A few times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard married friends refer to the use of “protection” when having sex in a married context.
“Protection,” of course, is a euphemism for contraception. And since they’re talking about it within a monogamous relationship, presumably what they’re talking about being “protected” against is babies.
I naturally bristle at contraception being referred to as “protection,” since it has been my heart’s desire to have babies with my husband for the last five years. (So far, we’ve been blessed with one; and just very recently, another one on the way. After many, many months of waiting and hoping and praying). Contraception wouldn’t “protect” me against anything.
I understand that outside of monogamous relationships, contraception is referred to as “protection” in part because some forms (i.e. condoms) protect against the spread of disease. I get that. Protection against unwanted pregnancy is also implied. And I get that to a certain degree, too. Nobody really wants to have a baby with someone they aren’t committed to long-term.
But I find it problematic to refer to contraception as “protection” within healthy, long-term, monogamous relationships because it treats pregnancy as a disease and babies as a threat. This is not a very life-affirming attitude, in my opinion.
I wrote a blog post several years ago (on my old embarrassing blog) that argues we need to redefine safe sex: “safe” sex is that which occurs within the context of marriage.
And I still believe that to be true.
MARRIAGE is the protection. Marriage is what keeps sex safe.
Sex within a good marriage should always be “safe,” regardless of contraception use. It might still be fraught with difficulties — marriage doesn’t guarantee wonderful, problem-free sex — and couples may still want to avoid or delay pregnancy; but marriage should be a safe environment in which to share intimacy.
By getting married, a couple commits to caring for one another, and any potential offspring, for life. For better or worse. In sickness and health. That is protection.
When you make your marriage vows before witnesses, you make your intentions towards one another clear to a whole community, hopefully establishing a support system of friends and family to help and guide you through parenthood if any children should arise from your union. That is protection.
By getting married and remaining monogamous (especially if you have never been with anyone else before), you close the door to the spread of infection, so that sex is “safe” from disease. Again: that, to me, is protection.
In other words: the “safety” of sex is not established by contraception. It’s established by marriage.
Now, this isn’t an argument against contraception or any other kind of birth control. I just wish that folks would call it what it is, and not imply that when a married couple eschews birth control they are not “protected.”
Sex within marriage is protected. Sex outside of marriage is unprotected.
Updated to add:
A few people have made some really valid points in the comments about situations of extreme poverty, abuse, or STI’s within marriage. In these cases, they rightly point out, contraception can provide a layer of safety against increased poverty or abuse.
I want to point out that I did try to emphasize in my post that I was talking about strong, healthy marriages.
In the conversations I was referencing, my friends were clearly referring to pregnancy, saying things like, “Of course they got pregnant again! That’s what happens when you don’t use protection!” They were cheerful comments exchanged between happily-married women from middle-income families. We’re not talking about poverty-stricken, abusive relationships in these cases.
I doubt my friends were really thinking about the full implications of the language they were using; I’m sure they don’t really think of babies as a threat they need to be “protected” against. But the fact that they grabbed onto the word “protection” highlighted to me what a common euphemism it is. (In another conversation, a youth pastor told us about the time a student asked, “What kind of protection do you and your wife use?” Again, this just served to highlight how commonly we use this term when referring to contraception, even within safe, healthy marriages.)
So I do understand that contraception can be “protective” in some cases. I appreciate these commenters bringing this to my attention.
But ideally, there should be much better protection available for couples in trouble — financial aid for couples who can’t afford to feed another child; the support of a loving community in the case of abuse; etc.
Moreover, the examples my objectors offer are all examples of marriage not doing what it’s supposed to do. These are broken marriages, so of course they don’t provide the safety net they’re meant to.
I guess ultimately what I’m trying to say in this post is while contraception can be useful and helpful in some cases, I believe relationships are what save us. Not birth control.
Image by Bre Pettis.