Birth, control, and the pill

The oral contraceptive pill: few women would deny its role in female emancipation because of the control it provides over reproductive choices. A post over at the Gender Across Borders blog (a recent find, and one of my favourite haunts of late) on contraceptive advertising in the US set me thinking.

Contraceptive ads in India have come a long way since the antiseptic, sanitized ads of Nirodh and Mala D—government products, freely available at all public health centres, and probably still the only affordable choice for the lower and middle strata of society. The ads centred on family and spacing children. Which is not surprising, given the audience they targeted—people who would probably not be comfortable with any public discussion of birth control. (Anyone from that pre-remote-controlled-TV generation will have plenty of fun memories of squirming parents and other elders, of forced loud conversations, deliberately and hastily started to drown out the ads … while children giggled.)

The 1990s saw a radical change in contraceptive advertising, at least as far as condoms were concerned. Kamasutra (and Pooja Bedi) started it all off and others followed—Moods, Kohinoor. The focus of these ads is unmistakably on the pleasure of sex. Instead of the “anti-pregnancy device” rhetoric that Nirodh projected, they play upon “attitudes toward sex” and promote the condom as “an intricate part of the pleasure of sex”.

Fine. But hold on to that bit about pleasure. Remember that condoms are male contraceptive devices.

What about the pill? Well, after Mala D, I remember seeing ads for several other brands of pills, mostly in women’s magazines such as Femina. And they emphasized the ‘hassle-free’ life pills promised. That is, their focus was on unwanted pregnancy: with control over pregnancy, women had greater freedom to do other things in life. I don’t recall any that spoke about the pill making sex a pleasurable act for the woman.

Today we have the emergency contraceptive pills—Unwanted 72 and the I-Pill. Ads for both these pills clearly target the modern, urban woman. One depicts a distraught young woman rushing, furtively, to an abortion clinic, and the other shows young women crying their hearts out because “they didn’t take precautions”. In both cases, the message is clear: use the pill if you want to avoid messy abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

There’s no denying the fact that the fear of pregnancy weighs heavier on a woman’s mind than on a man’s, since it’s an unequally shared burden, but is this a stereotype being promoted here? (Apparently there is already opposition in India to the way in which emergency contraception is being advertised: that it will encourage promiscuity,  that its message of a “tension-free” life is misleading, that it sends out wrong signals about abortion.)

Advertisements for the pill seem to promote it as a lifestyle drug. As the GAB post puts it: “as whimsical and enticing as any for clothes, shoes, or makeup,  showing pictures of young, smiling, healthy women,  and how much easier their lives are with the pill.”  There are even ads in the US depicting the supposed benefits of pills, such as cures for acne, PMS, etc.

The trouble is, as GAB asserts, “the pill is not a shoe, or mascara, and it is never a choice made in a vacuum.”

Also, ads for both condoms and the pill deliberately do not show the other side of the coin. While promoting the pleasure of sex, condom ads are silent about the risks of sexual behaviour. Similarly, oral contraceptive ads that speak of an easier life for women say nothing about their side-effects which all women who use pills know exist. But that’s the way ads function I guess.

What really bothers me is that the underlying rhetoric of contraceptive advertising  is gendered: pleasure for the man and protection for the woman.

Why? Why is contraception portrayed as a means of ensuring pleasure for the man, and as protection from the havoc of pregnancy for women?

Because pregnancy is the woman’s headache?

Because women have to think about sex in terms of procreation, not pleasure?



  1. SS:

    Well written.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Pleasure is solely the prerogative of the male, and, as far as the woman is concerned, sex is simply to please the man, and as an added bonus, to conceive.

    However, without detracting from the point you’re making, from an advertising point of view, there is a specific reason why condom ads focus on pleasure: one, they seem to be targeted more at metro males, and two, they seek to address the common misconception that sheath-based contraception is “less pleasurable” than, well, “going commando”. And so you have allusions to steamy, breathless and infinitely pleasurable sex that apparently is a certainty with condoms. It is certainly strange that in this age of HIV and AIDS, condom ads do not highlight the safety aspect of the product.

