On the Reproductive Rights & Responsibilities of Men

This piece originally appeared on Role/Reboot.

In a beautiful twist on the gruesome women’s-health-as-political-theater we’ve all been subjected to lately, female legislators in two states have introduced bills to limit men’s access to birth control. Representative Yasmin Neal of Georgia has forwarded a bill to prevent men from access to vasectomies, while a collection of female legislators introduced a similar piece of legislation in Missouri.

Both bills were direct responses to anti-abortion and anti-contraception votes in those states. They’re tongue-in-cheek, of course: Who doesn’t want men to have access to vasectomies? Would anyone actually want men to have less reproductive responsibility than they do today? Certainly not the women sponsoring these bills.

The truth is, of course, that men outside the context of traditional straight-people marriage aren’t getting vasectomies in large numbers. And vasectomies are actually the only place in our culture in which men’s responsibility as reproductive actors actually gets talked about, much less assumed.

Outside of these two bills, no one in the national discussion is even raising the question of men’s reproductive responsibility, nor their rights. It’s as if reproductive health, and reproductive responsibility, were solely the domain of women. Somehow, our entire national conversation about reproduction, reproductive health and responsibility has not extended to roughly half of the people who participate in making babies and circulating STIs.

(Let’s be clear here: No one is actually threatening vasectomies—either their legal status, or their almost universal coverage by insurance companies. Vasectomies are widely understood to be relatively simple and safe procedures that fall under the category of preventive health.)

Dear male readers out there, listen up.

I want you to be outraged. Not angry because women are getting all the attention, but furious that in this conversation, no one has even acknowledged your role as a reproductive actor at center stage. It’s as if babies got made completely without you. The stage is set for our national pageant on reproductive health; we’re in act three; and you’re not on it.

Men: Rush Limbaugh insulted you, too. If, for example, you have ever taken a free condom from a student center in order to engage in safe sex—in other words, if anyone else ever paid for your contraception—Rush Limbaugh implicitly called you a slut and a prostitute.

By his logic, you should be making sex videos for public consumption. (You should know that your insurance company would likely cover the cost of any Viagra you might require to make such a sex video. In case the need arises. Or rather, in case it doesn’t.)

Men, here’s the thing: It’s a war on women, of course, because of the particular biological weight that we carry in childbearing. But it’s a war on you, too. We are witnessing a war on everyone’s rights to control what they do with, and what happens to, their own bodies. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a war on people, and on individuals’ rights to define the private terms of their own lives and their families. To the people provoking this war, what’s most important is declaring the “personhood” of fetuses—far more important than either your rights or those of your female partner, should you have one.

For men who are outraged, here a few ideas for what you can do—in public, and in your own private life—to claim your role as a reproductive actor:

  • Demand decent male birth control. Start by advocating for decent birth control options for men, of which there are paltry few. Somehow, we have the technology to accomplish all sorts of amazing things, including babymaking outside the context of heterosexual sex. Just as there’s a strong market demand for more and better options to help people become parents, we have to establish that there’s a market for male birth control technologies beyond condoms and vasectomies. This requires insisting that men are capable of being central, reproductively responsible players in both reproduction and the prevention thereof.And once we have effective male contraception, demand that insurance cover it.

 

  • Know your birth control. Take the sugar pills. If you’re in a relationship with a woman who is doing all of the birth control work for you both, it’s time to step up. Get to know your birth control (because it’s yours too), and find a way to play an active part in it. One of my husband’s ex-girlfriends used to make him take the pink sugar pills on the 4th week of her cycles. As his wife, I love her forever for insisting that this was his responsibility, and I love him for stepping up to claim it.
  • Don’t let the men on stage now speak for you. Because in the absence of other strong male voices in this debate, that all-male panel of anti-choice, anti-contraception religious officials and professors who testified? They’re the men on stage in this debate, and they are speaking for you.Insist that your lawmakers represent your perspective as a sex-positive, reproductively responsible man. Speak loudly. Demand that your male representatives walk out of hearings and meetings in which the perspectives of both men and women aren’t considered (not just female lawmakers). And when you do speak up, speak up along with and next to like-minded women. Don’t talk over us, please, but join us in telling your own stories as a reproductive actor.

 

  • Follow the lead of the men from Texas. And I don’t mean Rick Perry, nor the particularly horrific cuts to Texas’ Women’s Health Programs recently doled out by the Texas state legislature. I’m talking about the fellows at Stand Up Men, who have charged the men of Texas to fight “the infection of silence,” as Glenn W. Smith and James Moore called it this week—a silence that results from treating this as a War on Women, instead of a war against us all. Talk to your legislators, talk to the women in your lives, and most importantly, talk to other men. Get on the stage, and bring other men with you.

And women, here’s our part in this: We need to acknowledge the place of men in these issues, to insist on their role as reproductive actors, and on their reproductive rights, too. Men should be testifying in these hearings, as should we. With seizing great responsibility should come great rights. We have historically borne the weight of biology and also the weight of this particular war on our rights. It’s time for, and we also need, modern men to step in and wage it with us.

For all of us: We need a new politics of universal reproductive rights and responsibility. We need to start treating reproduction like it’s a central part of the human—in addition to the female—experience. We need to hold each other accountable in our partnerships, our communities, and in public. And we need to start treating reproduction like it’s a health issue for adults. Just like we can’t legislate people’s behavior on any other health issue, we need to stop legislating what people do consensually with their own bodies regarding sex and reproduction. We need to start doing everything we can to increase our collective health—men and women, beyond biology—by promoting safe, healthy sex.

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