Jon O'Brien argues that men's roles
in family planning must change.
LIVING in the Republic of Ireland, I remember desperately splitting up packets of condoms that friends had brought home from their travels abroad. We lived in constant fear of the dangerous ignorance in which we were steeped; our ignorance about our own and women's sexuality, our fear of sex, of abnormality, of our bodies, of masturbation.
It was only natural for men to want to change that. Oh, don't get me wrong. It is not always because we choose to or feel some deep concern for women. Very often, it is because women will no longer tolerate being with a partner who has the brain capacity of a bean-bag.
Fatherhood: not a new man but
a new way of being is what men need.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
It is also because the traditional deal no longer satisfies our desires. Patriarchy imposes on men a whole set of unhappy behaviours. Under a new deal men can discover fatherhood in a new way and leave behind the heavy role of father as the removed object of fear and punishment in the family.
Men need to be creative in redefining their roles. Though how they have done this sometimes leaves much to be desired. I am suspicious of these so-called 'new men'. Media creation or not, I think the idea of a guy who will dedicate his life to being a super-feminist and knit you an orgasm in his spare time is a little far-fetched for me. No, the old man suits me fine; he just needs to transform himself.
But change is frightening. It is highly unlikely that men will ever reach the same understanding of contraception and sexuality that women have. Through sheer biological fact we are destined to remain different, separate and apart. Some of that difference is a cause for celebration. If we want men to take responsibility in reproductive health, we have to recognize that this does not mean that men can - or should - become the same as women.
Opinion surveys tell us that if a male contraceptive pill were to be developed, the majority of women would be unlikely to trust a man to take it. Men's involvement in reproductive health may be limited. However, this should not lead us to dismiss the contribution that men can and do make. An increasing number of older men in Northern Europe are choosing vasectomy, recognizing that their women partners have carried the burden of birth control in their relationships long enough.
Stereotypes of male behaviour cut off the dialogue necessary for change. And change is long overdue.
Jon O'Brien was a programme officer for the International Planned Parenthood Federation and now works for Catholics for a Free Choice. This is an edited excerpt from 'Men and family planning: so what did they talk about?' originally published in Reproductive Health Matters, No 3, May 1994.