I got this crazy idea about how to include men in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and so I wrote a paper about it, below.
On October 6, 2017, the Trump administration rolled back the mandatory provision of the cost-free birth control coverage included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) allowing all employers, not only the religious organizations initially exempted by the Obama administration, to negate birth control coverage to women based on their particular religious beliefs (Ehley, 2017). Supporters of women’s reproductive rights are understandably outraged. They have been outraged for a very long time at what the Democratic party labeled as the War on Women, the series of Republican policies aimed to curtail women’s reproductive rights (Zengerle, 2012). Their outrage was not sufficient to prevent the GOP from winning the presidency and a majority in both chambers of the Congress last year, however. Can it be sufficient now to win this new battle against women’s rights?
While the fight to grant women full reproductive rights and access to affordable birth control has many male supporters, the movement is far from being gender balanced. Since males represent not only half of the US voters, but about 70 percent of all elected officials (Catalyst. Quick Take, 2017), unless male support for the movement increases, the fight is doomed to be a long and difficult one. My recommendation is to create emotionally charged messages aimed directly at males to help them understand how the women’s reproductive rights movement benefits them. Specifically, I propose that the Democratic party should rebrand the War on Women as the War on Love to imply that the issue is also relevant to men and to make pregnancy-free consensual sex the primary benefit of birth control.
Currently, the #WarOnWomen Twitter feed is full of posts calling women to unite and resist, and videos like this one, from Sophia Bush (2017) lecture viewers on why women need prescribed contraceptives, especially for circumstances other than sex. Watching Bush’s video (2017) from a male perspective, one can easily understand why the rhetoric needs to change. While Bush’s arguments are valid, her tone is angry and condescending; she prioritizes reasons particular to women, and overall, rather than inviting men to appreciate the advantages that birth control bring to their lives—which she does, but gesturing her hands as if she was talking to simpleton—her video invites men to distance from the matter even further. It is as if Bush’s objective had been to antagonize and ridicule men rather than to educate them on the matter. Social Judgement Theory predicts that whenever the recipient of a message assesses the position advocated in a message as contrary to his own, he will reject the message, regardless of the value of the arguments it may contain (O’Keefe, 2015). Not surprisingly, one of the first comments to Bush’s video reads: “Fuck off with your condescending tone. If insurance providers want to cover birth control, fine. But the government should not have to support it, and neither should the tax payer [sic]. Fuck off” (Bush, 2017).
The abundance of messages like Bush’s on social media, and the way many men respond to them, leads one to believe that many men do not support the women’s reproductive rights movement not only because they fail to see how they benefit from birth control (per a recent survey by PerryUndem  only 37 percent of male US voters believe that they have benefitted directly from women’s affordable access to birth control) but also because they perceive their identity as men attacked by the movement’s rhetoric. As the Social Identity Model of de-Individualization predicts “when a social identity becomes salient… conformity to an internalized group norm will be strong” (Trepte, 2006, p. 266). Men who feel attacked prefer to take sides with their gender than to learn about the benefits that birth control brings to women.
By making birth control primarily about sex, instead of women, one could give men the opportunity to keep their identity as men “free of harm” while allowing them to also self-categorize among those who benefit from women’s regular use of contraceptives—because women who take contraceptives would be more likely to want to have sex with them. Changing the rhetoric will also help men identify the GOP, and not women, as the true adversary since it is the Republicans’ restrictive policies and not women’s position on the matter what threatens the quality and the quantity of men’s future sexual encounters. In terms of Social Judgment Theory, what I suggest then is to create messages that would allow men to assess the position advocated by the women’s reproductive rights movement as fully compatible with their own as men.
Renaming the War on Women as the War on Love would create new network associations that, as Westen (2008) recommends, would make the women’s reproductive rights movement more attractive for the unengaged. The term War on Love would also imply that Republican’s restrictive policies are an aberration and would link the GOP’s position to prudish, old-fashioned attitudes with which most American men, considering the levels of pornography consumed in this country will not sympathize: Per a report released earlier this year by Pornhub (2017), the site had about 9.2 billion visits in 2016 from the United States. Moreover, research suggests that consuming pornography leads to “an increase in positive attitudes toward premarital sex” (Wright, 2014, p. 93).
Of course, making birth control primarily about sex will infuriate those who claim that increased access to contraceptives promotes promiscuity, but trying to take the sexual aspect out of birth control is frankly naïve and acquiesces to a retrograde mentality. Hormonal birth control’s primary function is to prevent pregnancies. Their use for treating menstruation-related disorders and preventing ovarian cancer is secondary (ACOG, 2009), not as relevant to men, and, therefore, less likely to engage them on an emotional level. The women’s reproductive rights movement does not need more arguments to validate their claims, in any case; the existing ones are sufficient to satisfy an invested audience. What the movement needs is to enlarge the size of that invested audience, and that can only occur when more men engage at an emotional level.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model predicts (Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981) that attitude change can only occur when there is sufficient motivation to elaborate on the merit of the arguments presented.
For men that find women’s rights of little relevance, the motivation will have to come then from a peripheral route, from messages that remind them that women who do not take contraceptives are less likely to want to have sex; that condoms can be unpleasant, expensive, and should be unnecessary for a committed couple; and that remind them of the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies. From there, the conversation can evolve to show how women’s emancipation has improved everyone’s quality of life by reducing violence and poverty (Pinker, Location 242).
How can the Democratic party and supporters of women’s rights deliver these messages? By incorporating them in their rhetoric, of course, but also through social media with messages designed to go “viral” by making them brief, highly relevant to straight male audiences, easy to understand, and easy to spread (Jenkins & Ford, 2013) as would be the case with humorous memes and videos. Humor is important because sex and humor often go hand by hand and humorous content is more likely to gain approval (Cialdini, 2001) and be spread because it allows those who share it to easily gain social capital through other’s interaction (Ellison, Lampe, Steinfeld, & Vitak, 2011). Messages directed to young men with overtly emotional content such as “The GOP’s War on Love is cock-blocking me!” could be quite attention callers to how Republican policies undermines men’s rights. Since narratives that successfully induce a state of transportation can change attitudes and behavior better than rhetoric (Green & Brock, 2002), narratives focused on the male experience could more successfully engage men through identification (Slater & Rouner, 2002), and could help them understand how males benefit from women’s affordable access to birth control through modeling (Bandura, 2004). Democrats and supporters of women’s reproductive rights could tell sentimental stories with males as the protagonists having to decide whether to pay for food or an emergency contraceptive for their wives or showing how a father helped his college-age daughter and his boyfriend with the difficult decision of having an abortion, etcetera.
In summary, what I recommend is to create emotionally charged messages explicitly directed at motivating men to elaborate on the benefits of guaranteeing women safe and affordable access to birth control and that identify the GOP’s restrictive policies as contrary to their particular well-being. The point is not to change the narrative to men, but to help women win the support they need to win this battle.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). (2009, December 21). Women’s Health Care Physicians. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from https://www.acog.org/About_ACOG/News_Room/News_Releases/2009/Hormonal_Contraceptives_Offer_Benefits_Beyond_Pregnancy_Prevention
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Bush, S. (2017, October 12). [HEALTH] Sophia Bush about birth control. Retrieved October 13, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7d-6MK7CTg
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