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Women Don't Have More Sexual Partners When They Use Birth Control -- But Why Do We Care?

That researchers and health advocates need to presume harsh judgement of sexually active women to convince skeptics of birth control's utility just reminds us how far we have to go.
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Women use birth control. Almost all of them. Abortion rates decrease when more women take birth control. Sex is better and more fun when women are on the pill. Oral contraceptives make life better for many women in ways that have nothing to do with preventing pregnancy.

Now that most women can reasonably expect to have sex without giving birth nine months later, they must be having tons of sex, right? Too much sex. Just an uninterrupted, condomless flow of high-risk sex.

If we were prepared to indulge the idea that anyone should be concerned with how many people women sleep with and how often they do so, we now have empirical proof that providing access to free birth control has no impact on the number of sexual partners a woman has. Phew.

A comprehensive study by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine found that providing women birth control at no cost does not effect the number of sexual partners they have. Multiple methods of long-term birth control (oral contraception, IUDs, etc.) were provided to 9,256 St. Louis women who were considered "at high risk for unintended pregnancy." Over the course of a year, participants' incidence of "high risk sexual behavior" such as "having multiple partners" did not increase when they were given birth control at no cost.

Seventy percent of women surveyed reported no increase in sexual partners. Overall, the percentage of participants who reported multiple partners actually declined throughout the study. For women reporting an increase in number of sexual partners, 80 percent simply went from having sex with no one to having sex with someone.

This study adds to a heartening body of research showing that reducing barriers to birth control means a decline in unintended pregnancy and abortions. That access to birth control doesn't suddenly inspire promiscuity offers empirical data which undermines moralizing arguments against it. Mike Huckabee can rest easy.

Is it slightly troubling that we should all be relieved birth control does not increase the "risk" of "having multiple partners"? To the extent that fewer partners inevitably means less exposure to STDs, the fact that birth control pills don't send women into a condomless-sex Rumspringa is good to know. But it's a finding that women's health proponents will have to hold up to critics far more frequently than they should.

It is a small, pervasive set of voices that leads researchers to consider "multiple sexual partners" over the course of an entire year "risky sexual behavior." Just last week, Republican State Sen. Fred Dyson claimed that since sex without the goal of pregnancy is a "recreational" activity, any state sponsorship of birth control is basically the same as paying for people to go to the movies. In his words, women should forgo "three or four lattes" to pinch enough pennies to buy birth control themselves.

The past decade of research has confirmed what women's health advocates already knew: the benefits of reducing barriers to birth control access far outweigh any subjectively determined adverse effects.

What's unfortunate is that making a case for something many women need relies on the implicit stigmatization of their sexuality. That researchers and health advocates need to presume harsh judgement of sexually active women to convince skeptics of birth control's utility just reminds us how far we have to go.

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