Saturday, July 23, 2011

Feminism and Infertility

Different cultures have different ways of talking about different things. Each culture has acceptable and unacceptable ways of talking about things like sex.

Thus does a culture define its values and show the right way to conduct your life. From values to behavior, it’s not a giant leap.

How do we talk about sex in today’s America? At times it seems that we talk about nothing else. Human community is universally based on the idea that sex is intimate and personal, that it does best when it is kept  private.

Yet, in today’s America sex has been strutting around on the public stage, as though it owns it.

I hope that I am within my rights to suggest that if people are so preoccupied with sex, that must mean that their sex lives are less satisfactory than they would wish.

Sex wants to keep to itself. If we, as a culture, drag it out into the light of day, we are probably going to have to pay a price.

People who have great sex do not have to advertise the fact.

How do we talk about sex? Freely, openly, and increasingly explicitly. We talk about sexting and hookups, about slutwalks and rape, about masturbation and anal sex,  about pleasure, orgasms, and enjoyment,  about fetishism, GGG, and sex toys, about condoms, STDs and abortion.

Now that we, as a culture, seem to have decided that there is no real difference between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage, we are no longer allowed to mention that marriages need to be consummated, and that there is only one way to do so.

The only reason to trot out this rogues gallery of overly explicit discussions about sex is to point out the one fact that is missing from all of these discussions: fertility.

Today’s discourse about sex is being conducted in order to dissociate, as much a possible, sex from reproduction.

Since women are far more conscious of the connection, and since women’s sexual response is intelligible only when you take reproduction into account, a discourse that drives a wedge between sex and reproduction is prejudicial against women.

If you have ever taken a college course that discusses human sexuality, in women’s studies or some other branch of the humanities, how much time was spent discussing fertility? Or better, how much time was spent discussing fertility as anything other than an unfortunate accident that mostly needed to be avoided.

The notion that sex exists for the purpose of reproduction has been eliminated from culturally acceptable discourse.

According to Holly Finn, in what is surely this weekend’s must-read article, this contributes to female infertility.

In her words: “Yes, some women are private and would rather not discuss intimate issues over tarte tatin. Others are competitive and corral information for themselves. But still others—and I think it's the majority—feel muzzled, unable to talk frankly about this essential thing. Whatever the cause, true communication about fertility has been squelched.”

She is saying that if a woman removes fertility from her life plan she risks learning that it is not a social construct.

If you have reached a certain age, you have undoubtedly known women who have, like Finn, gone through fertility treatments. It is very expensive, very unpleasant, and often unfortunate. Sometimes it succeeds, but more often it fails.

Finn presents us with a picture of her own experience with repeated IVF treatments, because she wants young women to understand that they are being induced to make a mistake. She is saying, though not in these words, that if young women follow the feminist playbook and postpone marriage and childbearing, medicine is not necessarily going to bail them out. In fact, medicine is probably not going to bail them out.

She writes: “When we were young, we were taught again and again that we shouldn't get pregnant. Now we can't.”

Since feminism does not want women to know the risk of becoming infertile, it wants the media to emphasize stories of fertility treatments that work.

To provide some balance, Finn exposes her own unsuccessful treatments. In her words: “Usually it's only the people who come out beaming on the other side, with a baby on one hip, who speak up about in vitro fertilization. We never hear from those whom IVF has failed—it's too crushing to talk about. We don't hear from men and women in the middle of treatment, either. Our culture doesn't seem to know how to deal with people before we've figured out if they're successful or not. People like me.”

When you read her article, however, you will nowhere find the word “feminism. It is conspicuous for its absence, just as fertility is conspicuous for its absence from the way our society talks about sex.  If you read the comments to her article, you will see that her readers were not taken in by her ruse. They have a lot to say about feminism.

For my part I believe that Finn did not mention feminism because she did not want to pick a fight with the matriarchy. She must have felt, perhaps correctly, that her message would be more persuasive to young women if their feminist masters were not screaming about how it was sexist.

