“Human society is an antiphysis – in a sense it is against nature; it does not passively submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex; quoted in Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex.
“You cannot go against nature, because when you do/Go against nature, that’s part of nature, too.”
Love and Rockets, No New Tale To Tell
It has always been fashionable, in pushing back against LGBT rights and against the women’s movement, to invoke “nature.” These arguments often apply highly contestable interpretations of nature, but I don’t want to engage with that. I want to attack the major premise: that “nature” is immutable, or correct, or in some other way is an authority that lays dispute to rest. I do not recognize the authority of “nature.” (And I want to convey it with reference to 80’s pop, because … well, just because.)
We cannot go against nature, because when we do, that’s part of nature, too. Smart animals do not simply try to scrape out a living in their environments. Smart animals modify their environments to suit their needs. Housecats make hunting trails, birds build nests, and beavers dam rivers to put a moat between themselves and things that eat beavers. When the snow drifts pile up and the old wolves scrape by on mice, why don’t they eat the beavers? Because there’s a frozen pond, and ten inches of frozen mud reinforced with saplings and branches, between the wolf and the comparatively comfortable beaver.
Humans are smart animals. Depending on climate and resources, we tend, if we can, to live in insulated homes, complete with running water and a sewage system that takes our waste away (preferably, one that takes our waste away from the whole population center, because that reduces disease). Water and sanitation services are, in fact, some of the most major innovations that allow highly concentrated human populations without regular plagues of infectious disease.
Some people would even say that the triumph of technology over disease is the major accomplishment of humanity. We vanquish bacteria with antibiotics! We replace lost blood by transfusion! We stymie the progress of viruses through our populations with vaccines! We thwart nature!
We are so wedded to the idea that we should conquer illness with technology that we deride, as crackpots and fools, those who refuse to do so. Certain religious sects, such as Christian Scientists, refuse some or all medical intervention, and some folks are skeptical, for example, about the common vaccination regimens. It would be hard to argue that these views are fully respected. At best, these people are treated with condescension; at worst their sanity, and even their right to raise their own children, are assailed. I have even heard women doctors mock (really, viciously mock) women who want to refuse some of the common medical interventions in childbirth.
The use of technology to free us from the unwanted consequences of nature is largely uncontroversial. There are exceptions, but they are few, and share a common theme which I will return to.
The one area where the use of technology to free people from the consequences of nature remains generally controversial, however, is the use of technology to free women from the consequences of sex. Abortion and contraception are constitutional rights in the U.S., but a huge minority of the population wants to see them restricted or eliminated, and there is a large network of terrorists and their sympathizers that kill providers and otherwise use violence to try to stop it.
(As an aside, in any serious analysis, anti-choice terrorists are an organized, motivated threat with fanatical support and a deep bench, and are more capable of operating effectively within the US population than terrorists for almost any other cause today. Rudolph, Kopp, Roeder and the other anti-choice terrorists have killed for their cause, even at the cost of life imprisonment or death, and Rudolph and Kopp almost certainly received significant support from within the population even after their crimes were known. Why, then, does law enforcement generally treat left wing radicals as a bigger problem and harass them while ignoring anti-choice radicals? I think because the law enforcement apparatus – and government in general – is largely populated by people more sympathetic to the goals of the anti-choice murderers than to progressive causes that may draw somewhat zealous supporters.)
Technology frees us from disease and death. Technology amends the vulnerabilities of our physical bodies. This is called “progress,” and is usually universally celebrated. Generally, people who oppose progress are considered marginal.
The history of medicine is the history of interference with nature. In nature, the body does battle against injury and infection. It heals itself, or it doesn’t. The opportunistic organisms that grow to our detriment are an invading force, and the army of our immune system tries to retake the territory of our flesh. If our immune system loses, the invaders take over and the body dies.
Sickness and death play a part is humanity’s oldest stories, from Gilgamesh’s fear of death, to Jesus’s healing of the sick and the lame, to a young Buddha’s recognition that illness can strike anyone. Plague was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations. Our bodies’ vulnerabilities have always been with us. And so has the desire for protection from them.
The search for better protection from disease and death is older than history. Our attempts to free ourselves from sickness did not begin with the Renaissance or with the West: probably every human culture has ways, practical, mystical or both, or seeking respite from disease, injury and disfigurement. People’s demand for healers didn’t start when the healers began to have a lot to offer. The technology to protect and fix us has improved, though access to in on the global scale is wildly unequal, and so is life expectancy. The people on earth with comparatively more access to resources may live past 100, well fed, protected from the elements, contact with pathogens reduced, and any consequent illnesses treated.
