Thought Control

Michael Mason

  • 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.

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