it's OK to use our bodies -- even cynically, at times -- to exploit a man's sexual appetite, but not his tender feelings about babies and pregnant ladies. We have faked orgasms for
money but we wouldn't fake birth control. We sometimes judge the manipulative behavior of mothers as harshly as other women judge the antics
of our tribe.

Yet it's fascinating to meet a member of that other tribe, a woman who dares use her body in ways that you wouldn't. In my teens, I briefly knew a
shy-looking 26-year-old who was living with an up-and-coming architect. She
wanted to turn their informal engagement into something binding, and a pregnancy might, she conjectured, move things along. Condoms were his preferred contraceptive method, and she didn't want to arouse his suspicion
by suggesting an alternative. Did I think a small pin prick, barely visible, would do the trick?

Looking back on this, I can't help noticing that my attitude toward pregnancy mirrors the archetypal good girl's view of prostitution. Am I being
a prude about my uterus?

Conversations about unwanted fatherhood sometimes remind me of the arguments about date rape that polarized so many of us in the early '90s. Many women aren't eager to believe that men can be duped or manipulated into becoming fathers.

Suzanne Braun Levine, currently writing a book about contemporary fatherhood, sees deception about birth control as "neurotic behavior" and a sign that a relationship is "far from wonderful," but thinks men should be willing to take responsibility for their
sexuality. "If you're talking about a marriage in which the man says he doesn't want children and she says she does, I wonder how clear these guys made it, or how direct they were," she told me. When a man doesn't wear a condom to bed, is he simply "asking for it"? Sending mixed signals about what he wants? Is he merely being seduced into fatherhood -- or is he actually being violated in some way? Should he have been more demurely dressed, as it were, when he ventured down that familiar alley? Accustomed to protecting ourselves against unwanted pregnancy and other sexual hazards, we sometimes wonder how men can be so naive. Levine, who is one of
the original editors of Ms., recalls that when she was "single and living in Seattle, a lot of married men were hitting on me. They would say, 'Don't worry, I've had a vasectomy,' and I thought it was very funny." She asks why men "don't automatically use a condom" -- given that there are so many reasons to do so.

Contraception is the "housework" in our sex lives. If guys did more of it, many pregnancies, abortions and unhappy situations could be prevented. Men don't use condoms nearly as often as they could, but standard explanations about loss of sensation and sexual selfishness don't tell the entire story. Assuming that most of us aren't poking holes in condoms, why don't more men use a method that gives them more control over their lives? Perhaps some men don't want that much control in their personal lives. Perhaps the man who lets a woman manage the sexual housework is much
like the man who lets his wife decide where to keep his socks or what brand
of toothpaste to use. Many women discourage men from shopping or sorting the laundry because "we know best" how we like things done, because we're
basically in charge of a man's personal life.

In the case of my relative Bill, who was informed post-coitally by his
girlfriend Lucy that she had stopped using birth control, their
relationship blundered on for two more years. He never made either a
positive or negative commitment, leaving it to her to decide, after a
heart-breaking miscarriage, that their relationship was finally over.

- - - - - - - - - -

Often, men make bad decisions about birth control because their
assumptions about women are based on what they think they would do
in our shoes. My childhood friend David told me that when he and Kim began
dating, they used condoms "for almost six months." When Kim encouraged him
to stop wearing a condom, David "just assumed she was on the Pill, because
I thought all sexually active women took the Pill." When he discovered,
after a few months, that Kim was relying on the rhythm method --
"professing an 'expert' knowledge of her own body" -- David got worried
"brought condoms back into the picture." When asked how he could have been
so uninformed, David said he "would have just gone to the doctor at 14,
started taking the Pill, and never stopped" had he been female.
"Wouldn't I be a fool not to?" It often turns out that one of the
things a guy can do is to expect a woman to be as rational,
or careful as he would be in her situation. During his late teens,
Phillip's high school girlfriend quietly stopped taking her pills, had to
have an abortion and later explained that she had become pregnant so that
she would have "a piece of him" to hold onto. He didn't expect it --
he knew she was troubled by their impending split -- because it was unlike
anything he would have done in her place. Many years later, when his
35-year-old ex-wife quietly stopped taking her pills under similar
circumstances, he didn't expect it "precisely because it had happened in my
teens. I thought of it as something a high school girl does. If I had
known that Rebecca was not taking her pills, I would have had oral sex
instead of intercourse."

The prevailing assumption in the '90s has been that risky sex is
on women by men. But condoms can present a special etiquette problem for
males, if they hope to keep getting laid. Frequently, men are discouraged
from using condoms by the women in their lives -- a problem that most
public health campaigns simply don't acknowledge. Andrew, now in his 40s,
remembers telling the woman he lived with during his 30s that he would
never want children. "Janet basically did not like condoms," he
says, when I suggest that he was remiss not to use them. "She had tried
Pill and had to stop for health reasons. After a pregnancy scare, I went
out and bought two or three different kinds of condoms along with some
water-soluble lube, but she didn't want to use them." They relied on a
diaphragm, which she may or may not have been wearing when she became
pregnant during the third year of their relationship. After an abortion --
"the worst possible outcome, in Janet's mind, because she hoped I would
come around to wanting a child" -- the relationship couldn't continue.

