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Sex & Superstition

Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility

by Germaine Greer
Harper and Row, 541 pp., $19.95

Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was perhaps the most brilliant, and certainly one of the most influential, of the wave of feminist books that appeared in the early 1970s. As the title suggested, Greer pictured women as pressured into a stereotypical female role which effectively castrated them, forcing them to deny their sexuality and to see themselves as wives and mothers, ministering to the needs of others instead of being true to their own natures. It was a polemical work, but a persuasive one. It caught the mood of the times and led many women to assert their own sexuality, shattering the bonds of convention that had repressed their mothers and grandmothers.

Greer’s new book deals with our attitudes to reproduction, with particular attention to attempts by Western scientists and population agencies to persuade other nations to use the new fertility control methods recently developed in the West. As an offshoot of this theme, Greer argues that Western society places too much importance on “recreational sex” and has become positively hostile to children. It is because of these attitudes that we are so committed to devices like oral contraceptives and IUDs. If we were less concerned about recreational sex and more concerned about children, we might regulate our having children by the rhythm method, by coitus interruptus, or even, like the Dani people of Irian Jaya, by sexual abstinence for a period of four to six years after the birth of a child.

Like The Female Eunuch, Sex and Destiny is a polemical work, and much of it is concerned with sex, but there the resemblance ends. It is far longer than The Female Eunuch, but not nearly so persuasive. The wit and brilliance displayed in the earlier book now struggle vainly to surface amid a seemingly endless series of scholarly quotations, mixed with anecdotes drawn from Greer’s travels in India and Italy. More striking still, however, is the contrast between the conclusions of the two books. On the basis of The Female Eunuch, Greer was acclaimed as one of the leaders of feminist thought. But if feminism stands for the belief that women should not be inferior to men in the power they exercise over their own lives and over the community in which they live, Sex and Destiny makes it hard to see Greer as a feminist at all. She has become, instead, an apologist for social institutions that keep women in their place: at home with the children.

Here is one revealing and characteristic passage, taken from the first chapter of the book. Having described the isolation from the family in which Western children are allegedly born and reared, Greer cites a description of child rearing in Bangladesh:

In Bangladesh children under the age of five or six are looked after by the whole family. All the children of the joint family are looked after together. They are taken to the pond for a bath perhaps by one daughter-in-law…. Perhaps the youngest daughter-in-law has cooked the meal. Another woman feeds them…. Maybe there is a favourite aunt, she tells them [fairy] stories. But at night when they get sleepy they always go to their mother and sleep in her embrace. [p. 25]

Greer refers to this as a “rosy picture” and while acknowledging that “the system does not always work as well,” she seems in no doubt of its superiority to modern Western methods of child rearing. She appears not to notice that this description of children being looked after “by the whole family” is in fact an account of children being looked after entirely by women. This is all the more extraordinary because only a few pages earlier Greer had criticized northwestern European civilization for its tendency to separate children from parents: “The most privileged people in protestant Europe have traditionally seen least of their children” (p. 4). Clearly the most privileged people in Bangladesh are men, and from the account cited, they see even less of their children than the most privileged people of Protestant Europe.

It is entirely consistent with the themes of her book that Greer should take no notice of the blatantly sexist assumptions about child rearing made by her informant on family life in Bangladesh. For Greer now rejects the common feminist assumption that women are conditioned into seeing motherhood as their prime function in life. To the contrary, she regards modern Western society as fundamentally opposed to childbearing:

It used to be a truism of feminist theory that women were railroaded into motherhood by the expectations of their parents and their in-laws. In the view of this writer, such forms of persuasion and pressure as the kin group can bring to bear pale into utter insignificance next to the powerful disincentives which are offered by the actual social context in which the would-be childbearer lives. [p. 7]

Nor does Greer agree with feminists who see the role of motherhood as a restrictive one:

We have at least to consider the possibility that a successful matriarch might well pity Western feminists for having been duped into futile competition with men in exchange for the companionship and love of children and other women. [p. 29]

