“Imagine,” my religious-education teacher said one Wednesday evening, her eyes glazing over lustily, “if every time you had intercourse, you were giving yourself over entirely to your spouse, holding nothing back.” I was 16. I could not imagine anything so unsettlingly submissive.
My classmates, one of whom was pregnant, scribbled notes to one another and coughed into the fertile silence. Our teacher sat up, staring down those who hadn’t averted their eyes to the floor or ceiling quickly enough.
“That’s why we believe birth control is an affront to dignity,” the teacher scolded. “That’s why we as Catholics don’t contracept.” I nodded, knowing even then that my ideal relationship involved a lot of condom-free sex and as few pills as possible. At the time, such a lifestyle amounted to a fever dream.
Today, the American sexual climate remains muddled by puritanism, slut panic and pure Luddite fear, but in one fell swoop, the modern woman has the power to undo decades of misplaced morality and bullshit finger wagging. Enter the IUD, or intrauterine device. Discreet, long-lasting and reversible, it has the potential to lead American women into the next sexual revolution. Not even a bat-shit-crazy conservative sweep in 2016 can stop it.
Over the past few years, IUDs have exploded in popularity, rebounding from a prior generation of the technology that almost killed it for good. This was the Dalkon Shield, a Pac-Man ghost–shaped model introduced in 1971 that killed a handful of women, subjected tens of thousands more to serious pelvic injuries and led to a product-safety lawsuit second in size only to cases involving asbestos. Many thought the IUD would never recover, but the modern version couldn’t be further from its forebear in safety and efficacy—one 2013 study found that less than one percent of users experience complications. Attitudes are shifting: Last year, the Centers for Disease Control found that use of long-acting reversible contraceptives had increased fivefold over the past decade, with IUDs leading the charge.
For women several years away from wanting children, long-acting reversible contraception is a low-maintenance godsend; after a checkup, a woman can basically forget about her IUD for three to 12 years, depending on the model. That’s more than enough time to wait out any future antisex chucklehead before he throws a Nixonian double peace sign on his way out of the White House. That’s more than enough time to work up the courage to break up with that dick who doesn’t like his woman to take pills, and more than enough time to hide one’s sexual activity from disapproving parents or partners.
On a practical level, having an IUD means no more last-minute panic over renewing prescriptions before an extended weekend, no more fealty to the demanding schedule of a blister pack. It means knowing that if, for some reason, a woman were to be dropped into a Blue Lagoon situation with a handsome stranger, she wouldn’t have to worry about a pregnancy complicating her island time. It means fewer tampon-purchase pit stops, a relief for women and their good-hearted boyfriends alike. It means, for women who believe their choice of birth control is nobody’s fucking business, no more telltale pill packs in the medicine cabinet or repeat trips to the pharmacy.
Next to the IUD, lesser forms of contraception seem as archaic as Fred Flintstone’s foot–powered car. Having one means freedom from the daily responsibility of the pill or subjecting one’s body to the hormones (and side effects) of a birth-control shot. Less than one percent of women who use IUDs get pregnant each year. The CDC estimates that nine percent of women who rely on the pill get pregnant each year; for those who use condoms the rate is an anxiety-inducing one in five. No matter how lockstep pro-choice or pro-life a couple may be, the stress of an unplanned pregnancy is something everybody would rather avoid.
Much of the public anxiety about the marriage of sex and technology is based on the fear that it will drive people apart, reducing us to dead-eyed fuck zombies humping everything within reach. One can barely open a browser without scrolling past articles bemoaning the alienation sown by dating apps such as Tinder. Five years ago it was the threat of a vague “hookup culture” set to overtake American dorms and high schools. Five years before that it was the ravages of internet porn. Five years from now it will be something else—perhaps sex with robots? But amid the social prognosticating and pearl clutching comes the resurgence of the IUD, an innovation that promotes exactly the sort of unburdened yet intimate relationships the handwringers have warned are becoming extinct.