Should Andrew have insisted on condoms? Could he be expected to, when
Janet objected? And how many reasonable men would impose a particular
device on a woman? Telling a woman that you don't trust her to use birth
control is not, in most people's minds, an option. More than once, I've
been asked by a man how to deal with a girlfriend who urges him to stop
using condoms for sentimental or erotic reasons. And David points out
after dating for a while, "a lot of women are slightly insulted if you keep
using condoms."

Pro-sex feminists who urge women to discard the Madonna/whore value
system are surprisingly innocent about sexual reality. Before we think
about discarding these values, we need to recognize that women
impose them on men -- and we should be willing to question the
assumption that these values are oppressive to women. Officially, men are
encouraged by feminists and others to show their respect for women by
wearing condoms. In real life, a man often faces pressure from a woman to
show respect for her virtue by not using a condom. "A lot of women
start wondering what you think they're up to when you wear a condom,"
says. If, in the age of serial monogamy, men are supposed to wear condoms
with "whores" but not with "nice girls," the woman who regards pregnancy
her goal may find these quaint Madonna/whore values useful. If a man must
assure a woman that he doesn't regard her as a slut in order to have sex
with her -- and if this entails forgoing condoms -- it would seem that a
determined "Madonna" can drive a very hard bargain. The subtle exchanges
that occur around intimacy mean that sex is often a "reward" that men
can't take for granted. It is not polite to acknowledge this, but even or
especially where money does not change hands, there is an informal
marketplace in which men "get" and women "give" sex. An easy encounter --
"You don't have to go out in the rain or the cold," in David's words -- is
like a free pass or a gift that most men will take on a woman's terms.
"It's easy to set a guy up because, let's face it, when you're getting a
piece, you don't argue about the details."

As with sex generally, there are "official" messages in our culture
about condom use that differ from the unofficial messages men and women
send each other. "The public health message is: Unless you are trying to
have a baby with somebody, use a condom," says Debra Haffner, the
and CEO of SIECUS (Sexuality, Information and Education Council of the
United States). In my conversation with Haffner, I encountered the
currently fashionable assumption that men are at the root of the
problem. "Men don't like using condoms, and a whole generation of men in
their 30s and 40s didn't start off using them. We need to educate
them in a new behavior." A tendency to speak of women always as victims,
and rarely as the emotionally skillful aggressors we can be, may in fact
prevent organizations like SIECUS from educating men effectively about
birth control.

Sometimes, when words fail, our bodies argue for us. Andrew recalls
that whenever Janet raised the subject of children, the conversation "went
nowhere." Instead, Janet's body not only made, but escalated and lost, the
argument they had been avoiding. After the abortion, Andrew resolved to
have a vasectomy. He saved up $1,000 and, 10 weeks after the break-up,
went to a doctor. There was a 30-day "cooling off" period during which his mind
did not waver: He had been contemplating this decision since the age of
15. Andrew was more sorrowful than angry about the pregnancy. "I wanted to be
with her for the rest of my life but, after helping to raise four sisters
-- my parents were divorced -- I had no desire to raise children again,"
he says. "I was mad at myself for not having a vasectomy earlier, for letting
myself be emotionally blackmailed." While they lived together, Janet had
made it clear "that there would be huge problems between us if I went
ahead with it," Andrew explains. After they parted, Janet was "genuinely and
totally surprised" to learn about Andrew's vasectomy -- "which made me
realize how deeply she must have been kidding herself about my desire for

Phillip thinks that "learning to get a vasectomy is missing the point"
because the experience was really a lesson about women. "I had been
involved with someone for seven years, and I thought I knew her. But your
partner may feel imperatives about you, about children, that you are not
even aware of." In his current relationship, he says, "I think more about
what I'm hearing and I listen not just to the words but to the deeper
meanings in a way that I didn't before. I don't take everything at face
value." Andrew says "a vasectomy indicates you can make a decision and
stick with it," and doesn't want to let anyone think his mind can be
changed. In his efforts to be forthright, he sometimes appears to be swimming
against the social tide. Female friends advise him to keep his vasectomy a
private matter on first dates -- because many women in their 30s and early
40s are still pondering parenthood. "Some women tell me I'm damaging my
potential for a serious relationship. They say a woman who now wants kids
could ultimately change her mind if she gets to know me."

Why do women urge Andrew to reenter a web of confusing intentions?
Emma Goldman, were she alive today, might cite this as proof of our
natural and evolving perversity. Perhaps we feel that reproduction, intimacy and pleasure will be too clinical or brutish without some ritual subterfuge.
Women can be oddly resistant -- when it suits us --
to the black-and-white logic of "No means No," especially
when procreative lust gets the better of us.

A woman who dated Andrew after his vasectomy was
oblivious to the deeper significance of his choice: "She told me, 'It can
be reversed,' and I thought, 'She just doesn't get it, does she?' We had one date." Conversations about fatherhood are different now: Unambiguously
reconfigured, Andrew's body now has the last, eloquent word.

By Tracy Quan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Birth Control Fatherhood Love And Sex Motherhood Pregnancy Sex