The reader is left wondering whether Greer believes that having given up the “futile” competition, women will be able to rely on the compassion and nobility of males as a bulwark against repression. But then, perhaps even repression does not matter too much, because Greer later suggests that “the fact that women are not free to follow their own inclinations and preferences in sexual matters may not be experienced by the woman as a restriction, for she is not encouraged to internalize the repressive mechanism or to cultivate an image of herself as powerless or passive” (p. 114). In support of this claim, Greer tells us of Hindu and Tamil beliefs about the dangerous powers women possess, and the need for them to be kept under control by puberty rites, menstrual taboos, and widow restrictions.

There is something slightly absurd about the solemn respect with which Greer treats these exotic superstitions. If they were Western doctrines, every feminist—even the author of Sex and Destiny—would denounce them as transparent devices for maintaining male dominance. (Have feminists ever regarded the myths surrounding the importance of motherhood in Western society as any compensation for the fact that it is so much harder for women than for men to achieve leadership in Western society?) When these beliefs are the beliefs of a mysterious non-Western culture, however, Greer accepts them as ingenious ways of overcoming problems inherent in the human condition.

This humility before the wisdom of the East, or the South, or the Tuscan peasant, stands in sharp contrast to the views expressed in The Female Eunuch. There, in her section “The Wicked Womb,” Greer asserted that we still are ignorant and wary of the female reproductive organs, and described our attitude to menstruation as part of the “atavistic fear” surrounding the womb. Hindu, Moslem, and Jewish beliefs that a menstruating woman is unclean were cited as evidence of this pervasive fear, although Greer found some evidence that “enlightenment is creeping into this field at its usual pace” (p. 41).

The Greer of Sex and Destiny must have changed her mind about menstruation, for in addition to her newfound respect for Hindu menstruation rituals, she is quite prepared to sneer at the very Western attitudes that she previously characterized as enlightened: in a section attacking the “tremendous sexual orthodoxy” of modern Western society, she scoffs that “refraining from sexual intercourse during menstruation is deemed fainthearted” (p. 241).

In this obeisance before the folk wisdom and the religious superstitions of every culture but her own, we can find the clue to Greer’s break with feminism. She has embraced some muddled form of cultural relativism, according to which we in the West have no right to criticize any other culture. “What is our civilization,” she asks, “that we should so blithely propagate its discontents?”—and she continues with other, presumably equally rhetorical, questions, such as “Why should we erect the model of recreational sex in the public places of all the world?” and more pointedly still, “Who are we to invade the marriage bed of veiled women?”

There is no denying that our civilization is far from ideal; but if we seriously believe that feminist principles have no application to the women of non-Western societies, our feminism cannot run very deep. Since most cultures are sexist, to refuse to criticize the beliefs and practices of other cultures is equivalent to acceptance of sexist beliefs and practices.

This is exactly what we find in Sex and Destiny. For instance, Greer finds that the Islamic religion treats “the lowest and least prestigious groups as deserving of the same respect as the highest” and that, accordingly, in veiling its women, Moslems are “conferring upon them a new kind of value and, hence, self-respect” (p. 123). She appears to admire the “heroic determination” of Yanomamö Indian women, who submit themselves to a method of abortion that consists of the pregnant woman lying on her back while a friend jumps on her belly (p. 222). And perhaps most oddly of all, whereas the author of The Female Eunuch poured her fiercest vitriol on the Western tendency to deny female sexuality and misrepresent it as “passivity” (p. 5), the new Greer has nothing to say against the “value systems” of Mediterranean societies like the Greek Sarakatsani shepherds, who believe that “intercourse must occur in darkness, without speech, and the woman must remain motionless and passive.” This value system, Greer tells us, is a way of “promoting the importance of sexuality.” She doesn’t tell us if it is specifically female sexuality that it is so effective in promoting.

