Sex and Birthcontrol

September 24, 2012 • Family Planning, HIV/AIDS, Reproductive Health, Daily Email Recap

This article is written by Philip D. Harvey, president of DKT International, an international family planning organization.

Sex and Birthcontrol


Melinda Gates drew some nervous laughter at a recent TED-x presentation by bringing up the subject of sex in a discussion on contraception. She deserves our applause for doing so because, as clearly related as these subjects obviously are, we family planning specialists rarely put them together.

The purpose of contraception is to make it possible for couples to enjoy the pleasures of sex without the consequence of pregnancy. A lot of people — and at least one Church — disagree with this, and many of those folks oppose contraception. But the great majority of couples around the world today practice birth control, believe it is virtuous and healthy, and tell us that it improves their lives. Fully 61 percent of all couples in the world today are having sex and using one or another contraceptive method to avoid pregnancy.

The international family planning profession, of which I have been a member for more than 40 years, has always been nervous about sex. When I took my Masters’ degree in family planning in 1969, we had courses in demography, epidemiology, reproductive physiology, and health administration. Sex was never mentioned. Even reproductive physiology was more about the corpus luteum than the clitoris. To this day you seldom read anything about sex in the family planning literature. The reason, I think, is that sex bothers people, especially good sex. We hear a lot about problems with sex (and there are many), but very little about good sex, very little about the quantum of pleasure in the world enjoyed by the two billion women and men (and same-sex couples) who regularly enjoy consensual sex. Is not such sex a good thing? Should not we family planners celebrate the fact that the contraceptives we provide make it possible for people to have more sex? Isn’t more sex good?

This idea makes people antsy. Sex has a long, negative reputation in human history. The early Christians despised sex. Historian Reah Tannahill reminds us that “it was Augustine who epitomized a general feeling among the church fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally disgusting.” A trend in this negative history has been men’s fear of women’s sexuality. Women were thought to steal men’s vitality, to undermine their very sensibility.

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