Women And Consequences
William R. Inge, the former Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and something of a public intellectual in the United Kingdom, once wrote, “In nature, there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences.” Protecting people from the consequences of nature is the cornerstone of Western, and particularly American, civilization. But in America, we don’t really treat women as people, at least where their sexuality is concerned. And in American culture, the concern with women is always their sexuality. We demand that people in general be protected, by technology, from consequences. But there are powerful cultural and political movements to ensure that women specifically must live with the consequences of sexual conduct.
The major organizations of the cultural right wing are usually savvy about how they convey this belief, but bloggers express the view without the polish. One blogger, a homeschooling evangelical mother, praised disease and pregnancy as consequences for sex, in a way that is shockingly straightforward:
The morality decline in our society has slowly and deceptively gone down hill. I believe that part of the reason for this decline is because we have taken out the consequences of wrong doing!
1. Birth Control – We are now giving birth control to young teens because they might get pregnant. This is a way of allowing them to be promiscuous with [sic] the consequence of pregnancy.
2. Gardasil Vaccine – Given to young girls to prevent the HPV cervical cancer. This cancer would not be wide spread if it were not for promiscuity.
3. Hepatitis B Vaccine – Hepatitis B is primarily an adult disease transmitted through infected body fluids, most frequently infected blood, and is prevalent in high risk populations such as needle using drug addicts; sexually promiscuous heterosexual and homosexual adults; residents and staff of custodial institutions such as prisons; health care workers exposed to blood; persons who require repeated blood transfusions and babies born to infected mothers. Unfortunately, these vaccines are given to newborn infants who are still innocent because the ones who need this vaccine do not want to get it. Again, this vaccine helps to avoid a consequence.
4. Abortions – Murdering an unborn baby because it “happened” at the wrong time!
5. New HIV vaccine – This is a new vaccine that is still in testing. It is made to help wipe out HIV. If there were not promiscuity, fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, we wouldn’t have this problem!
If our society is ever going to change, which I doubt it will totally, we as parents are going to have to start teaching our children better moral ways.
1. Teach them that fornication and adultery is wrong. Instead of taking away the consequences, teach them what the consequences are. Let them know they will have to face those consequences and deal with them if they choose to do this wrong.
That couldn’t be much clearer, could it? There’s no hiding behind polished P.R. language here. The major organizations that initially came out firmly against Gardasil very quickly backpedaled and said that they supported the vaccine and only opposed making it mandatory – a fallback position necessary precisely because outright opposition to the vaccine sounded too much like what the blogger quoted above says: a plan to use the threat of disease to scare teens into abstinence. Even then, the professional moral scolds could not entirely lay off the argument that protection leads to promiscuity. The Family Research Council’s Bridget Maher said that “giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.”
This thinking is not limited to the fringe, or, at the very least, the fringe has infected the organs of policy with this thinking. Right now in Wisconsin, state Attorney General Scott Southworth is so committed to this argument that he has threatened to prosecute school administrators who implement the state’s new comprehensive sex education statute. Dr. Janet Woodcock, FDA Deputy Operations Commissioner in the Bush administration, argued against making Plan B birth control pills available over the counter by raising the rather fantastical spectre of “extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an ‘urban legend’ status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B.”
Similarly, State Sen. George Runner of California told the Los Angeles Times that “American money would be much better spent on other types of vaccines, since cervical cancer is a result of lifestyle choices, rather than bad genetic luck.” State politics produces candidates who will say things that would be career-ending in national politics, and one Colorado State Senator fairly closely mirrored the blogger’s remarks:
Sen. Dave Schultheis, of Colorado Springs, on Wednesday opposed a bill requiring pregnant women to be tested for HIV so that if they are infected their babies can be treated to prevent the virus’s transfer.
“This stems from sexual promiscuity for the most part, and I just can’t go there,” he said.
“We do things continually to remove the consequences of poor behavior, unacceptable behavior, quite frankly. I’m not convinced that part of the role of government should be to protect individuals from the negative consequences of their actions.”
The cycle of judgment is self-justifying: we don’t need to prevent things that only happen to sinners; and we shouldn’t feel sorry for the sinners, who get what they deserve. This is the unpolished and not at all compassionate face of conservative culture warriors. This is the face that most but not all of them hide for domestic consumption. This is the face that American evangelicals and other conservatives show in Uganda, behind closed doors when they encourage genocide, exporting their philosophy around the world; but not the face they show to the American public when the Ugandan government agrees.
The abstinence-only curricula that have received federal funding around the U.S. for more than a decade include disparagement of condoms as a core component. They inflate failure rates and spread myths to support this fallacious result. It is not necessary to disparage the effectiveness of condoms just to make a point that abstinence is preferable. In fact, the one abstinence program that has actually shown some effectiveness (and which does not qualify for the federal funds because it is insufficiently aligned with conservative values) does no such thing. The only reasons to disparage condoms as part of promoting abstinence are to (a) convince teens that no technology can protect them from the risk of STIs; or (b) to discourage condom use even among those who do not abstain, therefore making the transmission of STIs more likely. Sadly, the actual, empirical result is probably the latter. Virginity pledges have actually resulted in no lower rate of premarital sex, but lower rates of contraceptive use than non-pledgers.
