Prisoners of the pill

Carolyn Moynihan
14 May 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Mother's Day in the United States (and some other countries) had an ironic twist to it this year: the powers that be chose to observe May 9 as the fiftieth anniversary of the public debut of the contraceptive pill, the twentieth century's chief weapon against motherhood as a serious vocation.

Articles marking the occasion have been largely celebratory in tone, reminding women that their lives have been powerfully transformed -- for the better -- by the pill. We have been liberated from biology to extend our education, engage in paid work, carve out public careers and achieve financial independence. Hooray.

True, there has been the odd complaint about this wonder drug. "I hate the pill," declares Geraldine Sealey at Salon. "Hormonal contraception, which covers birth control pills and nearly every other highly effective method on the market, murders my libido." Still, she can't stop herself patting contraceptive pioneers such as Margaret Sanger on the back.

The Wall Street Journal wonders why, at this late stage of the game, almost half of US pregnancies -- about 3.1 million a year -- are unintended. It turns out that a lot of people who are having sex but don't want a baby are not responsible enough to use contraception. How surprising. Then there are all the women who miss taking their pill -- so many that Princeton's birth control expert James Trussell says we should forget the pill and steer women towards long-acting contraceptives such as implants and IUDs. (Women may be liberated, you see, but they can be, er, not smart.)

Fail-safe birth control is not the only thing the era of the pill has not delivered. Elaine Tyler May, author of a new book on the pill, admits that ending poverty, curing divorce and eliminating unwed pregnancies were "promises the pill could never keep". Indeed, all those things have flourished during the past 50 years and societies have stopped even trying to encourage marriage and discourage divorce. Poverty is the only thing that has not been rationalised, but then its link with contraceptive culture is not even recognised.

Still, we are meant to rejoice that women have the world at their feet, because, even if their contraceptive device or their willpower fails, there is always abortion to ensure that they can keep their job, if not their husband. All in all, then, women should be happier than they were when their energies were largely consumed by looking after a husband and three or four kids.

Declining female happiness

Are they? No. Much quoted research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania shows that there has been a marked decline in women's happiness in the industrialised countries over the past 35 years. In an article last year they wrote:

The paradox of women's declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging - one with higher subjective well-being for men.

Stevenson and Wolfers stress the power of this decline by equating it to the misery resulting from an 8.5 per cent rise in unemployment, or to having missed out entirely on the gains from economic growth since the 1970s.

A paradox? A mere coincidence that female happiness has been eroded at same time as the pill was bringing liberation? Denver economist Timothy Reichert does not think so. In a recent article in First Things ("Bitter Pill", April, 2010) he says that, contrary to the rhetoric of the sexual revolution, contraception is deeply sexist in nature. It has shifted wealth and power away from women, and away from their childrearing years when they need it most. It has also, for that reason, made children on the whole worse off.

Reichert arrives at these conclusions by doing a market analysis of sexual relationships under the influence of what is still known as "efficient contraception". To my mind, he makes a highly plausible case.

How women lose: a market analysis

Fifty years ago, he argues, there was a single "mating market", populated by men and women in roughly equal numbers and who paired off in marriage. By lowering the cost of premarital and extramarital sex (pregnancy, shotgun marriage) contraception allowed a separate sex market (apart from prostitution) to form. That would not have affected either sex adversely if the numbers of men and women in both markets remained roughly equal, but of course, they did not.

Because of limits to their fertility, women have to move out of the sex market and into the marriage market earlier than men. This makes them relatively scarce in the former and abundant in the latter, able to negotiate better "deals" in the first but worse deals in the second where there is a scarcity of marriageable men.

(As an aside, this dilemma puts me in mind of Lori Gottlieb's much-bruited willingness to give up the quest for romantic love in her forties and "settle" for a husband who will put out the garbage bin and fix the leaky taps. )

Under these conditions, says Reichert, men take more and more of the "gains from trade" and women take fewer and fewer. He comments:

This produces a redistribution of bargaining power and, ultimately, of welfare from the later childrearing phases of a woman's lifetime toward the earlier, and in my view less important, phases. This redistribution has some very concrete, very undesirable consequences for women - and for the children that they bear.

