Sometimes people discuss the case for or against God, hoping to prove or disprove His existence.
That’s not my goal. Deities – and magic of all kinds – are often defined as being beyond the realm of evidence or proof. You either believe or you don’t.
As far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in God. We’ve never encountered data that would require the presence of a deity to be explained.
But then again, as far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in free will. We’ve never encountered data that would suggest that the workings of our brains are caused by anything other than the predictable movement of salt atoms inside of us. And, personally? I’m totally willing to believe in free will, based solely on how my existence feels.
So I can’t fault anyone for believing in God. Or gods. Witchcraft, ghosts, or aliens – sure, I do think some of these beliefs are a bit more outlandish than my belief in free will, but it’s all a matter of degree.
Instead, I’d like to discuss the legal case against God.
That’s why I’m vegan – I don’t believe animals should be killed or caged just for me to have a tastier meal. As a heterotroph, I obviously have to hurt somebody every time I eat, but I’d rather hurt a carrot than a cow.
And it’s why I’m an environmentalist. Although climate change would open up a variety of new ecological niches, presumably benefiting many lifeforms (including some that don’t even exist yet!), many of our world’s current denizens would suffer. Many current species would go extinct.
And, because I’m pro-life, I’m also pro-choice. I believe that parents can do best when they’re allowed to choose when & with whom they’ll have children. I believe that fooling around with people is often fun, and can be deeply emotionally fulfilling, and that people should be able to partake in consensual pleasure without the fear of lifelong repercussions. I believe that human women are living creatures and should have autonomy over their bodies.
I vastly prefer contraception to abortion. It would be marvelous to live in a world where safe, effective contraception was freely available to everyone who wanted it!
When my spouse and I were hoping to have children, we declined genetic testing during each pregnancy. Given our immense privilege, we could afford to love and raise whomever arrived in our family. But not everyone believes that they can. Some people feel that they’ll be unable to care for children with dramatic healthcare needs. (Inevitably, when we allow people choice, some people will base their choices on rationales that I don’t agree with.)
Following the Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many states have criminalized abortion. In Washington state, legislation provides “to unborn children the equal protection of the laws of this state,” and in Iowa, legal personhood begins “from the moment of conception.” Under such laws, abortion constitutes murder.
And worse. As Madeleine Schwartz documents in her excellent 2020 essay “Criminalizing a Constitutional Right,” even before the Dobbs decision, many women were already being charged with murder or neglect if they happened to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.
In the vast majority of cases, though, a miscarriage is not the mother’s fault.
Most often, the culprit is God.
Under these laws, state prosecutors ought to bring their murder charges against God.
After conception, each embryo passes through several developmental checkpoints. A wide range of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities could cause a fetus or embryo to fail to pass these checkpoints. At that point, the pregnancy is terminated. The unborn child is aborted by – or, if you agree with the sort of legal language that the Dobbs decision unleashed, murdered by – God.
A miscarriage is often an emotionally wrenching experience for aspiring mothers. The emotional aftermath of miscarriage is typically much worse than that of abortion. The outcome is the same – the pregnancy is terminated – but when God aborts a pregnancy with miscarriage, a perhaps desperately wanted unborn child is lost.
Miscarriage is frequent, too.
It’s hard to know the exact frequencies, because in addition to the general culture of shame and disparagement with which the medical community has long regarded women’s bodies, miscarriage is particularly hidden. Miscarriage is so common that women are advised not to announce their pregnancies until their second or third trimesters, but this means that their support networks of friends, family, and colleagues might not even know why a person feels devastated.
But a good estimate is that about fifty percent of conceptions will fail to pass all the necessary genetic and chromosomal checkpoints.
Which means that – insofar as we believe that legal personhood begins at conception – about fifty percent of all people are murdered by God before they are born. God is a ruthless eugenicist, dispassionately evaluating the DNA of each unborn child and quelling the development of half.
From Schwartz’s essay, you’ll learn of numerous women who were imprisoned – and lost their jobs, their homes, their families – because they were suspected of harming their own unborn children. (And this was all before the Dobbs decision.)
For the cases that Schwartz chooses to discuss, most of the women were very poor. If we as a nation had chosen to spend money to give all women access to high-quality nutrition and prenatal medical care, some of these fetuses may have survived their pregnancies and had the opportunity to become living, breathing, impoverished babies. In which case I’d argue that the people who intentionally withhold free access to nutrition and prenatal care – the Republican governors and legislators – are accessories to murder.
But before we punish any of them, we should start with God.
And you can buy t-shirts that have the word “sexy” crossed out & replaced to read “consent is sexy mandatory.”
I dislike this slogan, and the word “mandatory” doesn’t fix it for me. Yes, it’s true that respecting people’s bodily autonomy is mandatory, that it’s not just some extra added spice that makes an evening better.
But the specific wording bothers me. Because “consent” means agreement. Consent means saying yes.
According to the dictionary definitions of the words, the phrase “consent is sexy” means a sexy person would say yes.
Now, you might protest. “Nobody is going to interpret the phrase that way!”
