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How to Rethink Sexual Relationships After the Abortion Ruling

The relationship consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Key points

  • The federal banning of abortion means we must rethink the sexual relationship between men and women.
  • Transactional, marketplace models of sex that treat men and women as independent, self-interested agents must be abandoned.
  • Sex is not a transaction, it is an interaction—it's a partnership about sexual pleasure and baby-making.
  • The consequences of sex, intended and unintended, accrue to both men and women.

It is time to reconsider our understanding of the sexual relationship between men and women.

Sex between men and women is currently based on a transactional view of sex, which leaves women accountable for wanting, seeking, and having an abortion. We must use this crisis of banning abortion to reframe the transactional view of sex between men and women as an interaction. An interaction is an interpersonal event that we can think of as a partnership. This view has big implications for understanding who is accountable for seeking and having an abortion. This makes it clear that abortion is an interpersonal event—it is about the interpersonal consequences of sex.

The Transactional Approach to Sex

Evolutionary scientists, particularly evolutionary psychologists, have a theoretical box for human sexuality: animal mating.1 For these scientists, sex is just sex. In this view men are libidinous, promiscuous animals who are hard-wired for sex (a reproductive strategy to spread their genes as far as possible) and women are hardwired for intimacy and babies, wanting to enforce marriage (monogamy) on men. This sets up the transactional model for how men and women manage their sexual interactions. This is the “quid pro quo” of sex. This approach is most blatantly articulated in the idea that human sex is a sexual marketplace that conforms to economic principles2. In this view women are the supply, men are the demand.

The Interpersonal Approach to Sex

The transactional model of sex based on animal mating has been upended by researchers Holly Dunsworth and Anne Buchanan.3 For these sex researchers, “[t]he human primate experiences sex in an entirely different way from any other animal, enmeshed in all kinds of cultural and emotional networks and significance.4 Virgin worship, marriage, castration, contraception, fertility technology, and genetic engineering are all aspects of human sexuality.

It’s the awareness that sex makes babies, called reproductive consciousness that makes sex different for us than for animals. Reproductive consciousness in humans, which we may have figured out about 100,000 years ago, is based on two things humans can do that no other animals can do:

  1. We understand the link between insemination through intercourse and the arrival of a baby nine months later.
  2. The reason we can do this is that we can reason about unobservable events—all the processes that link insemination with the birth of a baby.

Understanding concepts that link inherently unobservable events is a uniquely human ability.

The crises created by overturning the federal right to abortion make it clear that we have to think about sex between men and women as an interpersonal act; not one that can be a separate act for two individuals who exchange sexual performance based on their own self-interest.

Sex is for Pleasure, Too

Because the evolutionary psychologist treats human sexuality as animal sexuality, male and female sexuality were placed in separate and distinct silos of sexual desire, sexual pursuit, sexual performance, and sexual pleasure. The social structures built around the distinct male and female silos ended up reinforcing the idea that men are “driven,” they “need” (the psychological equivalent of animal instinct) sex more than women do.

It took the feminist movement of the 1970s to encourage us women to be pro-sex, pro-pleasure, and pro-freedom. These women openly stated that they wanted to "sleep with people because we want to.” "Not to prove anything to them (men), not to make them feel better about their masculinity, not out of weakness or an inability to say no, but simply because we want to.”5 We rejected the idea that sexual pleasure is for men, while baby-making is the primary sexual motive for women.

While we gained the status of sexual pleasure seekers, we are still the ones responsible for baby-making. Now, we wanted the right to decide whether or not we wanted to be mothers—hence in the 1973 ruling, the Supreme Court granted women the right to the abortion of an unborn child who could not feasibly survive outside the womb.

This right to an abortion, along with the previously granted right to contraception, created the opportunity for sexual equality between men and women. Men and women were now equal in their right to have sex for pleasure and for procreation. Now, we can envision sex as an interaction between men and women who understand that sex gives us both pleasure and babies.

Sex is a Partnership

Now is the time to rethink the old transactional, marketplace view of sex, in which we see men and women as independent, self-interested agents. We must start thinking about having sex as a partnership—even if it is a one-off encounter. In having sex once or regularly, you cooperate with a partner to have both pleasure and/or be interested in baby-making. You are both interested in your own experience, and you are both interested in your partner’s experience—it’s both self-interested and other-interested.

This is a startlingly different way to think about sex. This does not mean that sex only occurs in committed partner relationships. That’s not the point. A sexual partnership can be defined in any number of ways. This partnership is not a business partnership, which is a transactional relationship. It is a personal partnership in which the people involved are engaged in a baby-making activity even if they do not want to make a baby.

Abortion is a Partnership Endeavor

We cannot return to the pre-'70s situation in which men get both pleasure and baby-making rights while women get the baby-making responsibilities. The only way to do this is for men and women to recognize the baby-making function of sex and act accordingly. The responsibility for deciding about an abortion, making arrangements, and the cost fall on the partnership, not the woman alone.

Men are stepping up. As one man said...“To be blunt, the most I’ve ever had to do (about reproductive responsibility) is pick up a monthly supply of pills from the drug store on the way home, or just ask, onetime, at the start of a sexual relationship, whether my soon to be partner was protected.”6 He goes on to admit that…“as preventing pregnancy goes, that’s been the entirety of my burden—and I’ve reaped the benefits of care-free sex over and over again, for years.”

Sex in a Partnership is Negotiated Sex

Partnered sex is negotiated sex. Negotiating sex in a truly partnered sexual encounter is an exploration of what each of you wants each time you have sex. Do you want sex for pleasure? Do you want sex as an intimate relationship encounter? Do you want sex because you feel bad? Do you want sex because you adore your partner? Do you want sex to make a baby?

In sex that is legitimately negotiated, both partners are accountable. Both are accountable for the pleasure and for making a baby. Both people are responsible for contraception. Both people are accountable for any unintended consequences of each sexual encounter.

If we, as a culture, adopted this view of sex, then both men and women are fully accountable for their sexual activities and can be held accountable for their sexual behavior.

References

1. Dunsworth, Holly and Ann Buchanan. “Sex Makes Babies.” Aeon. August 9,2017.

2. Baumeister, Roy F. “An Unromantic but Compelling Theory About Sexual Motivations.” Psychology Today. June 23, 2022.

3. Dunsworth and Buchanan

4. Dunsworth and Buchanan

5. Aponte, Catherine E. “Women in Pursuit of Good Sex.” Psychology Today. February 1, 2022

6. Gillman, Scott. “It’s Not About Babies, It’s About Sex.” The Good Men Project. July 7, 2022.

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