- Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility by Germaine Greer
Secker, 469 pp, £9.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 436 18801 5
Germaine Greer has three main propositions to advance in her new book. These are, first, that genital, recreational sex is overvalued in our culture. Second, that birth-control programmes in the Third World are unnecessary, ineffectual and cruel. Third, that families which stress the procreative relationship are preferable to those which stress the conjugal relationship. These ideas are all plausible, and of great moment. They deserve an airing: they deserve the attention which a writer as well-known, energetic and fluent as Germaine Greer is likely to secure for them. The issue about Sex and Destiny is how much Ms Greer’s important case is likely to be damaged by the way in which she connects up her proposals, and the poor, even unprincipled quality of her arguments for them individually and as a cluster of ideas.
Ms Greer tells her reader to beware in the opening of the book, which is not entitled ‘Preface’ but ‘Warning’. ‘Settled certainties’ are going to require ‘melting’, ‘roasting’ and ‘scalding’, sometimes with ‘vitriol’. The vitriol is quickly taken out, as Chapter One launches itself with the startling assertion that ‘we in the West ... do not like children.’ The evidence immediately offered is not abuse of our offspring, but rather our very appearance of catering for them: our belief, for instance, that ‘babies ought not to be born before they have rooms of their own.’ From here it is an easy transition to our habits of putting children to bed early, and excluding them from restaurants and shops. The modern world is ‘anti-child’ in its ‘scale and speed’. School is a ‘locus of ... segregation’. The notion of the teenager is a ‘buffer state’ between adults and children. This is all extremely annoying, and thoroughly worthwhile. Once we have swallowed our indignation, and entered into the spirit of these reversals, we look for more: for a continuation of the invigorating experience of, perhaps, seeing through our hypocrisies.
It is true that some puzzling things are said, even at this stage, about the scope of what is being attacked, in time and space: ‘historically, human societies have been pro-child; modern society is unique,’ but ‘the general tendency to separate children from parents ... has always characterised North-Western Europe.’ A few pages later, the framework of the argument seems to distort itself even more violently: ‘Watching airline stewardesses ignoring women with children and fawning on businessmen is equally unedifying, especially as time was when mothers with children were given special attention.’ But it is not until the beginning of Chapter Two that the suspicion becomes irresistible that we are not being introduced, in Sex and Destiny, to a game with exciting, upside-down rules, but instead to a game with very few rules at all. This chapter starts at once with the story of Louis Castalas, who in 1980, in Orléans, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for shooting the true father of his seven-year-old son. Castalas had been rendered sterile by the Nazis in Buchenwald, but with the birth of the boy he imagined that the disability was rectified. There was a popular outcry over the sentence.
I am sure that every reader of Sex and Destiny will, at this point, feel in the dark as to the bearing of this anecdote. We wait, as it were with bated breath, to see which way Ms Greer is going to lead us. Surely she won’t wish to side with the law – and yet, can she sympathise with the popular feeling? Orléans in 1980 is in the benighted modern West, indeed in North-Western Europe. Ms Greer goes for popular feeling, and the murderer. His actions, and the sentiments of the citizens of Orléans, were the ‘garbled survivor’ of an older, finer morality, which valued and nurtured the fertility of males in a group. If we accept Ms Greer’s interpretation of these events, in all its arbitrariness, we have learnt the way to read her book, or a great deal of it: which is to surrender our judgment and our powers of connected thinking into her hands. At each turn only she can tell us what to think next. Our role is to nod excitedly when she reminds us (or makes us think we remember) that stewardesses have recently started to behave badly to mothers, and then nod excitedly again at the proposal that ‘minimal parenting’ was introduced into Europe by the ‘Germanic hordes’ – while suppressing, for example, our feeling that there is an inconsistency in alleging both that men and women in the modern West have an ‘unwillingness ... to undergo vasectomy and ... to accept irreversible sterilisation’ and that they have ‘gone sterilisation mad’. As if to make sure that her reader is quite docile, or to complete the process of mental disorientation, Ms Greer will have it, only forty pages after her Orléans story, that the reluctance of the wives of sterile husbands in our society to accept impregnation by their brothers-in-law ‘can only be explained by the modern neurosis which makes child-bearing a self-centred activity, relating principally to the narcissism of the individuals involved’.