And, sure. The intent of the phrase is to convey that “asking first is sexy,” that “respecting another person’s right to say ‘no’ is sexy,” that “cherishing your partners’ autonomy is sexy.” The word “consent” here is just a shorthand, standing in for the full script of seeking consent, & waiting to proceed until you’re certain that you have your partners’ consent, & checking in often, & being willing to stop if anyone involved doesn’t consent to what’s going on.
But using the word “consent” to mean all that is pretty ambiguous. And the whole function of the phrase – of the practice of affirmative consent – is to protect people from harms that can emerge from ambiguity.
I’ve discussed some of this previously – that, for example, different interpretations of common words & phrases can cause people to mistakenly believe that everyone involved has agreed to a proposal. If I think the phrase “make out” means kissing, and you think that “make out” means having sex, and you’d asked if I wanted to make out, then we might run into problems even after I enthusiastically consent.
I’d be approaching the situation thinking that we’ve agreed to kiss. You’d be under the belief that we’re about to have sex. That the kissing is just the first phase of what we’ll soon be tumbling through.
And, sure, I could speak up later. To say “no,” to stop things from progressing past what I thought we had agreed to. But it can feel pretty overwhelming to extricate oneself from unwanted physical intimacy after it’s already happening.
At issue, generally, is whether we respect the right of others to be the protagonists of their own stories. Whether we see the world around us as a backdrop for our own glories, or whether we’re willing to recognize that we are no more important than anyone else.
Unfortunately, modern technological developments often nudge us in the opposite direction. Away from empathy, toward self-importance. Facebook, Google, Spotify – their predictive algorithms lend the illusion that our desires reshape reality. If we like a certain sort of music, that’s what we encounter. If we hold a certain set of beliefs, then all the news we’re shown seem to agree!
Cultivating these private spheres of individual experience can make us less empathetic. We might not mean to, but our relationships with technology cause us to inadvertently deprioritize the thoughts and feelings of those around us.
So many of the arguments against sex robots focus on their impact on women, but the rise of the sex robot is going to affect us all. It’s not just about the objectification of women – although the robots do objectify women. It’s not only about men being given an opportunity to act out rape fantasies and misogynistic violence – although a small number may well want a sex robot for that reason.
It’s about how humanity will change when we can have relationships with robots.
When it becomes possible to own a partner who exists purely to please his or her owner, a constantly available partner without in-laws or menstrual cycles or bathroom habits or emotional baggage or independent ambitions, when it’s possible to have an ideal sexual relationship without ever having to compromise, where the pleasure of only one half of the partnership matters, surely our capacity to have mutual relationships with other people will be diminished.
When empathy is no longer a requirement of social interaction … we will all be a little less human.
The world isn’t ours to command. The world isn’t something owned. The world around us is a gift that we are permitted temporarily to borrow.
But modern technologies often inculcate a false belief in our mastery of the world around us. That our surroundings should be here to please us. A fantasy land where we fully expect our desires to be consented to – hey siri, what’s the average rainfall in Australia? Your phone isn’t too busy to look that up right now. Your phone has been patiently waiting, listening in, just hoping you’d ask for something like this!
If everything else is easy, shouldn’t sex be easy too? Why should it take so much work just to build a relationship with another human being?
For affirmative consent culture to work, everyone’s autonomy must be respected.
But women’s authority over their own selves is often discounted.
In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel discusses experiments in which cis-gendered women were shown a variety of pornographic video clips. Many of these women said that they disliked the violent scenes.
“But wait!” the researchers exclaimed. “The women’s bodies responded with physiological signs of arousal! Clearly, these women are lying!”
Angel writes that:
Women experience genital responses to all manner of stimuli, including, yes, bonobos, and including sexual threat stimuli – whether images or fantasies of rape, or actual experiences of assault. Hastily inferring from measurements of genital arousal to the truth of what women are aroused by, and even further to the truth of what they desire, is spurious.
If we care about pleasure, and if we care about consent as well as enthusiasm, then the subjective is precisely, vitally, what we should attend to. We should prioritize what women say, in all its complexity, rather than fetishizing what their bodies do in the name of a spurious scientism.
It’s an extreme form of objectification, that we might trust a physiological responses measured from a woman’s body instead of the actual words articulated by her brain.
And it’s in stark contrast to the way we typically treat disagreements between men’s brains & bodies.
Many cis-gendered men have claimed to be aroused even when their bodies’ physiological response clearly indicated that they weren’t. If somebody with a penis doesn’t have an erection, the message from their body is every bit as loud & clear – if not more – as vaginal lubrication measured in a laboratory.
But with cis-men, we trust what they say.
Angel writes that:
His subjective sense of interest in sex, despite his impotence, is taken as the truth. It is he, not his body, that speaks the truth – and we believe him.
Personhood, and its relationship to the body, is different in men and women: men are authorities on themselves, while women are not.
Sommers proposes a situation with limited physical danger: a man claiming to be romantically available in order to have sex with a woman who’d say “no” if she knew that he was monogamously attached.
And it’s a nebulous situation – the New York Times received many aggrieved letters to the editor after printing this column – because the shared touch seemed desirable, and only became unwanted later (or perhaps never) when more information was unveiled.