Greer’s form of cultural relativism is misconceived. It may arise out of a well-meaning and sensible desire to avoid ignorant Western tampering with social practices that have important beneficial consequences. For instance, as Greer points out in her discussion of infanticide, many societies have used infanticide as a means of spacing dependent children, who would become an impossible burden if there were too many at any one time. Westerners encountering this practice for the first time may find it shocking, and try to stamp it out, without realizing that in the absence of any alternative method of spacing dependent offspring, the results will be disastrous both for the children and for their mothers. A better understanding of the practices of any society may lead us to see virtue in what at first seemed horrific.

From this simple truth, however, it certainly does not follow that all cultures are equally good, or that we are never justified in criticizing the social practices of a different culture. Sometimes social practices will not benefit the society as a whole, but only one section of it, and at great cost to another section of the society. Slave societies are obvious examples, but a feminist would not need to be reminded of the fact that some social practices exist for the exclusive benefit of the dominant group. We must sometimes choose between, on the one hand, the principles of sexual equality that are expressed in feminism, and, on the other, our desires to avoid the cultural imperialism that seems to be implicit in suggesting that the traditional ways of doing things are not always the best. On the evidence of this book, Greer has not chosen feminism.

Greer’s unthinking acceptance of an untenable form of cultural relativism is one major reason for rejecting many of her conclusions. But even without this, her book is so riddled with inconsistencies, errors, and downright absurdities that it cannot stand as a serious work.

First, some examples of the inconsistencies. The theme of the first chapter of Sex and Destiny is that we in the West do not like children: “modern society,” Greer tells us, “is unique in that it is profoundly hostile to children” (p. 2). Greer suggests, as we have already seen, that Western society offers powerful disincentives to childbearing, and that it is “anti-child” (p. 4). As evidence she offers an English restaurant which advises patrons to “leave under-fourteens and dogs at home.”

If these claims do not strike a responsive chord, and the evidence cited seems insufficient, there is no need to take the trouble of finding counterinstances. Greer does it for you. In the second chapter she writes of our extreme reluctance to tolerate involuntary sterility (p. 53), and in the third chapter she tells us that “Western women may spend a fortune and masochistically undergo repeated surgical procedures in an attempt to bear a child” (pp. 65–66). If this does not create confusion enough, she also throws in the suggestion that our attempts to regulate the fertility of others derive from our fear that the exploding populations of the world will challenge our own subgroup and “compromise our survival as the biggest, richest, greediest and most numerous group on earth” (p. 50). Greer apparently sees no need to reconcile this suggestion with the fact that she has just been belaboring Western society for its hostility to children and the difficulties it puts in the way of childbearing.

For a second example of Greer’s confusion about what she really wants, consider her attitude to eugenics. She devotes a forty-six-page chapter to retelling the story of the eugenics movement, from the Social Darwinists through Francis Galton and Hermann Muller to William Shockley. The tone, as might be expected, is one of contempt and horror:

Practical eugenics denies all the values which justify our civilization. When we have a clearer idea of our own ignorance, we shall see that eugenics is more barbarous than cannibalism and far more destructive. [p. 347]

In preferring cannibalism to eugenics, Greer was no doubt influenced by the assumption that eugenics is a Western idea, while cannibalism belongs to those other cultures that are so much wiser than our own. Unfortunately she has forgotten that in an earlier chapter, discussing infanticide, she came to precisely the opposite conclusion; there she praised infanticide as practiced by non-Western societies, describing it as a method of “culling the newborn.” In unfavorable contrast to such practices, she describes modern man (yes, “man”) as having a greater chance of “bearing genetically in-competent children” and yet still being morally bound to keep children alive as long as is humanly possible. [pp. 224–225]

These unreconciled contradictions suggest that the book was written with insufficient care. It appears to have been researched in the same style. There is, for instance, a brief account of the development of in vitro fertilization—“test-tube babies” as the press likes to describe it. The discussion appears to be based on a two-page article that appeared in Science in 1978, and even this article has not been properly taken into account. Greer describes Patrick Steptoe as working at Cambridge on the fertilization of animal ova in a petri dish, and then “sneaking” off to “Royston” to try out the technique on human patients. She also asserts that “his experiments were the outcome of millions spent on luxury research” (p. 87).