I consider the decision a matter of rhetoric.

Still, Finn is wrong to place the blame for deferred reproduction on young women’s “bosses.”

In her words: “Many women are still listening to their bosses instead of their gynecologists and their guts. They still trust that their mid to late 30s is a fine time to start trying for children. True, they could get lucky. But the question should be asked: Would you prefer to have children earlier and naturally or later, by dosing yourself up with drugs, submitting to surgery and paying tens of thousands of dollars?

“In the first scenario, you'll probably have as many children as you'd like, and they'll be healthy. In the second, you may be able to have only one or two kids—maybe none—with a higher risk of defects and disorders.”

Of course, it matters whether the “bosses” are male or female. In my experience male bosses are the ones who worry more about their female employees missing out on childbearing.

Many of them feel unable to say so directly, lest they be sued for sexual discrimination.

Again, in my experience, female bosses, especially those who are childless themselves, will rarely express the same concern.

Finn seems to want to take full responsibility for her current childlessness. We respect her choice. Still, the culture exercises an important influence on the kinds of choices we make.

To take an easy example. If it is culturally unacceptable for a woman to marry in her early twenties, then she will be less likely to have a relationship with a man who is ready for marriage and with whom she might want to have children.

If a woman wants to put childbearing on hold in order to advance her career, and if motherhood and domesticity are the enemies of that plan, then she will be more likely to fall in love with Mr. Wrong.

Some will wonder why Holly Finn is making such a fuss about this. Doesn’t everyone know about the biological clock? Didn’t she know about it herself before she put herself in the position of having to undergo repeated unsuccessful fertility treatments?

Of course, she did. Everyone does. Yet, however much the concept has invaded the consciousness of all sentient young women, there is also a cultural counterthrust that tells them that the biological clock was invented by men to keep women in their place, to undermine their career interests, and to advance the interests of the patriarchy.

Besides, it’s one thing to know there’s a biological clock and to be anxious about it. It’s quite another to alter your life plan accordingly.

Finn paints a picture of the kind of life that women are supposed to have. It resembles the life that Carrie Bradshaw and her friends have in Sex and the City. It’s a life where a woman’s twenties and early thirties are supposed to be filled with hard and fulfilling work coupled with sexual  adventures, lots of carefree travel, and even a bit of romance.

In Finn’s words: “... I believe in soul mates. So how did I end up cruising a cryobank? Is this the punishment for romanticism: having to do the least romantic thing in the world? Like many, I trusted that marriage and children—my family—would happen. In the meantime, I lived my life. I fell in with some fascinating men, up close and unvarnished, and had conversations I can still quote. I didn't want to settle at 25. I wanted adventures. I just didn't imagine their cost, and how I would struggle to keep paying it.”

There is nothing strange about this. It is, by our cultural lights, perfectly normal. Actually, its better than normal. It’s liberated.

As I said, it’s a way of life that seems like fun for the women involved, until the point when they discover that they have lost the chance to have children.

It sounds like fun, but whose interests does it ultimately serve: those of the woman or those of feminism? Which is better from a feminist perspective: being a mother or becoming a tycoon. To best serve the feminist cause should a woman be at soccer practice or should she be breaking a glass ceiling?

Feminists will tell you that they are perfectly comfortable with women doing both, but they know, as well as you and I do, that childless women are more likely to  advance their careers than are those who have childcare duties.

Exceptions exist, but, as always, they do not make the rule.

Feminism has been selling a life style that offers women opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never dreamed of. But their mothers and grandmothers, by definition, never dreamed of forgoing childbearing.

Feminists will say that it’s all about choice. They want women to have options. And yet, the ambient discourse is not neutral about these "choices."

Feminism has tried to redefine female sexuality in terms of male sexuality. If a man can walk away from the consequences of sexual activity, then a woman, if she is truly free, must have the same option. If her fertility is keeping a woman from corporate success, then it must be controlled or even suppressed.

Wasn’t childbearing a patriarchal invention designed to keep women out of the workplace?