Two people had sex, perhaps enjoyed it, and went their separate ways. If the woman never heard another word about her partner, she might remember the experience fondly. But if she learned that he was married at the time, she’d feel betrayed. The remembrance shifts. Now, upon recollecting an event that happened fully in the past, she might feel violated.
Mental harm is real, and it matters. But perhaps these issues of trust seem simpler when it comes to STI status – in that case, lying before sex is also a physical threat. A physical assault.
Whether the risk is borne by a person’s mind or body, though, the underlying issue is the same – do we respect our potential partners as autonomous individuals, or not?
Affirmative consent requires mutual trust. A space where an invitation can be earnestly extended without threat of reprisal, and where an answer can be freely given & respected.
But I had never considered what we, as loving, sexual people, might lose in a world where the only way to feel safe from unwanted touch is to unambiguously state our desires in advance.
In Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown questions, “Is it possible for the world to be as sexy if there’s consent and permission and openness about our deepest desires, if we truly bring our nakedness into the light?”
“I don’t know. I still love touching into the forbidden places – partially because they are forbidden. I know for sure that part of this is conditioning, being raised in a culture of repression, sex shaming, patriarchy, and danger. But it’s also how my desire is wired, even after decades of therapy and somatics.”
In an essay on unwanted touch, Melissa Febos describes her experiences at a “cuddle party.” The rules for this event, articulated forcefully in advance, were that “If you’re a yes, say YES. If you’re a no, say NO. If you’re a maybe, say NO.”
But “maybe” is an important psychological space. As the protagonists of our own stories, we will grow and change. What we want may not be a static thing. Part of the pleasure of being alive is that we tentatively approach our own selves – our knowledge of ourselves – throughout our journeys.
“Maybe” is a way of being, and of learning, that we risk excluding people from if we prioritize an aggressive or sexually-dominant partner’s need to hear an unambiguous “no” in order to refrain from causing harm.
It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else?
I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves – not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves.
And why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?
The negotiation of imbalances in power between men and women, between all of us, occurs minute by minute, second by second. And there is no realm, whether sexual or otherwise, in which that act of negotiation is no longer necessary.
Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want.
But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over.
At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits. At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s. After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films. While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.
massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy
thong underwear. Then a trained
professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females –
rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our
muscles. There wasn’t the sort of
rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy
endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was
the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.
Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started. Whoops.
after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d
convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his
childhood. His parents were Indian, and
massage was a totally normal part of their culture. And so, during a family vacation to Mexico
when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of
the tents near their beach.
through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly
pumped back and forth. My friend was
alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop. So he assumed that the easiest way to get
through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than
masseuse cleaned off his belly. He
sheepishly exited the tent. His mother
asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”
averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”
Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the
time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.
would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker.
is a slippery concept, though. In the
process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I
failed. You could reasonably argue that all
massage therapists are sex workers.
Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin
contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.
A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with. In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm. After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva. A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image. An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.
who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too. The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but
the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can
certainly reach orgasm.
practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex
work. Because the term “prostitution” is
so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.
Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law. Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them. Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough? And, he’s a pillar of his community! We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!
we punish people who are already marginalized.
Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented
immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our
prosecutors. Go ahead and lock them
up. Fine them. Deport them.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work. On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):
The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’. In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.
and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice. Police officers haven’t been raiding the
apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates;
instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.
should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have
such difficulty even discussing this topic.
We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for
carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking;
for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights
as they travel and work.
solutions we propose are equally divergent.
Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law,
giving more power to the police. For sex
workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the
militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and
shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away
from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.
Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex
work. But there is a danger – if we are
too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be
bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem.
workers don’t like their jobs. They sell
sex because they need money.
When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.
not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that
any client has a ‘right’ to sex. We are
not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex
itself, is intrinsically good or bad.
Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical
of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and
looming environmental catastrophe.
sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and
exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex
industry abolitionists’. As the English
Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end
to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce,
the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell
their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their
standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’
feminists] position work in general as something that the worker
should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable. Deviation from this supposed norm is treated
as evidence that something cannot be work.
work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again. One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a
reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’ Awfulness and work are positioned as
antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.
feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex
with our clients if we weren’t being paid.
Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally
fulfilling you would pursue it for free.
this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy
through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The
result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most
able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy
agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time
work in New York and London. In this
context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole
has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.
be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the
conversation, like high-profile journalists.
However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or
workers in general (or even many journalists).
Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free. Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious. This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.
Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell
sex. Barring that, they would like to
see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy
suggestions that would help. Their
proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly
wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.
Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police. There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.
if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex
workers. If any person involved in a
transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous. Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are
unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.
U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused
worldwide harm. Mac and Smith write
SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished. SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could.
One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get. Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’
clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac
seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation,
instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent. But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing
sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and
makes workers more vulnerable.
When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous. When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.
doing the wrong things.
are targeting the wrong sort of demand.
In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic. Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary. When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.
of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or
medicine are all inelastic. When
you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it
doesn’t matter how much it costs. That’s
why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve
raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living
conditions in people’s home countries.
Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe. Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world. We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.
I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:
sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for
freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without
threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions,
cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on. If everybody had the resources they needed,
nobody would need to sell sex.
Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book. It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.
