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What the Trojan Ad Controversy Says About Women's Health

Health and safety are apparently controversial for religious and moral reasons -- at least when we're talking about women's health and safety.
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A new ad for Trojan condoms emphasizes the importance of safer sex, and brands condom use as "evolved." But you won't be seeing the ad air on Fox or CBS -- apparently evolution isn't something they believe in.

There's a lot to dislike about the ad, beginning with the portrayal of men as pigs and women as simply responding (or not) to men's advances rather than having agency of their own. But as the CEO of the firm that created the Trojan ad said, the spot is intended to portray carrying a condom as "a sign of somebody being prepared -- if the opportunity arises -- to think about their own health and the health and safety of their partner."

But health and safety are apparently controversial for religious and moral reasons -- at least when we're talking about women's health and safety.

According to a Fox executive, "Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy." One has to wonder where this executive got the idea that pregnancy is not a health-related issue (maybe he sat in on a few too many Bush-funded abstinence-only education classes). While the executive may appear to simply lack a rudimentary understanding of pregnancy, it's more likely that he is bowing to demands of the "moral majority" in the United States -- a vocal and powerful political force that claims to be pro-life and pro-family, but doesn't actually believe in preventing unwanted pregnancy.

The best way to lower the abortion rate is to promote safer sex practices and emphasize sex as a natural, normal part of life for which we all need to take responsibility -- or at least that's the method that's worked in the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world. But anti-choice and "pro-family" groups -- you know, the ones who rushed to the phones after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl nip slip -- are more interested in sticking their noses into all of our personal lives than they are in actually decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies. And they aren't exactly quiet when their delicate sensibilities are offended. Certainly Fox and CBS, no beacons of progressivism themselves, took right-wing anti-sex hysteria into account when they refused the Trojan ads.

There is not a single pro-life group in this country that promotes contraception use. Anti-choice politicians and organizations rallied against emergency contraception (the "morning-after" pill) and labeled it an abortifacient, despite the fact that emergency contraception is the exact same thing as standard birth control pills, just a different dose. Their opposition to EC has opened the door to opposing birth control generally. Anti-choice groups and politicians now support pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. They laud legislation that makes abortion more dangerous. They promote making abortion a criminal offense, even for rape and incest survivors. They oppose condom distribution in African countries where as many as 1 in 3 people have HIV.

The "pro-life" ideology has nothing to do with babies or even fetuses, but it has everything to do with keeping women in our role as child-bearers. Contraception and abortion access has enabled women to live our lives without being beholden to biology -- we're going to college and graduate school in record numbers, moving up the ladder in the work force, and planning our families. Parents spend more time with their children than they did 50 years ago. Men are expected to be a part of their childrens' lives, and able to be both breadwinners and involved fathers. American families are significantly healthier and wealthier than they were in the "family values" glory days of the 1950s.

All of which makes anti-choice conservatives extremely nervous. Family structures have changed. The definition of marriage has shifted. Gender equality is increasingly embraced. For people who support women's autonomy and believe that progress is valuable, this is a good thing. For those who cling to a separate-but-equal gender ideology, who think that women who have sex outside of proper marital authority are whores for whom pregnancy is a punishment, and who believe an ideal family has a male head, a female child-bearer and as many babies as God gives you, this is very, very ominous.

Which is what Fox and CBS executives surely understood when they rejected the Trojan ad: Implying that people should be able to have sex for pleasure without being punished by pregnancy is offensive to loud, well-funded right-wing organizations who believe that sex should be for procreative purposes only. Those organizations have already done an impressive job of stereotyping women who terminate pregnancies as selfish immoral sluts. Women who want to have sex and decide for themselves when to have children are next on the list.

The vast majority of American women will use contraception at some point in their lives. People of both sexes want to plan their families. Self-determination is a desire that crosses all party lines and ideologies. All of this makes it even more fascinating when a fairly quotidian advertisement makes waves because it attempts to sell condoms, while few of us so much as bat an eyelash at the constant stream of highly sexualized images we see on television every day.

While Fox executives are comfortable airing an ad of Paris Hilton in a bathing suit soaping herself up to sell hamburgers, they refuse an ad that promotes condom use for pregnancy and disease prevention. It's an interesting twist on the old advertising adage -- Sex sells, just don't try to sell safer sex.

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