Yesterday, Yahoo U.K. ran with what I believe may be my least favorite kind of faux trend story, the prediction of a baby boom based on some event that supposedly got people to screw, when presumably they would otherwise not be inclined. In this case, the claim is that the popularity of the book 50 Shades of Grey is causing couples to realize they might enjoy this sex thing they’ve been hearing so much about, resulting in babies. Because the notion that one could both have sex and not get pregnant doesn’t play into this narrative.
Legends about people suddenly rushing around having all this sex they weren’t having before and therefore making way more babies have been with us for ages, and very often you’ll find some “lifestyle” magazine or website willing to run with a story, even going as far as Yahoo to claim that “experts” predict a baby boom. What you’ll not find are actual articles proving that such a thing happened by examining the actual birth rate. I don’t mean to break any hearts, but the claims that blackouts, 9/11, or even early morning trains cause baby booms have always ended up being false. In order for a social phenomenon to create a statistically noticeable shift in baby-having, it would have to happen in a society where most people abstain from sex most of the time and contraception use is really rare.
50 Shades or “blackout babies” probably exist, but they’re going to get lost in the noise of people conceiving during all the sex they have just because they want to. Around the world, people have sex an average of 127 times a year. That’s over twice a week. Lest you want to protest and say that the Yahoo article is referring to married people—who are stereotyped as people who lie next to each other in bed reading all the time, rarely thinking about crossing over to the other side—well, they have sex an average of 98 times a year, a little shy of twice a week. Contraception usage rates also make it incredibly implausible that a small social phenomenon is going to make a whole lot of babies, unless there’s something about 50 Shades that causes people to toss their condoms and pills out, vowing never to use them again. The suggestion that a popular erotic novel is enough to get so many engines turning is also a tad hard to believe. The porn industry and romance novel industry have both been enormous for decades now. The idea that folks are only now considering the possibility of cranking their engines with erotic materials defies basic common sense.
I suspect people pass around legends of baby boomlets because it’s a fun way to be a little naughty without appearing too risque, but these legends actually do real damage. They paint a misleading picture of normal sexuality. In these legends, regular people have sex basically never, and need a real push—a wild party, a national tragedy, a blackout—to be bothered to actually do it. These legends also erase the existence of birth control, way overrating what a one-night or one-week bump in bumping would do to the rate of conception. This misleading image allows conservatives to paint actual normal and downright boring behavior, such as using contraception to have twice-a-week sex with a steady partner, as if it were group-sex-every-night levels of debauchery. Witness the amount of pearl-clutching and slut-shaming aimed at super-normal-seeming Sandra Fluke, for instance. While I wish “normal” wasn’t relevant in discussions of sexuality, it unfortunately is. If the social perception is that “normal” is near-abstinence, that in turn can have the effect of moderating the extremism of conservative demands for restrictions on contraception and mainstreaming the idea that we should all just use abstinence instead.