Among women in my demographic—New Yorkers whose apartments are barely big enough for a shower, let alone a baby—getting an IUD feels like joining a sorority. In the months after I got mine, the city transformed into the world’s grimiest pharmaceutical ad, starring myself and women I know in varying degrees swapping uterine updates over beers at Sharlene’s. I’ve found myself showing up at my office and immediately Gchatting with a co-worker about cramps. I’ve caught myself singing the praises of my gynecologist’s skillful hands in public. “She’s like a ninja with my cervix!” I told a friend, out loud, in a normal speaking voice, during rush hour. “It will change your life,” one usually snarky friend told me with alarming sincerity the day I made my appointment. She was right. It did. None of us has ever been less pregnant.
The It status of the IUD is a fairly recent development. It wasn’t until 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut that the Supreme Court declared a law barring contraceptive drugs unconstitutional. Six years later the disastrous Dalkon Shield went to market. It would take until 1988 for a modern IUD, a T-shaped copper device that looked and acted nothing like its predecessor, to hit American pharmacies. It remained unpopular: Women, it turned out, were still a tad disturbed by the fact that the last mass-market IUD was an inadvertent torture device. A small plastic hormonal IUD called Mirena, which lasts five years, quietly emerged in the 1990s, followed by even smaller models in the 2010s: Skyla (three years) and Liletta (three years), both so dainty a teenager can use them. Apparently birth control is most marketable when its name conjures images of fairies stripping their way through grad school.
In 2011 a government agency determined that under the Affordable Care Act birth control qualifies as preventative care and IUDs must be covered co-pay-free. This was welcome news for many women, because those who can’t afford to pay up front for an IUD likely can’t afford to have a child, which I’ve heard can be quite expensive.
In fact, from 2009 to 2014, a $25 million grant provided more than 36,000 Colorado teens with long-acting birth control. The result was a 48 percent drop in unwanted pregnancies, saving $79 million in Medicaid. Yet last year Republican lawmakers killed a bill to provide $5 million to continue the program, caving to constipated right-wing talk-radio hosts and religious conservatives, who for years had claimed IUDs were abortifacients and using them was equivalent to murdering a human baby.
An important aspect of my Catholic education, and of Judeo-Christian morality writ large, focused on reasons to both fear and crave sex. I was taught that the only good sex happens between married, heterosexual, raw-dogging adults. Experiencing its pleasure was justifiably punishable with the pain of childbirth, depending on how petty God felt that day (and whether he hated you enough to fashion you into a baby girl).
We were taught that married women who used birth control committed “the sin of abortion every day,” not understanding that even when stretched to its most fantastic limits, an IUD could result in an abortion every day only if a woman were successfully ovulating every 24 hours and her frequent eggs were being frequently fertilized by an insatiable sex machine husband. Believing that using an IUD is like having an abortion every day is like believing that every baseball pitch results in a home run.
Religious beliefs about contraception should have no bearing on public policy governing health care access, but they do. In 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby and other “closely held” private, for-profit companies were within their rights to withhold contraceptive access from insured female -employees, provided the company brass’s beliefs were “sincerely held.” During arguments, lawyers for Hobby Lobby referred to the morning-after pill and IUDs as abortifacients, which, while scientifically incorrect, proved to be “sincerely held” enough for the court. In the end, every justice on the winning side of that five-to-four vote was a Catholic man.
In December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. Under Obamacare, religious organizations that refuse to provide birth control for their employees must sign a form declaring their intent, which forces insurers to offer third-party, unaffiliated coverage. In this case, plaintiffs have argued that simply signing that form makes them indirectly responsible for employee birth control. If religious conservatives prevail, it would not only be a decision dramatically out of step with the beliefs of the American people, it would be an absurd judicial capitulation to the will of those who believe their religious rights extend to the bodies of others.
More prominent and noisy than a Supreme Court case, of course, is the impending presidential election. If a Republican is installed in the White House, it’s highly likely that, in an effort to appease the deep-pocketed wing nuts of the right, the no-co-pay birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act will be swatted down on day one. None of the candidates has thus far unveiled an “Everybody Gets Pregnant” platform, but the end of Obamacare would mean the resurrection of old barriers between women and IUDs.
IUDs work. Without insurance, the next sexual revolution will be beyond the reach of most American women. But we women have the upper hand: An IUD is a fool- and asshole-proof invention that can, once and for all, establish that each woman’s body belongs to her and only her. As far as the human body is concerned, it’s stronger than a fence or a missile shield or a tax break. It’s what will keep us from backsliding into the Dark Ages. No matter who is in office. And thank God for that.