    From what little I know, I would think that contraceptive pills have more of a market in the smaller towns, and that’s the audience the ads target. I do know that contrary to the fear of the moral brigade, the biggest users of these pills are married women. For those women, the practical benefit of the product is what matters, and that is that it gives them the choice of when to get pregnant. And, unfortunately for most of these women, sex is a necessary evil that must – like the husband’s parents – be endured with equanimity. And if you consider the fact that in most smaller towns, and in semi-rural and rural India, men can’t really be bothered with contraception (because, as you say, pregnancy is not a burden they bear, and ‘bringing up a child’, for them, is restricted to the financial obligation it entails), it falls upon the women to take control of their lives in whatever way they can. And the biggest disruptor of a woman’s life is an unwanted pregnancy. So the ads highlight this aspect.

    We have a couple of centuries to go before the majority of women in our country start associating sex with pleasure. Until that time, we will continue to see such ads.


    Quirky Indian

  2. QI:

    Well said. Makes me feel less guilty about bulldozing you into commenting! 🙂

    Hmmm, one can’t really quarrel with the economic rationale of advertising. Ads for condoms and for the pill basically address different audiences and, by implication, needs, as you very rightly point out. It did occur to me that to compare condoms and the pill is to compare, in a sense, apples and oranges. There can’t possibly be anything pleasurable about popping a pill (any pleasure would have to be psychological and how is that to be depicted?) whereas the condom is a part of the process and therefore of the pleasure as well.

    Yes, advertising reflects dominant stereotypes because it makes economic sense to do so, because most people subscribe to them.It would be simplistic not to acknowledge that.

    It’s probably true that the pill is used more by married women, maybe because they are more likely to be in long-term relationships. But when reading up for the post I came across statistics which suggest that while the pill is the most common contraceptive method world-wide, in India and China it is less popularly used than IUDs and sterilization. The pill in India is used primarily by urban, educated women because it is expensive and requires medical consultation and supervision. Which is quite evident really in the ads.

    I agree with the larger point you’re making about why these ads are different. It’s just that I feel the ads also bespeak an underlying attitude, one that has to be pitched differently for men and for women. Perhaps, as you say, that attitude is reflective of the mindsets of Indian men and women. (women are less likely to associate sex with pleasure). Perhaps it reflects current reality- women are forced to contend, to a greater extent, with pregnancy. What this gestures towards is a really fundamental inequality.

  3. JimmyBean said

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  4. Jim Bean:

    Thank you! And welcome.

  5. Hari Batti said

    I think you are absolutely correct: something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions re:the rhetoric of contraceptive advertising. I’m also not sure why we aren’t being clearer about the dangers of unprotected sex in all this: it’s not just pregnancy; it’s not even just AIDS–there are plenty of other things going around. If we tell men it’s just about “pleasure” without being absolutely clear about the consequences of not using a condom, then I think we are missing something crucial. Yes, contraception can enhance pleasure and reduce anxiety and “hassle”, for both genders, but it is also about protection from disease, no? And advertising should send a clear message that for women it’s ok to say: no condom–no sex. Obviously not every woman will feel empowered to enforce that idea, but it’s got to get out there.

  6. Hari:


    Yeah, that is a worrisome aspect all right. Given the abysmal levels of ignorance about sex, the focus on pleasure in condom ads can only be disastrous. Ads showing women insisting on condoms? Will that ever happen?
    If even a powerful medium like advertising doesn’t feel empowered enough to create such ads …what hope is there for the average Indian woman?

  7. Tsquare said

    Great Blog!……There’s always something here to make me laugh…Keep doing what ya do 🙂

  8. Daily File said

    Your submit could be very informative and bring a greater understanding of what you’ve gotten introduced up. Thanks

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