1Flesh: Putting the “Sexy” Back in Abstinence

High divorce rates. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Abortion. The world is in bad shape, and the sorry state of affairs can be traced to one invention: birth control. If we didn’t have to fuss with condoms, rings, patches, and pills, our marriages would be healthy and happy. We’d love each other in a way we never have before. And our sex lives would be, in a word, awesome.

That’s what one group suggests, anyway. In March, blogger Marc Barnes corralled a fed-up bunch of college students to lead the revolution against artificial contraception, an ill they insist has taken the “sexy” out of married life. Dubbing their mission “1Flesh,” they enlisted a designer to give their website hip social media appeal, complete with meme-style graphics similar to the kinds younger folks like to share on Facebook. But while those images look cool, they make some serious claims: Condoms haven’t decreased the spread of HIV; oral contraceptives kill sex drive; the pill increases breast cancer risk and hasn’t reduced the unplanned pregnancy rate. These are pretty scary “facts” proffered by 1Flesh. Their goal? To promote abstinence till marriage—which presumably eliminates the risk of STDs—and to endorse a “natural” method of family planning called the rhythm method, or, as they prefer to label it, the Creighton Model FertilityCare System.

As radical as they sound, 1Flesh’s arguments against birth control aren’t entirely without merit. A 2010 German study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine linked hormonal contraception to decreased interest in sex, and that same year researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine found that a decrease in libido could be a result of long-term oral contraceptive use. But of course, correlation does not equal causation. And while the National Cancer Institute does indicate that oral contraceptives can increase the risk of breast cancer in younger women, that risk level shrinks after ten years or discontinued use of the pill. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make it entirely clear that latex condoms, when used correctly and consistently, are highly efficient in inhibiting the spread of HIV. So while 1Flesh is right about some things, they’re also spreading dangerous misinformation, the kind many young people aren’t equipped to dispute.

What 1Flesh doesn’t openly express, at least for those who haven’t already caught on, is that it’s a religiously based movement, even if there are no scriptural quotes on the glossy site. Barnes is Catholic, and Catholics have a longstanding enmity with contraceptives. Is it a coincidence that a month after the Catholic Medical Association published an article in its journal Linacre Quarterly, titled, “Significant Risks of Oral Contraceptives: Why This Drug Class Should NOT Be Included in the Preventive Care Mandate” (February 2012), Barnes waged war on birth control? I doubt it. And despite the sometimes crass swagger 1Flesh employs—on its Tumblr account, the group takes issue with “doping pretty ladies with hormones and wrapping man parts in rubber”—the saving-sex-for-marriage spiel reeks of religious proselytizing.

1Flesh isn’t the only movement of its kind. While it doesn’t explicitly promote the bearing of double-digit broods, its philosophy seems to pair nicely with that of the religious movement Quiverfull. These folks claim their “first priority is to serve God through proclaiming that every child is a gift and blessing from our gracious heavenly Father.” In other words, refusing the meeting of sperm with an egg is a sin. The Duggar family, the stars of 19 Kids and Counting on TLC, are a shining example of this anti-contraception movement. The Quiverfull site also links to One More Soul, a directory of physicians who won’t prescribe, perform, or refer patients for contraception, sterilization, abortion, or in vitro fertilization. (At least they’re consistent.)

Anti-contraception movements such as 1Flesh and Quiverfull don’t acknowledge that somebody’s paying a price for all of this unprotected sex and biblical obedience, and it’s not the men. Women are the ones who carry the burden of maintaining a godly, contraceptive-free marriage. Because their bodies are strained with perpetual pregnancy, childbirth, and domestic duties, they can’t pursue work outside the home. Religious teachings keep them bound under their husband’s authority, so women who agree to marriage without contraception become completely dependent on men for their livelihoods. Many of these women smile through it all, stripped of their moral and physical authority but confident they’re doing God’s work. Something isn’t right about that.

Are condoms, oral contraceptives, shots, and diaphragms foolproof? No. Unplanned pregnancies still happen and diseases still spread, even in marriage. And there’s nothing inherently wrong in saving sex until then. But 1Flesh and similar groups are hurting young people and women when they distort facts, promote fear, and suggest we fill condoms with water and “throw them off buildings at unsuspecting people.” 1Flesh should instead toss its foolish ideas off the ledge.