Extracts from Sex and Destiny were published recently in the press, which gives a cue for how the book may be used fruitfully. It collapses as a sustained argument, but much is said locally, on its three main themes, that is forceful and convincing. Some excellent roasting, scalding and melting is performed in Chapter Eight on modern ‘sex religion’, and the extraordinarily general assumption that ‘any form of sexual repression is sui generis bad’ (the more impressive, I find, in view of, and not despite, views which Ms Greer may earlier have held). There has always been something offensive to a rational sense of history, let alone probability, in the confidence that we are the first culture to have a fully enlightened view of sex: a suspicion that this might seem to posterity to be as silly as the conviction of the Augustans that they had purged and clarified our verbal culture. The record of birth-control programmes in the Third World is shocking for their ineffectiveness, and for the high-handed but faddish strategies that have been adopted. Ms Greer has assembled a rich and extensive picture of these from documents and in the field. The evils of the nuclear family, and the satisfactions of the extended (what she calls the ‘Family’, in upper-case), are more familiar themes, but Ms Greer has re-experienced them vividly. That she now loathes the ‘orgasmladen double-bed’, and feels that ‘only the Family can make sense of growing old: only the Family can give shape and coherence to all the phases of human life,’ will no doubt strike readers as autobiographical in colouring, but it is no weaker as a point of view for that (though in her insouciant way Ms Greer admits that ‘the Family always has its own enrichment and aggrandisement in mind’ and denies that the Mafia is a true Family).
On the other hand, it must be admitted that to take these themes in isolation is to violate the whole spirit of the book, which drives, over some two hundred thousand words, to connect them up in a grand, emphatic, shadowy historico-cultural theory. This theory, in its least problematic form, goes as follows. Most human societies strongly wish to procreate. They have observances and structures which encourage and assist the bearing and rearing of children. They also have procedures – chiefly abstinence, non-intromissive sex and infanticide – which ensure that the level of procreation does not overtax the society’s resources. Another group of societies has partly relinquished the arrangements which aided procreation, and the techniques which controlled it. They have substituted conjugal structures, an ideal of sex as a good in its own right, and new, artificial methods of limiting births. These societies fail to understand the practices and principles of the other, larger group, and they have been seeking to impose on them, in particular, their own means of birth-control.
As mentioned before, a large area of shadow in this concerns the identity of the villain-societies. They are ‘Western’, but sometimes ‘protestant’, or North-Western European (in contradistinction to, for example, Tuscany), sometimes pan-European and American. They may be very recent, or post-Medieval, or of 1500 years’ antiquity. Their two leading traits – their family structure and their approach to sex – seem to be out of synchrony for most of history. Even if this rift is allowed to open up in the argument, there are inconsistencies on either side: teenagers in the 1950s are said to have practised coitus interruptus, but since the early 19th century we have ‘forgotten’ the technique and birth-controllers have often failed to ‘describe it correctly’ for us. (The idea that coitus interruptus – the activity, not the phrase – is this arcane is a necessary but bizarre feature of Ms Greer’s argument: though I have myself been struck by how some critics mistake contraception for inadequacy in the Edwardian marriage of Leopold Bloom.)
