Lucy Mangan

“Family planning – the equality question”: Lucy Mangan on the burden of contraception

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Lucy Mangan

It’s not often I find myself truly conflicted. Most of the time, I can move pretty quickly through the great questions of our day. Does earning £70,000 a year make you rich? Yes! Next question! Is Lena Dunham a genius or a millennial monster? Genius! Should the news that the University of Tennessee is to offer an honours seminar on Dolly Parton be greeted with unparalleled rejoicing? A thousand times, yes!


But on a recent study, published in The Journal Of Sex Research, advocating that men become more involved in contraceptive decisions in order to share the “fertility work” that at the moment falls mostly on women, I am torn.

I don’t like putting decisions about contraception in the same sort of category as emotional labour. To liken it to remembering birthdays, or sharing the cooking or knowing how and when to put a wash on without being asked, or keeping in touch with friends, diminishes its importance and its particular value to women. We are, after all and by and large, the ones who get pregnant. We do have a non-navigably greater vested interest in seeing it done right. And we are the only ones who truly know which one is better for our own, individual bodies. I prefer not to frame it as a burden but as a great shining modern miracle whose liberating rays we should all be happy to bask in.

But I can see the logic. It takes two to tango and to make or not make a zygote and so two should share the load as far as possible, just as they should any other form of domestic responsibility. Yet logic only takes you so far. What works in the abstract is often less efficient in the messy environs of real life.

My mother was a family planning doctor for 40 years. I grew up on grim facts, gruesome anecdotes (there’s one about an aerosol cap I will share with you after a few drinks some time, and a stripper with a snake) and had an insider’s view into the private world of women’s reproductive health, long before I was officially inducted into it by my own contraceptive needs.

And here’s what I learned: this is, by and large, a world run by women for women. Most patients are fine, with no problems other than whatever particular issue is at rubber-gloved hand. But for a substantial minority, this is not true. For them, the clinic is a safe haven. It is empowering in the deepest and most literal sense. It is where they maintain a vital piece of control over lives that are otherwise in chaos, by accessing contraception and advice. The unspoken but strong social convention that this is women’s business and that men are not encouraged to be involved is very, very helpful to them.

We are all keen to build an egalitarian world. But that is not as simple as letting men into women’s spaces (or vice versa) and there are dangers in inviting men into this particular one. Because the truth of the matter is that for every supportive partner who is an asset to the woman’s decision-making, there will be far more who use it as a way to shape and control it.

Those with ‘good’ partners have nothing much to gain by further encouragement of men’s involvement (you can already bring whoever you want with you), while those without have much to lose.

Equality means feeling as safe and being as protected as men. And, until the world changes remarkably, that will sometime mean keeping them away.