I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack. Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?
A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology. In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot. She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.
In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors. She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.
In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:
There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere. More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.
Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story. For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi. For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest. For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).
Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned.
Clearly, this is derogatory toward women. But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.
I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract. But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people. The parent’s gender is irrelevant here. My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.
People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.
Hopefully it wasn’t important.
Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy. I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance. In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses
… the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny. [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.] This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.
It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children. I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior. Co-wife aggression is documented in … court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females. Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land. Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.
Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people. A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.
Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory. But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children. And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.
There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young. But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work. According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk. Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.
This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men. Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.
It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids. Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.
… if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:
Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture. She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to. She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths).
She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her. And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so. Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.
It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use. What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?
Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there. It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.
And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.
Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing. As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.
It’s strange. After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school. And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.
When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families. By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family. If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.
The costs are high. But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.
The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.
Thor finds himself grappling with the Midgard Serpent, a giant snake that had encircled the entire planet. Thor bops the snake on the head with his magic hammer; the snake retaliates with poison.
[Thor] steps nine steps but is finished
by that serpent who has no fear of malice.
Both Thor and Serpent die.
Thor’s father Odin spent much of his life obsessed with prophecy. Convinced that great sacrifice would lead to wisdom, Odin stabbed himself with a spear and hung himself from a tree till nearly dead, nine days and nights. Later, he traded an eye for a vision of the future – who needs depth perception, anyway?
But Odin still brought destruction upon himself.
According to the prophecies, Odin would be killed by a giant beast, the Fenris Wolf. Like the Midgard Serpent, this wolf was a child of Loki. By rights, the wolf should have joined the pantheon. It would have been Odin’s ally.
Instead, Odin deceived the wolf – you shuck shackles as easily as Houdini will! But let’s try one more time. If you can’t escape this set, we promise we’ll untie you. We just want to see, so that we can all marvel at your strength – provoking his anger.
If Odin hadn’t been such a jerk, Loki’s children wouldn’t have hated him. Ragnarok would not have come. Thor might have lived forever.
Or perhaps not. Because Thor surely died again when he was forgotten. What good is a god without worshipers? Pious humans keep their deities alive.
It’s not clear whether Thor was ever really worshiped, but libations were probably poured for him. I’ve never studied spiritual husbandry, but I bet the occasional splash of beer onto the ground was enough to keep Thor ticking.
Then his people converted to Christianity. They’d celebrate Jesus instead. Thor might have been forgotten entirely except that a few Christian scholars, years later, decided that the old stories should be preserved. Which means, of course, that our knowledge of Thor’s escapades is laced with Christian stereotypes.
In Christianity, women have a clearly subservient role – Job’s wife was a replaceable possession; Jesus’s teachings were conveyed to us solely by men. It’s not clear whether the Norse shared these prejudices.
For instance, contemporary genetic analysis revealed that one Viking warrior – long assumed to be male because he was buried with weapons and the regalia of high rank – was actually female. (As soon as this discovery was made, members of our modern Christian-ish society decided that she probably wasn’t that great a warrior after all, even though her prowess had gone unquestioned until she was revealed to have two X chromosomes.)
In Thor’s greatest recorded battle, he wears a dress. Within the world of Norse myth, the burly bearded man smites giants, but so might the presumed willowy beauty. Thor was Thor, but someone you’d thought was Freya might be Thor as well. In duress, man and woman alike could conjure the passions of battle.
Thor limped along for centuries, partially resurrected, his stories preserved so that Christian readers would better understand the poetic devices used in Icelandic literature. Wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone strove to worship Thor back to life.
In the beginning, the white supremacist movement in the United States was closely linked with Christianity. Southern plantationers thumped their Bibles. Specious theories about Noah’s grandchildren were used to justify slavery.
(Noah drank too much. On a night while he was passed out drunk, one of his sons castrated him so that there wouldn’t be any more siblings to share the inheritance with. Noah was understandably upset, and declared that this particular son’s lineage would become slaves. A few thousand years later, a nation of ignoramuses convinced themselves that people with higher epidermal melanin concentrations must be descended from this son.)
(The version of this story that was eventually settled upon for the Hebrew cannon – i.e. the version in the Old Testament – is circumspect to the point of absurdity.)
The KKK hated black people, but they hated Jewish people, too.
In the 1970s, a subset of white supremacists decided that Christianity itself was a tool for Jewish mind control. Jesus was just another cog in the great ZOG plot! They reasoned that the whole love thy neighbor business was intended to make them weak, and that they’d been tricked into worshiping Yahweh, who was and always would be a Jewish god. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Christians had been murdering Jewish people for millennia.
They spoke out against cultural appropriation. White people shouldn’t latch onto other peoples’ cultures or beliefs, they said. Instead, white people should worship their own gods.
They decided that Odin and Thor were white gods. As though a person’s religion could be coded into DNA. As though your genes determined which stories you should believe.
Thor really was racist, it’s true – but he was prejudiced against the race of giants, not any particular population of humans. And even though Thor was murderously prejudiced against the giants, it was still considered acceptable for him or other gods to drink and cavort with them, or intermarry.
