Are we thinking enough about coitus interruptus?
You there, in the back. I�m talking to you.
The question is prompted by an article in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History entitled, "They prefer withdrawal". If this sounds like a distant echo of Bartleby�s cry (I prefer not to) � well, surely some scholar somewhere is even now busily connecting Bartleby�s angst to forms of birth control you can invent in your very own home.
Here�s the intro graf:
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, contemporary advocates of "modern" methods of birth control denigrated withdrawal as ineffective, unpleasant, and even physically and psychologically harmful. Yet, the available evidence on birth control in Britain (and elsewhere) has consistently suggested that withdrawal continued to be the most widely used method of family limitation even into the interwar decades, after more than a half-century of sharply falling national fertility. The use of withdrawal was frequent despite such contemporaneous developments in reproductive technology as the invention of caps and diaphragms (often confusingly called pessaries or check pessaries), their dispersal in a growing number of birth-control clinics, the manufacture of spermicidal pessaries, the commercialization of sheaths, and, in the 1930s, the production of the latex condom. Why, the interwar experts wondered, "in spite of such obvious disadvantages, is this method practised by millions of people?"
Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter, the authors, have no single answer for that question. However, they have gone back over a fascinating, if rather bizarre, survey of old age pensioners in a town in Northern England. The survey concentrated on these folks former marital sexual practices. As Fisher and Szreter point out, these surveys are usually skewed female, since it is rare that males participate in family studies. Why? They don�t explain this. But the survey, or at least Fisher and Szreter�s explanation of it, seems to confirm several broad Foucaultian theses about the interaction between popular practices and the disciplinary technostructures that sought to capture and organize those practices. A lot of work has been done about the great onanism scare of the 18th century. This work has a sub-text � my, aren�t we more sexually liberal now. But sexual liberalism as a program necessarily entails its own coercive agenda. Apparently, the great war on coitus interruptus � a war launched on behalf of �health� and �psychological well being,� a war waged on behalf of tolerance and pleasure and all of the other bullet points of the sexually liberal, was based, itself, on selected truths. As Norman Mailer suspected half a century ago, the devil (insofar as the devil is a technician) was trying to annex the sexual sphere � to purify the site of pleasure before pleasure begins, an airbrushing gesture that still shapes sex as entertainment -- through science:
"THE SAFEST FORM OF CONTRACEPTION": WITHDRAWAL AS A RELIABLE METHOD OF BIRTH CONTROL Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, birth-control campaigners were united in condemning withdrawal as a highly unreliable method of birth control, prone to failure and frequent unwanted pregnancies. Cox in Clinical Contraception maintained that it was both the most "primitive" and the "most unreliable method in use" and highlighted four causes of failure: "premature emission"; "presence of spermatozoa in the pre-ejaculatory secretion"; "re-entry after ejaculation," "without effective cleansing"; and "motile sperms ... which succeed in traversing the vagina and reaching the os." 5
Subsequent scientific and medical advice has mellowed somewhat. By 1971, Peel and Potts could take a much more agnostic position in their medical Textbook of Contraceptive Practice: "If there are no good reasons for recommending it neither are there any obvious grounds for discouraging it among couples who have already decided on the method and appear to be relatively happy with it." In fact, recent data on the efficiency of withdrawal has concluded that its failure rate is similar to that of the diaphragm and the rhythm method (withdrawal 19 percent, rhythm 20 percent, diaphragm 18 percent, condoms, 12 percent, and contraceptive pills 8 percent). However, Peel and Potts were not prepared to recommend the method to newcomers; they were more favorably inclined toward the appliance and chemical methods available by the 1970s. Contemporary advice and family-planning literature has continued in this vein, only actively promoting "modern" methods. The failure rates for withdrawal are sometimes highlighted in such literature, one author insisting by contrast, "for consistent and correct users, barrier method effectiveness is quite high." Rarely has anyone suggested that withdrawal might be an effective [End Page 270] technique with the proper care and skill; rather, such care and skill were to be seriously doubted. 6
Of course that skill is doubted. Whether the struggle is against masturbation or against withdrawal, the principle is always the same: people don�t have the skill to use the genitals they were supplied with in the womb. That most secret and divided moment in the Enlightenment project � riven between freedom, on the one hand, and the control of nature, on the other hand � finds its natural subject in the sexual, where freedom and nature clash by night, an ignorant army of withdrawers, masturbators, male gazers, and whores against the know-it-alls, purveyors of survey questions, doctors and academics.
The ignorant constitute the only army I belong to. Onward Christian soldiers.