Sex & Superstition

Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility

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

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer; drawing by David Levine

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…

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