What are these consequences? Reichert points out four.

More divorce. Striking "bad deals" in an imbalanced marriage market makes divorce more likely. Reduced commitment creates a "demand" for divorce even before the marriage begins (pre-nups). At the social level women allow the stigma of divorce to erode and they support no-fault divorce laws. They compensate for these trends by developing relatively more market earning power, and invest less in family relationships, the moral formation of their children, and community activism. In doing so, they become more like men, and the couples become less interesting to one another. "Sameness begets ennui, which begets divorce."

Inflation of household costs. As wealthier two-earner households bid up the price of homes, more women are forced into the labour market. With this comes a redistribution of welfare from younger to older generations, and from a family's younger, child-rearing years to its later childless years (when they could sell the $500,000 house). This redistribution "rests largely on the backs of the women in the labour force who support the higher housing cost and, ultimately, on the children who otherwise would have had the benefit of their mothers' time." And perhaps another sibling.

Infidelity. This increases because the cost -- detection -- is lowered. The sex market provides the opportunity, and here married (successful, older) men are more attractive to younger women, than older women are to younger men. This, again, is to the detriment of women.

Abortion. Before the pill the cost of an unwanted pregnancy was often borne by the man in the form of a shotgun wedding. Now it is borne by the woman: contraception is her business and so, therefore, is the unintended pregnancy. If she keeps the baby she forfeits opportunities in the labour market; if she has an abortion (which around one million women in the US do each year) she usually pays the money cost and always the emotional costs.

To repeat Reichert's conclusion:

Contraception has resulted in an enormous redistribution of welfare from women to men, as well as an intertemporal redistribution of welfare from a typical woman's later, childrearing years to her earlier years.

Further, given that women's welfare largely determines the welfare of children, this redistribution has in part been "funded" by a loss of welfare from children. In other words, the worse off are women, the worse off are the children they support. On net, women and children are the big losers in the contraceptive society.

And this fits with the Stevenson and Wolfers finding of declining happiness among women.

The big question is, then, why do they put up with it?

The prisoner's dilemma

Reichert explains it as a "prisoner's dilemma" -- a concept from game theory. This posits a situation where all parties have choice between cooperation and non-cooperation, and where all would be better off if they chose cooperation. However, because the parties cannot effectively coordinate and enforce cooperation, all choose the best individual choice, which is non-cooperation.

Applying this to young women in a contraceptive culture Reichert suggests that those who don't enter the sex market miss out on the "higher prices" paid there (presumably he means things like more attention from men, more likelihood of a partner, a sense of wellbeing and a "good" image) but they also remain at a disadvantage in the over-subscribed marriage market. Their "optimal decision" therefore is to "to enter the sex market and remain there for as long as possible, despite the fact that the new equilibrium may be worse, over the total life cycle, for women."

Only very powerful social mores or laws can break prisoner's dilemmas like this, and laws we are surely not going to get. Reichert, a Catholic, sees the church's moral authority in this area being woefully under-utilised and calls for a movement of "new feminism". But while the beginnings of such a movement can certainly be found in the Catholic Church and other religious groups, there seems to be no corresponding secular insight into the role of contraception in female misery.

In a piece in The Atlantic magazine this week Caitlin Flanagan, enfant terrible of contemporary feminism, bewails the hook-up culture that girls reluctantly endure while they hope, like girls in every other era, for a real boyfriend and romance. She then talks about her mother and other "forward-looking" older women who helped Planned Parenthood promote birth control to teenage girls 20-something years ago.

As progressive as they were, says Flanagan, they would have been horrified by hooking up: "all of them, to a woman, believed in the Boyfriend Story. This set wasn't in the business of providing girls and young women the necessary information and services to allow boys and men to use and discard them sexually."

Oh, but they were. That is exactly what they were doing, albeit unwittingly. And that is what continues to draw girls into the prisoner's dilemma at ever younger ages. When are people like Flanagan going to stop groping around this elephant and take their blindfolds off?