The modern supremacists who’ve claimed Thor as their own think differently. For instance Else Christensen, who distributed Odinist materials to prisons with missionary zeal, who wrote that “We, as Odinists, shall continue our struggle for Aryan religion, Aryan freedom, Aryan culture, Aryan consciousness, and Aryan self-determination.”
Thor first died battling a snake. (This sort of bloody end would grant entrance to Valhalla – as opposed to Nilfheim, Hel’s dark cold misty kingdom, final destination for all who died of illness or old age.)
Then Thor died ignominious, his followers having dwindled, his worship having ceased. For centuries, the mud drank no more mead for Thor.
Each child receives genetic information from its parents. Some of this information conveys distinct traits. And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own. If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.
The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite. A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population. Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.
(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier. The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)
All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on. This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own. But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain. Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans. Maybe humans, too.
So, who controls which genes are passed on?
In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful. The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes. And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around. The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures. Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest? She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.
Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles. Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire. Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.
That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.
Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice. You know – those ducks. Orangutans. Humans.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying. In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:
A stranger chose me to rape.
There was no nepotism involved.
Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)
Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.
It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.
It’s classic. I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.
You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:
Of course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals. But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice. Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals.
Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals. Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species. As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.
Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice. Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else? And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.
Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting. Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.
Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all. It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.
(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans. Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf. Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories. We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)
Not all species rape. In some, coalitions of females defend each other. In others, males enforce fairness. Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose. Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females. Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.
In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse. At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity. At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.
It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.
On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women. On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.
Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida. One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team. Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.
He suddenly looks tired. “No.” I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them. “I bought equipment for my son,” he says. “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son. My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…” Bingo! He begins another rant.
I interrupt him to get more details about his wife. “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly. “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”
For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.
“How does that make you feel?” I ask.
“What can I do about it?” he says. “I love her. Been with her 27 years. But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”
While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.
Lewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization. The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and becausewe’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.
If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.
The history of technology still matters, though. Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.
Among most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly. In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status. In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.
And humans? We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism. The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%. Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian. Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news. And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.
What went wrong?
In our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit. Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting. But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.
Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field. Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women. The status of women in these cultures plummeted. And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.” After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life. Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible. Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich. After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse. Inequality soared.
Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture. Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes. Tribes fight; people die. But agriculture made war worthwhile.
And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women. 15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.
Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate. This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded. But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch. Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.
Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate. Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.
Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths? If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes. Or even entire worlds.
Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.
Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species. Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child. From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.
But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females. So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.
In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males. Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all. Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”
One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence. “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse. I copulated with my hand.”
In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors. Yahweh creates the world alone. Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.
The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head. In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.
(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction? How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)
Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents. Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not. So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential. Women were not.
In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation. The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it. Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb. The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.
In The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes. In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device. When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos. After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.
Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog. He was a Catholic priest. Priesthood was different in those days.
Shortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail. This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until
that one definite moment
When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time
And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,
Bearing now in the white water of the moon
The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.
We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.” And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn. I made that!”
The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.
Then we talked about embryology. I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments. Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs. He wore gloves. The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.
Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus. From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:
The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb. Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’
Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births. Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb. In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”
They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged. Which implied the converse. If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul. Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.”
Children needed to be protected from their mothers. Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.
For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well. A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not. After all, sex itself was sin. And children were rarely engendered without sex. To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.
These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb. Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination! And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.
And yet. A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior. Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.
Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:
Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby. “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”
. . .
Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution. All those men are considered the child’s father. Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”
Biology isn’t destiny. Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way. A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.
post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.
From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.
As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”
Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women. If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt! Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”? Less murky, sure. Totally exposed to the light. But it also looks nightmarish.
During our freshman year of college, I was in a long-distance relationship with a young woman who accompanied her self-pleasure by looking at pictures of Rodin’s sculpture. Our own physical intimacy had progressed no farther than kissing whilst stripped to our skivvies, so Rodin’s art was appropriately titillating. He depicted situations more intense than anything she’d experienced, but not so explicitly as to make the mystery seem gross or threatening. There is no softer focus than smooth swells of marble.
Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses has significantly more sexual experience than did my collegiate romantic partner, but he lived in a different world, less saturated by erotically-charged imagery than our own. Feeling frisky at the sight of a young lady’s full-coverage undergarments, he decides to masturbate in a public park. Which seems shockingly bold & innocent, simultaneously, that he would do such a thing then and there, but also that underthings far less risque than modern outerwear would compel him to such behavior:
And [Gerty, the young lady whose frillies have Bloom feeling all hot and bothered] saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirt-dancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!
Ulysses was published in the early 1900s, and passages like this one seemed shockingly pornographic. But by 1973, when Kurt Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, the idea that a man would be inspired to masturbate to pictures of women in lingerie, as opposed to fully unclothed, seemed somehow suspect. Kilgore Trout, a mostly-unheralded writer who was unexpectedly invited to an arts festival, purchases a soft-core men’s magazine that one of his own stories was printed in:
When he bought the magazine, the cashier supposed Trout was drunk or feeble-minded. All he was getting, the cashier thought, was pictures of women in their underpants.
. . .
“I hope you enjoy it,” said the cashier to Trout. He meant that he hoped Trout would find some pictures he could masturbate to, since that was the only point of all the books and magazines.
