Friday, October 25, 2013

A Few BIzarre Things About How Women's Sexuality and Fertility Are Viewed

If I were Alfie, the friendly alien from outer space, I would probably be shocked by this tweet today:

South Korea Struggles to Confront Stigma of Sexual Assaults

Because if I were an alien, I wouldn't know that the stigma attaches itself to the victim and not the perpetrator.  When you think of the fact that almost all of us know stigma is the victim's problem, what does that tell us about our sexual mores?  I think Alfie would be aghast.

This is bizarre, this extreme form of victimization.  First you get abused, then you get shamed.

The roots are probably in the very old idea that a young woman is like a gift-wrapped box of sexual and fertility goodies,  and that it is her parents who decide whom to give her to.  Nobody wants a used present, so the owners of the young woman (initially her parents) must make sure that she doesn't get prematurely unwrapped or soiled.  It doesn't ultimately matter if the soiling was involuntary, because the woman's value drops in either case.  And in many cultures so does the family's honor.

Add to that the view (once common everywhere and still common in many places) that once the present has been unwrapped, everyone should be entitled to have what's inside it.  Hence the Victorian  plot of a raped housemaid ending up on the streets, what with the stigma causing all other jobs to be closed for her. It's as if the gift-wrapped box has been tossed away and no longer belongs to anyone so every by-passer is entitled to some of its contents.

I am not singling South Korea out here.  This problem has been global and most likely still applies to the majority of sexual attack survivors.  It is the reason for "silence as the best remedy".  It is the reason why feminists fight victim-blaming so vigorously. It is, however, still bizarre.

Something every bit as bizarre applies to fertility.  It struck me forcibly some days ago, and I had to stew the idea for a bit to decide if I'm oversensitive or not.  I decided I am not.

Here's the thought:  If you wanted to make having children as difficult and costly as possible, both in monetary and psychological ways, how would you go about doing it?  I think the answer is that you would follow many of the current policies in the US:  Minimize parental leave, refuse to make allowances for fertility in how the labor markets treat workers (no subsidized daycare, no real flexitime etc.) assume that all childcare will be done by the woman who gave birth to the child, fight to remove subsidized education as a viable alternative and support instead home-schooling, largely done by mothers.

Or think of the literature on child development.  Ninety-nine percent of articles about parenting are about the mothers, and the vast majority of those look at what mothers are doing wrong (not enough breast-feeding, not enough bonding, too much bonding,  too much fatty food cooked for the children, the cooking always assumed to be the mother's responsibility, bad mother-child relationships as the cause of childhood depression etc etc.)  And the later popular-psychology pieces are still very often about bad mothers and how they messed up their children.  Think of the "Mommy Dearest" branch of memoirs.  Think also of the Control Of The Bad Mother movement!  This begins before the child is even born.

Then add the legal rules about what constitutes child neglect (leaving a child under twelve alone in a parked car for a few minutes, say), the persistent media-supported fears about pedophilia, the requirement that middle-class parents (mothers) chauffeur their children from one event to another, how listening to Mozart during pregnancy or watching Little Einstein after it with the baby are necessary parts of child-rearing and if you don't follow them, you are a Bad Mother.  Or a Bad Parent.  At the same time, the wider public spaces are ultimately not child-friendly at all, what with complaints from other plane passengers or other restaurant diners etc.

The restrictions on parental life keep growing, and the guilt (aimed at mothers, in particular)  comes from all directions, including from other mothers in the Mommy Wars.  But to an alien from outer space, whatever gender that creature might be, all this surely looks like an intentional policy to cut back on fertility rates!

And when the logical happens and birth rates fall?  Then, my friends, the effort is directed towards making abortion and birth control unavailable.

That's how I framed the initial thought.  It's a little exaggerated, because we still have Medicaid for children and a few other safety nets of similar sort and because pain relief is still available for women giving birth. But the policies I see (and not only in the US) are almost all whip and only a few withered carrots when it comes to the debate about women and low birth rates.*

And sure, wanting to have children is a human drive.  Is that why we think it's OK to make it an option with high costs?
*The question what the birth rates should be, right now, is a separate one.  There's a sense in which low birth rates might be part of the therapeutic treatment Mother Earth requires, especially if we wish all humans on earth to have the same high standard of living and still have nature left over for other animals.