It matters a great deal for the theory how old the nuclear, sex-extolling culture is, because so much appeal is made to the antiquity and naturalness of the other form. Indeed, if the first kind of culture antedates Wilhelm Reich, and vulcanised rubber, Protestantism, and Mariolatry, and all the other things that are vaguely incriminated as its causes at various points in this book, it may claim to have been maintaining optimum procreativity by its arrangements just as virtuously as the abstinent, infanticidal extended families of the non-European world. One of the most impertinent of all Ms Greer’s inconsistencies is the proposal, at the end of Chapter Two, that Western birth-control programmes for the Third World flow from just such an impulse: ‘we perhaps ought to consider the possibility that we are in competition with other groups for the opportunity to pass on our genes.’ If this is so, of course, our culture should be simultaneously seeking to increase its own procreativity. Most writers would have been deterred at this point by the recognition that they were about to contradict everything that had hitherto been argued: but not Ms Greer. She does not falter. Out goes that startling picture of a child-hating, -avoiding, -obstructing, -segregating culture. In comes the major syndrome of ‘Wilful Exposure to Unwanted Pregnancy’, and the woman who says, ‘The minute he ejaculated I knew, and there was my diaphragm sitting on the bedside table’: tokens of another ‘garbled survivor’ in Western culture, a ‘residual and fragmentary’ impulse to fertility.
What, then, is there to choose between the behaviours of the two groups? The West has ‘deeply questionable motives for interfering in the reproductive behaviour of alien groups’. Since these ‘motives’ are apparently also at work in non-Western societies, it is only the vitriol effect – the determination to see the West as worst – which can incline Ms Greer to call them ‘questionable’. It is, however, true, and very importantly true, that we interfere, and are not interfered with. Given that birth-control programmes are as ineffectual as they seem to be, and that human cultures from the Palaeolithic onwards have shown some capacity to limit procreativity, there is force in Ms Greer’s view that we should preserve and foster traditional strategies for birth-control.
Another argument against interference which Ms Greer wishes to urge is that, in altering old social arrangements in the non-Western world, we are destroying something that makes for human well-being. Here the discussion becomes imponderable, but I imagine it is a point that will loom large for many readers of Sex and Destiny, and provoke doubts. She herself recognises the disadvantages of the extended family – its boredom, oppressiveness and cruelty – well enough for her Family to become something of an irrational good. Conversely, many people will want to insist that they find uninhibited, orgasmic, intromissive, conjugal sex a great contribution to their well-being – and that they have not ‘forgotten’ coitus interruptus, but just don’t like it.
There is a final count against traditional procreative arrangements which, in Ms Greer’s alarming defence of it, relates also to her view of the West. That traditional societies practise infanticide, deliberate or semi-deliberate (such as ‘culling’ by ‘dirty sickles’ at the navelcord), she freely acknowledges. In the context of the obsessive bias of her book in favour of the Third World and against the West, infanticide is not only seen as inoffensive, and even morally elevating (calling forth ‘courage, determination and decisiveness’ in tribal mothers), but as discreditably absent from Western practice. There is an argument that the difference between neonates and embryos is not so great that we can rationally hinge on it a pro-abortion, anti-infanticide morality such as ours, but Ms Greer is not, or only partly, accusing us of being bad moral philosophers. Infanticide, at least of the dirty sickle type, does differ from abortion in making it easier to implement a definition of the unwanted offspring as ‘unfit’. The point must be stated clearly: Ms Greer believes, and she says as much, that Western neo-natal care is leading to the ‘infantilisation and degredation of our species’, to an increasing proportion in our population of the ‘genetically incompetent’ and ‘unfit’.
This will be recognised for what it is: eugenics, in the bad sense of that term. In her ambitiousness for a grand theory of human procreation Ms Greer has very throroughly played back on to Western culture her admiration for tribal mothers who ‘bashed’ a child’s ‘brains out with a rock’ (other techniques are listed). The verdict on our non-infanticidal society is hostile, for Ms Greer’s other project is comprehensively to abuse Western attitudes to procreation. Eugenics, however, is itself one of those attitudes. Chapter Eight of Sex and Destiny is, absurdly, a jeering history of eugenic thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contains a joke about Galton’s (presumed) approval of infant exposure in ancient Greece. At the beginning of the book Ms Greer disclaims any wish to persuade her reader to particular social actions. With logic of this calibre she need have little fear of such a result.