As for the matter of choice, many women have told me and others that if they get pregnant when they are young and in a relationship, friends and family will try to convince them to abort, as though it is the only sane and intelligent choice.

Talk all you want about choice, but a 23 year-old woman who gets pregnant will be pressured to abort. She will be made to feel that the child growing inside is going to ruin her life. Friends will tell her that she will no longer be able to go out clubbing with them, and thus that the real choice she faces is: her baby or her life.

Think what you will about whether abortion should be available, the truth lurking behind the rhetoric about “choice” is that feminist culture often makes abortion a duty. Even when the woman is married, feminism will suggest that family planning takes precedence, thus, that an accidental pregnancy can be terminated on the grounds of inconvenience.

Let’s understand the way abortion is debated in our society.  Most feminists believe that there should be no restrictions on abortion rights. They say that we cannot return to the day of coat-hanger abortions. Besides, abortions must remain readily available for victims of rape and incest, or for high school girls who are unable to care for a child.

Nonetheless, some women consider abortion a career move. Or even a gesture of solidarity with the feminist cause.

Finn knows that her message runs counter to what is culturally acceptable. She chose to tell her story so that young women do not imagine that if they follow the message that’s in the culture and put off having children, they will be rescued by a white knight in the person of a reproductive endocrinologist.

In her words:  “The first thing I'd like to tell women ages 26 to 34 is: Start having babies. I know it's not polite or funny. But I don't want others to go through what I'm going through now.”


David Foster said...

I thought the article was very sad...especially because apparently she *always* wanted kids, seriously and not just casually...and the piece also gave the impression that she really wasn't all that driven to pursue any particular career.

People really need to be careful about letting the herd tell them how to live their lives.

candace said...

Proponents of abortion also tell a woman that they can have other children later when a significant number of women will lose their fertility to the abortive procedure. Tragedy all around.

NancyLee said...

There's a lot to ponder in this post. As a "mature" woman looking back on my own journey, I've come to a few realizations about sex and its proper role in a happy woman's life.

Sex is for having children - it initially bonds a man and woman (yes, a man and woman!!) together with psychically unbreakable ties (did you know that men's DNA was found in the mothers of their children bodies?

Yes, the ties "that bind" create the matrix for healthy families. The best advice I can give my daughter is to "bind" herself to a decent man who wants her to have children and wants her to stay home with them and who is willing and wants to support his family financially, spiritually, emotionally and with lots of lightheartedness and fun.

From a woman who has been there - the career business is not all it's cracked up to be - I'd rather be home.

Dennis said...

I have two granddaughters and a grandson who were done "in vitro." It is a very expensive process that has a significant number of failures. Abortion do significant damage to women both physically and emotionally. There will come a time when all of that will be played out in a person's life.
NancyLee, I tried to make the same point about the ties that bind, but not as well. If parts per million/billion can affect human beings then it stands to reason that bodily fluids will have an affect on both partners to a marriage. A good sex life helps to lead to a good life for compatible married couples. They develop connections that science has not even taken the time to look at and explore.
My wife chose to be a mother first. After our children reached a certain age she went to work. I must admit that I did push a little because I wanted her to have the possibility of finding what she desires to do the most with her life. It is good that women have those choice, but they need to choose wisely.

Anonymous said...

"Friends will tell her that she will no longer be able to go out clubbing with them, and thus that the real choice she faces is: her baby or her life."

Ha! This line made me laugh! The church of our anti-society is the club. Even guys are like this. They say that your life will be over. By that they mean clubbing.

Let me clarify some GenX speak:

get a life= go to the club
do something with yourself= go to the club
enjoy life= go to the club
you need to get out more= go to the club
take life by the horns= go to the club
stop caring what others think= go to the club
you need to keep active= go to the club

bow down to the sacred club!!!

The Ghost said...

I would say she was spot on when claiming that young women are listening to their "bosses" ... Its just that the real bosses of young women are the feminist movement ...

Sibyl said...

Quite helpful piece of writing, thank you for this article.