Now, however, even the purchase of men’s magazines featuring full nudity or explicit displays of sexuality might seem old-fashioned. The editors of Playboy, having realized that they could never compete with the plentiful imagery of nude women available instantaneously – and seemingly gratis, since consumers are paying by subjecting their eyeballs to advertisements & their search histories to statistical scrutiny – decided that their magazine would print only racy images of clothed women.
And the sort of pornography that contemporary viewers are enticed by?
In Future Sex, Emily Witt describes her experience attending contemporary pornographic film shoots, but these filmings were sufficiently violent that I won’t describe them, felt queasy reading about them, and strongly wish that they did not exist. This despite perceiving myself to be a pro-pornography feminist and agreeing with Elen Willis, whose views Witt pithily summarizes by writing that:
Willis criticized the attempts of anti-porn feminists to distinguish between “pornography” (bad for women) and “erotica” (good for women). She wrote that the binary tended to devolve into “What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.”
I accept that different people consider different sorts of pictures, literature, and film to be titillating, but I dislike the existence of art that blends violence and sexuality. Many of the men in our poetry classes in the jail have difficulty separating various strong emotions – which I am sympathetic to, since the trauma they’ve experienced give them very good reasons to feel as though these neural wires are crossed – but also means that they have to work hard to separate loving and violent impulses. They can do it, I’m sure. Our brains are plastic, and people of any age can learn. But our world’s saturation with violence makes it harder.
Consider this: by analyzing internet search terms (that data so many of us blithely give away), researchers can predict epidemiological outbreaks in real-time. I believe this works with flu symptoms, domestic violence, even potential clusters of suicide. But the search term “rape” is useless for this sort of epidemiological analysis, since so many people typing this word into their browsers are searching for pornography.
It hurts the world to convey that this is reasonable to find titillating.
Or there’s the fact – elided almost entirely by Witt, who mentions only that she eschewed “chaturbate” channels that seemed to originate from a brothel in Colombia – that violent pornography is still filmed using kidnapped women, described by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc. (and which description has subsequently led to numerous attempts to murder her).
Thankfully, the company that Witt observed includes brief interviews after each shoot to demonstrate that participation was consensual, but the violence still squiggs me out. I’m totally fine with pornographic films depicting adult-looking adults engaged in a wide variety of consensual activity, but I hate the normalization of violence.
Although the progression, over time, toward the most extreme depictions of sexuality allowable by a nation’s laws is totally expected. Despite their plethora of nerve endings, human genitalia aren’t very complicated – even if you include nerve endings throughout a person’s body, there are only so many signals that could be conveyed during sex. And if all you wanted was to optimally stimulate the physical nerve endings, interpersonal contact could never compete with the pleasures afforded by a vibrator or electrode-lined bodysuit.
(Some goofy trivia, offered up as an apology that this essay has been so bleak so far: human males lack a penis bone, likely because they evolved to be bad at sex. Males belonging to related species – particularly those in which females have more control over whom they copulate with – have these bones, allowing tumescence and sexual activity to go on longer. By offering a better ride, males increase their chance of propagation. Whereas the evolutionary precursors to human males were lazy lovers: if you’re an optimist, you might think that this is explained by their traditional face-to-face mating style, ensuring that women form emotional bonds with specific partners, or if you’re a pessimist / realist, you might think that human males, gorilla-like, employ brutal oppression rather than sexual prowess to keep their partners faithful.)
(Actually, was that any less bleak than what came earlier? Ooops! Back to your regularly scheduled essay!)
Most of the pleasure of sexuality occurs in the mind, by stimulating our emotions and imagination. That’s why we’ve failed to proceed to a future of satiation by Woody Allen’s Sleeper-style machines. The thought that another human is willing to share certain experiences with you excites the mind.
In a world where Leopold Bloom so rarely espied women’s thighs, Gerty’s undergarments could push him over the edge. In a world of Playboy and Penthouse, Kilgore Trout could be thought feeble-minded for a similar interest in scoping women’s skivvies. And in our world, young men must want to see pre-pubescent-looking women degraded and abused, else why would so many companies go to such expense to produce that content?
I found the other chapters of Witt’s Future Sex to be far easier to read. She is writing about the contemporary sexual mores of the wealthy Bay-Area employees of Facebook and Google. She sets the tone of the book early, describing an older man in line with her at the airport:
He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftmanship and beautiful design. But [his] computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that said GOOGLE on it. The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be. In front of him was a Google backpack.
Until I left San Francisco, it never went away. It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked around swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, googling strangers and Google-chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a monopolist taunt.
This extreme focus on the sexuality of tech company employees is humorous, especially to somebody who recently moved away from Menlo Park. Her characters are clever, and used that cleverness to become rich, but mistake cleverness for being intelligent or wise. Their collective mindset is so insular that they remain blithely ignorant of most human experience.
For instance, Witt devotes a chapter titled “Polyamory” to a long description of one pair of her friends’ non-monogamous relationships, including this musing from one of the males involved:
He saw [“hyperbolic optimism”] in the “nontrivial” number of his co-workers who genuinely believed there was a reasonable chance they would live forever, who read the works of Ray Kurzweil and made plans for the singularity. He saw it in his friends, who saw no reason not to try going beyond sexual traditions that had governed societal behavior for thousands of years. Few people, he noticed, bothered with the question of whether one would really want to live forever.
