Defining Sexuality—The Role of Abortion
Both feminists and antifeminists understand birth control and abortion as necessary conditions for women’s sexual freedom, but they are far from sufficient; and the practical connections between birth control/ abortion and sexuality are by no means clear. Relief from the fear of unwanted pregnancy remains for most women an end in itself, but one that does not in itself assure satisfying or "liberated" sexual relations. At the same time, in a culture in which heterosexual relations are usually dominated by men, family relations by fathers, and personal life by heterosexual patriarchy, the circumstances surrounding an unwanted pregnancy are as often ridden with conflict and strife as with desire. Such conflict may undermine consistent birth control use. The young woman quoted at the beginning of this chapter says that she "gets a lot more out of [sex]" when she doesn’t bother about birth control or making herself "safe" for the man’s "benefit." This strategy may be rational within the terms of the dominant sexual ideology, which lags behind social conditions, and in terms of a woman’s life circumstances. "Subjective reasons" for not using contraception (e. g., wanting to "test the man’s commitment" or "prove you are a woman") may be a tactical, if self-defeating, response to real disparities in power.2
Two principal themes run through the analysis that follows. The first is that unwanted pregnancy and abortion often occur among those with traditional values about sexuality rather than what one could call a "liberated" consciousness; or they may represent accommodations to older values in changed circumstances. The second is that the relationship between birth control/abortion and sexuality takes historically specific forms, reflecting the shifting dynamics through which gender, class, and generational conflicts get played out. From this standpoint, the outcome of a sexual encounter or a pregnancy is less important than the social process and the consciousness that define its meaning in terms of a given power relationship. "Having sex" may be an act of resistance or an act of deference and accommodation. (It may also, of course, be an act of mutuality and pleasure.) Similarly, getting pregnant, having a child, or getting an abortion has no intrinsic social or political meaning; it receives its meaning from the historical and political context in which it occurs and the circumstances (class, age, marital status, employment conditions) of the woman involved. For adolescents, sexuality, pregnancy, and abortion are densely mediated by agendas other than what they appear; they become the terrain for negotiating gender, child and adulthood, and gender-specific class and race. At the same time, in late-twentieth-century heterosexual culture, birth control and abortion are crucial signifiers of female adolescent sexuality, particularly, I argue, for white middle-class teenagers.
In developing what follows, I am applying certain theoretical assumptions about sexuality drawn from the work of Michel Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks, and other historians of sexuality.3 This work contains several shared premises summed up most clearly by Weeks. First, it questions whether for human beings there is any such thing as "pure" sexuality, "sex as such," or raw libido unsocialized or unmediated by social relations and history. Critiquing the "drive-reduction" model of sex as biological instinct formulated by Freud and adopted uncritically by many leftist – Freudians and sex radicals (e. g., Reich, Marcuse, Havelock Ellis), this perspective understands sexuality primarily in historical and cultural terms. Human sexuality exists always in a context of social relations from which it derives its meanings, both conscious and unconscious; it is mainly a social, not biological, activity.4
Second, the historical theory of sexuality calls into question the assumption of most feminists and sex radicals that control over sexuality— through the family, the church, or the state—takes the simple form of "repression," the other side of the "instinctual drive" model. Rather, Foucault in particular suggests a more complicated model in which various centers of power attempt to define, categorize, organize, regulate, and even "incite" sexuality in specific directions so that the very definition of what is "sexual" becomes an area of contestation. It is not that sex is "repressed"; rather, its terms and varieties, its agents and boundaries, are intricately patrolled. Moreover, the particular ways that sexuality is channeled or "deployed" not only change historically but differ according to one’s age, class, race, and gender. (Foucault mentions class alone.) Sexuality may be defined in relation to procreative ends in some cultures or periods but not in others, may be associated with pleasure in some and with danger and taboos in others, may be organized mainly across genders in some or within genders (homosocially) in others; there are no universal or transhistorical sexual forms.5 What is specifically modern (and presumably Western) in the cultural meaning of sex is its existence from the eighteenth century as a privatized act, an assertion of self and individuality.6 But we have to note that sexual ideology thus becomes prototypically male, in a misogynist culture epitomized by Rousseau, which abhorred the idea of female self-assertion and defined "individualism" as a male prerogative. Hence the notorious double standard, linking sex for women with reproduction and sex for men with self-expression.
In the nineteenth century, neither feminists nor Malthusians saw in birth control a means toward the sexual self-expression of women, particularly unmarried women. During the radical decades of the 1910s and 1920s, people like Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and various sex reformers proclaimed women’s rights to full sexual autonomy as the basis of birth control demands; but by the 1940s, "sex without fear" and "marital fulfillment" through sex therapy and counseling became the province of a now respectable family planning profession. The new professionals carefully restricted their attack on "sexual dysfunction" and "unwanted pregnancy" to the traditional framework of marriage, motherhood, and "family stability," removed from any notion of male power within marriage or women’s right to a sexual existence outside it.7 Today, the idea of women as sexual agents, sexual initiators, either in a lesbian or a heterosexual context, is still a dangerous one in the dominant culture. While feminists articulate an ideological link between birth control and abortion and women’s "sexual freedom," the content of this link remains unspecified. We sense that larger issues about women’s sexuality—its boundaries, subjects, forms, and age limits—are being distilled into the conflict over abortion, but without fully understanding why, or why now.
The specificity of abortion from the 1960s through the 1980s, as contrasted with earlier times, lies in two important features we have already observed. First, on the level of ideology the right to abortion has been connected, by some feminists, to the right of women to sexual self-determination. (This is not the understanding of all feminists, certainly not of many liberal feminists and religious feminists who think of abortion as a matter of "private conscience" rather than social and sexual need.) Those who oppose abortion, particularly policy makers, make the same connection in a negative sense: The rise in abortions represents promiscuity, immorality, and hedonism (see Chapter 7). Second, on the level of popular practice, abortion has become, perhaps for the first time in history, a phenomenon predominantly of young unmarried white women, a large proportion of them teenagers, many living with their parents. One-third of all women receiving abortions in 1978 were teenagers, another one-third were aged 20-24 (mostly unmarried), and 70 percent of all pregnant teenagers getting abortions were white.8 These facts create a reality that helps to construct the social meanings of sexuality in contemporary American culture and politics. Abortion—organized legal abortion—is associated with sex because it is seen to reveal sex; it is a signifier that helps make sex visible and therefore subject to scrutiny and an inevitable defining of limits between the licit and the illicit. Above all, it helps identify and categorize a new sexual subject: the "promiscuous" white teenage girl.
In the context of an (lawful, clinical) abortion, the sexuality of a teenage girl takes on a very different meaning from what it has in the context of an out-of-wedlock birth, especially for white middle-class teenagers. The common characteristic of "shotgun weddings," unwed motherhood, illegal abortions, and "petting" is the invisibility, the secrecy with which they mantle sex. The unwed pregnant (white) girl who drops out of school is pathetic, victimized by her folly or by an unscrupulous male; she remains an outsider, a mystery. The girl who has a legal abortion, on the other hand, returns as a reminder of the possibilities of sex, sex that is penalty-free. One-half million unmarried teenagers a year getting legal abortions represent a "sexual event" that cannot be concealed and therefore must be measured, sealed off, studied, categorized, organized, regulated, and contained. This is exactly what family planning professionals, journalists, and conservative politicians have been up to in the frenzied debate over teenage sexuality and pregnancy.