This account is garbled from beginning to end. Patrick Steptoe never worked at Cambridge and never did experiments on animal ova in petri dishes. Steptoe is a gynecologist whose major contribution to in vitro fertilization was his skill at laparoscopy, a then-novel technique for seeing inside a patient’s abdomen. This technique made it possible to recover ripe eggs from the ovary, for fertilization in the laboratory. The work on animal ova was carried out by Robert Edwards, a Cambridge scientist. It was modestly funded and did not receive “millions” (though in any case it is not easy to see why Greer, who considers fertility to be of such paramount importance, should consider this “luxury” research). Edwards did not “sneak” away to conduct experiments on human patients. He contacted Steptoe after reading a paper Steptoe had written on laparoscopy, and suggested that they team up in an attempt to help some of Steptoe’s infertile patients. The work was done at Royton (not “Royston”) near Oldham, because that is where Steptoe had his practice and his research facilities, and there were no funds available to set up similar facilities in Cambridge.

This instance is enough to suggest that the reader should not take Greer as a reliable authority when she discusses recent developments in fertility research—and large sections of the book discuss just that. It also seems that Greer is unreliable on other subjects. She criticizes Ferdinand Mount, “that champion of the nuclear family,” for failing to notice that Jesus Christ had no brothers or sisters (p. 272). Had Greer read the Gospel according to Matthew, she would have known that Jesus had at least four brothers, and sisters too. (Or were they only stepbrothers and stepsisters? But this fine point would scarcely help Greer. See Matthew 13:54–57; see also Matthew 12:46–47 and John 7:1–10.)

Even with respect to the subject of her doctorate—Shakespeare—Greer is disappointing. She commits the common but nonetheless deplorable error of using the quotation “a custom more honored in the breach than the observance” as if it meant simply that the custom was more often broken than observed (p. 54). Hamlet meant, rather, that the custom that had been mentioned was one that it would be more honorable to break than to observe.

Finally, Greer makes statements that are not so much errors as absurdities. What is the reader to think when confronted with a flat statement that in our society “the role of mother is socially marginal”? (p. 449). How about: “Common morality now treats childbearing as an aberration; there are practically no good reasons left for exercising one’s fertility” (p. 458). Perhaps the limits of silliness are reached with this comment on voluntary sterilization: “Sterilization is not a substitute for contraception because it is the destruction of fertility: it makes as much sense as blinding a man who needs glasses” (p. 89). Vivid prose is one thing, but this kind of nonsense can only irritate the reader and discredit the writer.

All of this is a pity, because struggling within the fat of Sex and Destiny is the skeleton of a good book waiting to be written. No doubt there is much wrong with the way in which Western population experts go about trying to persuade people in other countries to control their fertility. It would be valuable to have a careful study of the mistakes that such experts have made, and the ways in which we need to be more sensitive to the cultures of other people. Greer might have even been able to make plausible her startling contention that the best forms of birth control for most people are those that require no technology at all—the rhythm method, coitus interruptus, and sexual abstinence—backed by easy access to safe abortion. She might even have been able to say something challenging about the importance that Western society places on sex, as compared with the importance we place on enjoying our children. This would have been an interesting and provocative book.

Unfortunately Sex and Destiny is not that book. In her preface—which she dramatically entitles “Warning”—Greer says that the function of polemical writing is to stimulate creative thought and to break down “settled certainties.” To challenge orthodoxy successfully, however, it is necessary to argue carefully, accurately, and consistently. This Greer has not done. The only conventional opinions that Sex and Destiny is likely to change are those about Greer’s argumentative skills, and her commitment to feminism.

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