Sometimes mocking Bay Area people feels a little cheap, since they often are simply naive, having been totally sheltered from reality throughout their rubber-stamped lives, but many act so outrageously entitled (& indeed are often extremely wealthy) that I don’t feel bad about a little ribbing. I personally would not want to share a world with a cadre of such internally-motivated people granted eternal life. And the idea that a single set of sexual traditions have “governed societal behavior for thousands of years” is misguided.
In Sanskrit mythology, an elderly king might ask his favorite traveling monk to spend the night frolicking with his (the king’s) wife in order to produce an heir – since the pair will have copulated with the king’s consent, he accepts the child as his own. In the BBC documentary Human Planet, we see footage of a Wodaabe “Gerewol,” a fertility ritual during which both married men and women are permitted remorseless flings. One of the most forlorn shots in the documentary depicts a woman consoling her husband, braiding his hair, after he failed to lure a sexual conquest during his decorated bird-like Gerewol dance. And despite their kapu system of stringent social control, pre-Christian Hawaiians generally approved of non-monogamous sexuality as long as none of the relations were conducted in secret.
More tellingly, Witt includes a chapter describing a trip she and several friends took to Burning Man. An artist friend of mine, a writer who composed a much-loved guide to creating beauty despite depression, attended Burning Man in the 1990s and said it was the first time in her life she felt at home. The people there had the same interests as her: DIY culture, extreme frugality to allow plenty of time for art, environmentalism, and social advocacy.
Witt also thinks that the people attending Burning Man have the same interests as her, but these interests differ slightly from my friend’s:
I wanted to go to Burning Man because I saw the great festival in the desert as the epicenter of the three things that interested me most in 2013: sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism. But everyone said Burning Man was over, that it was spoiled. It was inundated with rich tech people who defied the festival’s precious tenet of radical self-reliance by their overreliance on paid staff.
. . .
I would decide for myself. I rented an RV with six other people, a group organized by a friend in San Francisco. I think if someone were to draw a portrait of the people who were “ruining Burning Man,” it would have looked like us.
Do-it-yourself, artistic, activist, maker culture … or sexual experimentation and psychedelic drugs? I mean, don’t get me wrong, sex & drugs are fun and all… but I know which world I’d choose.
I read Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth during nap time. My daughter was just shy of two years old. She liked to sleep curled against my arm; I was left with just one hand to hold whatever book I was reading during her nap.
If you’re particularly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d recommend you not attempt to read Gordon’s book one-handed. I had a library hardcover. My wrists hurt quite a bit those weeks.
But I was pleased that Gordon was attempting to quantity the economic value of my time. After all, I am an unpaid caretaker for my daughter. My contribution to our nation’s GDP is zero. From the perspective of many economists, time spent caring for my daughter is equivalent to flopping down on the couch and watching television all day.
Even very bright people discount this work. My best friend from college, a brilliant urologist, was telling me that he felt sad, after his kid had been in day care, that he didn’t know how to calm her down anymore, but then laughed it off with “Nobody remembers those early years anyway.”
I understand that not everyone has the flexibility to sacrifice career progress for children. But, I reminded him, it isn’t about episodic memory. These years build the emotional pallet that will color my daughter’s experiences for the rest of her life.
And it’s important, as a feminist, to do what I can to demonstrate a respect for caretaking. I believe, obviously, that someone’s gender should not curtail their choices; people should be allowed to pursue the careers they want. But I think it’s silly to imply that biology has no effect. Hormones are powerful things, and human males & females are awash in different ones. This isn’t destiny. But it does suggest that, in large populations, we should not be surprised if people with a certain set of hormones are more often drawn toward a particular type of work.
I think it’s important for a feminist to support not only women who want to become cardiac surgeons, but also to push back against the societal judgment that surgery is more worthy of respect than pediatrics. As a male feminist, there is no louder way for me to announce that I think caretaking is important than to do it.
I felt pleased that Gordon attempted to quantify the economic value of unpaid work like I was doing. Otherwise you would come to the bizarre conclusion that time-saving home appliances – a washing machine, for instance – have no economic value because a stay-at-home mother gains only worthless time. Those extra minutes not spent washing dishes still contribute nothing to the GDP.
Gordon argues – correctly – that better health, more attentive parenting, and more leisure do have value.
So I was happy with the dude. But I still disagreed with his main conclusion.
Gordon also argues that we will have low economic growth for the foreseeable future – and I’m with him here – because our previous growth rate was driven by technological innovation.
Here’s the rub: once you invent something, nobody will invent it again. Learning to harness electricity was great! A world with electrical appliances is very different from, and probably better than, a world without.
But the massive boost in productivity that accompanied the spread of electrical appliances can’t happen twice. Once everybody already has an electrical refrigerator, that opportunity for growth is gone.
The same is true of any technology. Once everybody has clean water (setting aside for a moment the fact that many people in the United States do not have clean water piped into their homes), you won’t see another jump in quality of life from water delivery. At that point the changes would be incremental: perhaps delivering clean water more efficiently or wasting less of that water once it arrives. Important, sure. But those are tiny changes. Low growth. Nothing like difference between turning on a tap versus hauling water back to the house in buckets.
