1flesh is a new and strikingly effective attempt by anti-choice Christians to mimic the aesthetic of genuinely hip pro-sex education websites. The first reaction of most liberals would be, no doubt, a roll of the eyes and laughter at them fundies for even trying. Sure, the site has remarkably good design, especially for appealing to a younger audience (it looks quite a bit like MTV’s website), but the second one starts reading the content, it becomes clear that all the Twitter and Tumblr pages in the world can’t hide the fact that it's promoting a no-sex-before-marriage agenda that will never, ever be cool.
Even though its attempts at selling a sex-negative message are doomed to eternal failure, we should still worry about this and other misinformation campaigns that are discouraging the use of contraception. You’ll never stop people from having sex, but well-placed misinformation could discourage them from taking necessary measures to prevent unintended pregnancy and STDs.
Most Americans by now have a passing familiarity with the way the anti-choice movement has grown past attacks on abortion and is moving on to attacks on contraception access, from defunding Planned Parenthood to fighting the Obama administration on an HHS requirement to make contraception available without a co-pay to women with insurance. What they may see less of is the war on contraception that’s going on in the culture. Anti-choice activists have been turning up the volume on misinformation campaigns aimed at creating doubt in the public, especially among young people, about the efficacy of contraception. These efforts started in earnest under the Bush administration, with the explosion of federally funded abstinence-only programs. As those programs have mostly receded due to utter inability to convince kids to abstain from sex, efforts like 1 Flesh and the Pill Kills have stepped up to try to sow doubts about the use of contraception.
Abstinence-only programs were justified by claims that they were about discouraging teenage sex altogether, but considering how much anti-choice literature tells romantic stories about how unintended pregnancy led to ecstatic proposals and happily-ever-afters, one gets the feeling they also would be happy with an uptick in the unplanned pregnancy rate. Sites like 1 Flesh make the “more pregnancies” agenda clear; the site specifically argues against the use of contraception even in marriage, which can’t serve any other purpose in the reality-based world except to increase the rate of unintended pregnancies.
Unfortunately, the new strategies that 1 Flesh is using might actually be effective in achieving this goal, because unlike the old church lady-style methods of anti-contraception efforts, 1 Flesh is tapping into preexisting cultural myths and narratives about contraception that are already known to cause people to be inconsistent in their contraception use.
They go straight for some common beliefs: 1) condoms ruin sex (as Dan Savage has noted, if condoms decreased sensation that much, you’d think men would notice more when they broke); 2) the pill has a lot more negative side effects than it actually has; and 3) condom breakage is more common than it is. In other words, the usual comportment of myths that sex educators find they have to debunk coming from all sorts of people, even those who don’t have any relationship to the Christian right whatsoever.
1 Flesh also promotes the idea that birth control doesn’t do anything to reduce the unintended pregnancy rate. That this idea might have traction in the public at large already might seem asinine (what are people using all that contraception for, if not to prevent pregnancy?), but even without Christian right propaganda, the idea that birth control doesn’t do a very good job at preventing unintended pregnancy is surprisingly widespread. Earlier this year, Guttmacher released a study where it quizzed over 1,000 young people between ages 18 and 29 about their contraception knowledge. Unsurprisingly, the usual myths about condom failure and pill danger were well-represented, but the big surprise was that the myth that birth control doesn’t actually matter was also widespread.
A shocking 40 percent of the young people surveyed believed that using birth control doesn’t actually do much to prevent pregnancy, agreeing with the statement, “when it is your time to get pregnant, it will happen.” In other words, they had a magical belief that somehow the universe would prevent them from getting pregnant when it wasn’t time, even if they’re not using contraception at the time. This preexisting belief is one that groups like 1 Flesh are trying to encourage by spreading lies about how birth control doesn’t change the unintended pregnancy rate.
Why is it so easy for people to underestimate not just the effectiveness of birth control, but also how likely they are to get pregnant if they don’t use it? Part of the problem is, ironically, that birth control is so effective, but so hidden. Much as the anti-vaccine movement could only erupt in a culture where the diseases the vaccines prevent are out of sight and easy to dismiss, contraception works so well at suppressing fertility that many people have no idea how high fertility rates would be without it. Sex is everywhere: TV characters have it, songs on the radio are full of it, and most friends gossip about it. But contraception is rarely discussed in much detail, if at all. It’s easy for someone to look at all this booty-knocking and the relatively low birth rate and conclude that it’s not that easy to get pregnant instead of concluding, correctly, that contraception use is widespread.
To add even more confusion into the mix, heavy media coverage of infertility in light of exciting new technologies to fix the problem has had the side effect of encouraging people to overestimate their own chances of infertility. Researchers at John Hopkins University found that 19 percent of women and 13 percent of men ages 18-29 believed that they were likely to be infertile, though they had no evidence to believe this. The drumbeat of stories about couples who have a hard time conceiving might also contribute to the misconception that getting pregnant without contraception is more infrequent than it actually is.
In reality, a sexually active woman who uses no contraception has an 85 percent chance of getting pregnant within a year. Anti-contraception activists go out of their way to conceal this fact, hoping women feel that their risks of skipping contraception are much lower than they are. It would be laughable if the only audience for this anti-contraception propaganda were folks with good sex education and a solid knowledge of how effective contraception really is. Unfortunately, they’re speaking to a larger audience already rife with misinformation about contraception and fertility; an audience that might not like the anti-sex message, but could be influenced by the anti-contraception one.