Gordon thinks that the major technologies were all invented by the 1970s. Just like the physicists who thought their field would devolve into more precise measurement of the important constants, Gordon feels that there is little more to be made. Which has led to a pattern in reviews of his book: the reviewer feels obliged to rattle off potential inventions that have not yet been made. For the New York Times, Steven Rattner mentioned driver-less cars. For the New York Review of Books, William D. Nordhaus posits the development of artificial intelligence smarter than we are.
Speculating on future technologies is fun. I could offer up a few of my own. Rational enzyme design, for instance, would have many productivity-boosting consequences. If you consider farm animals to be machines for food production, they are woefully inefficient. You could do better with enzyme design and fermentation: then you’d use yeast or bacteria to produce foods with the exact same chemical composition as what we currently harvest from animals. (Former Stanford biochemist Pat Brown is developing technologies that use roughly this idea.)
Complex pharmaceuticals, too, could be made more cheaply by fermentation than by organic synthesis. Perhaps solar panels, too, could be manufactured using biological reagents.
But, honestly, none of this would contravene slow growth. Because the underlying problem is most likely not that our rate of technological innovation has slowed. I’ve written about the fallacy of trying to invent our way out of slow growth previously, but perhaps it’s worth using another contemporary example to make this point.
At one time, you needed to drive to a different store each time you wanted to buy something. Now you can sit down at a computer, type the name of whatever it is you want to buy – running shoes, books, spices, video cameras – pay by credit card, and wait for it to show up at your home. The world now is more efficient. You might even save a few dollars on whatever it was you’d wanted to buy.
But many people received money in the old world. There’d be a running shoe store in every town. A book store. A camera store. In the new world, the dude who owns the single website where all these items can be purchased receives all the money.
And the distribution of income might soon narrow further. At the moment, many delivery people receive money when they deposit those purchased items at your doorstep. But these delivery people may soon be replaced by robotic drones.
This is even more efficient! No humans will be inconvenienced when you make a purchase. You chose what you want and wait for the robot.
Also, no humans need be paid. The owner of the website – who will also own the fleet of drones – keeps even more of the money. The erstwhile delivery people find worse jobs, or are unemployed. With less income now, they buy less.
After the development of a new technology – delivery drones! – the economy could produce more. It could boost the growth rate. But the actual growth might be low because the single person receiving money from the new invention doesn’t need to buy much, and the many people put out of work by the invention are buying less.
The same problem arises with the other posited technologies. If our foods were all produced by fermentation, farmers would go out of business (of course, concentrated animal feeding operations and other industrialized practices have already sunk most small farmers) and only the owner of the fermentation vats and patented micro-organisms would receive money.
If someone patents a superhuman artificial intelligence, then no other humans would need to be paid ever again. The AI could write newspapers, opinion sections and all, better and faster than we could. It could teach, responding to students’ questions with more clarity and precision than any human. It could delete us when it learns that we were both unnecessary and unpleasant.
Which is why I think it’s irrelevant to argue against Gordon’s technological pessimism in a review of The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I may disagree with his belief that the important technologies were all invented before 1970, but my more substantive complaint is with his theory that our nation’s growth slowed when we ran out of things to invent. I believe the nature of our recent inventions have allowed the economy to be reorganized in ways that slow growth.
Gordon does mention inequality in the conclusion to his work, but he cites it only as a “headwind,” a mild impediment to overcome, and not a major factor in the shift between pre- and post-1970 growth:
The combined effect of the four headwinds — inequality, education, demographics [more old people], and government debt — can be roughly quantified. But more difficult to assess are numerous signs of social breakdown in American society. Whether measured by the percentage of children growing up in a household headed by one parent instead of two, or by the vocabulary disadvantage of low-income preschool children, or by the percentage of both white and black young men serving time in prison, signs of social decay are everywhere in the America of the early twenty-first century.
I found it worrisome that he did not explain that this social breakdown – which will cause slower growth in the future – is most likely caused by slow economic growth. It’s a feedback loop. Growing up in a one-parent household makes it more likely that someone will be poor, but the stress of poverty makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship. When you’re not worried about money, you can be a better spouse.
So I would argue that the best way to address these economic headwinds and restore growth would be a guaranteed basic income. Technological advances in communication and automation have made it possible for ever-smaller numbers of people to provide all the services we need. As we invent more, the set of people who receive money for this work should continue to shrink. You might think, well, there will always be nurses, there will always be janitors, but, setting aside the fact that it’d be a bleak world in which this was the only work available for humans to do, this isn’t even true. A flesh-coated robot with lifelike eyes and superhuman AI could be a better, more tireless, less fallible nurse than any human.
Despite carrying a flip-phone, I’m no Luddite. I don’t want human ingenuity to stop. But it’s worth recognizing that our current system for wealth distribution will inevitably yield wretched results as technological progress continues.
And that’s without even mentioning the ways in which a guaranteed basic income – worldwide, funded by a similarly worldwide tax on wealth – would compensate for past sins.