The supporters of nature’s consequences do not have the courage of their convictions in all circumstances. For example, when white men are needed for military service, the threat of disease as a method to prevent sexual activity has not been a winning argument. The U.S. Army distributed condoms to servicemen in the Second World War. . White men in the war effort are considered too important to face the consequences of sex. As one might guess, poor black men are not, and hundreds of black men with syphilis were killed by the deliberate withholding of treatment in the Tuskeegee experiment.
There’s a saying as old as legal abortion; that everyone thinks there are three permissible abortions, for “rape, incest and me.” I’ll tell a personal story here. My mother, long before the lung cancer claimed her, used to sit and smoke after the lights all went out and everyone else was in bed, and tell me how the world really worked. That’s a big part of why I’m a feminist. She told me about a relative of mine, an evangelical Christian. She regularly protested outside the clinics. Then she terminated a pregnancy. Then she went back to protesting at clinics. Then she had another abortion. Apparently, her married boyfriend didn’t like using condoms, and she wasn’t in a very good negotiating position. She wasn’t in a place in her life where she could let anyone know she was pregnant. Jennifer Senior’s long article on abortion in the New Yorker summarizes an entire generation’s position on abortion as “Didn’t use birth control? The burden’s on you.” The gospel of personal responsibility always sounds better when we are looking at others, and harsher when we’re looking at our friends, our children, or ourselves.
The forced-birth advocates think that women have abortions because they’re irresponsible sluts. The Beverly LaHaye Institute (her husband wrote the Left Behind series of evangelical fantasy books about the biblical tribulation) posted this on its website:
Abortion is no longer primarily an act of teenage desperation; instead, more and more it is the calculated choice of adults unwilling to accept responsibility for their behavior. Abortion is becoming more “rare” among the nation’s teens, but a larger percentage of women in their mid to late 20s –– women who are supposed to be responsible, mature and informed –– are, to put it bluntly, using abortion as a form of birth control.
The anti-choice movement in this country is not trying to reduce the number of abortions. Will Saletan (who I have no respect for, in part but only in part because he is easily duped into supporting the agenda of racists) has been shouting for years to try to get anti-abortion conservatives to make common cause with reproductive freedom advocates around ways to actually reduce the number of abortions. All such efforts fail. The anti-choice forces steadfastly oppose comprehensive sex education and contraception. The Catholic Church wants all sex to be not only within marriage but “open to the possibility of conception.” The major anti-choice organizations in the US mostly have chosen to carefully avoid actually saying that they oppose contraception, while operating as though that is their position. Democrats For Life and National Right To Life both turned their backs on Ohio Democratic rep Tim Ryan out because he supported contraception, while denying that was the reason. Not one single pro-life organization publically supports contraception and sex education – the only scientifically-proven ways to reduce the abortion rate.
The folks who hold these views can make arguments that elide the deep consistency of their positions (not the inconsistency, but the carefully concealed consistency); they can say that encouraging comprehensive sex ed and contraception will lead to more sex, more contraceptive failures and therefore more unwanted pregnancies. But those arguments are always contrary to the data, and really to logic. They are faith-based arguments; mere rhetorical talking points that even their proponents know don’t bear out empirically. They make these arguments because they know better than to say outright what the blogger I quoted above makes explicit: that their ultimate goal is to defeat any decoupling of sex and pregnancy. Pregnancy is the biological consequence of sex; it is not a coincidence that choice opponents oppose every technology that effectively allows women to transcend that.
The normative implication of the argument becomes clear when the anti-choicers start talking about rape exceptions. There are a few hardcores that reject all exceptions out of hand, but one frequently hears a creeping rape-denialism: that rape exceptions allow an exception that swallows the rule because “rape” gets defined more broadly than they like. The best known example of this is probably South Dakota State Senator Bill Napoli, during the controversy over South Dakota’s fetal personhood amendment:
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Napoli says most abortions are performed for what he calls “convenience.” He insists that exceptions can be made for rape or incest under the provision that protects the mother’s life. I asked him for a scenario in which an exception may be invoked.
BILL NAPOLI: A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.
The bolded portion is the real giveaway. Leave aside the stupidity and narrowness of Napoli’s definition, if you can. The operative part for this discussion is that Napoli’s definition of a rape that ought to give rise to an exception isn’t based solely on the nature of the conduct, but on the virtue of the victim. Contrary to Dean Inge’s dictum that consequences in nature are neither rewards nor punishments, Napoli wants to protect the virtuous from consequences; but only the virtuous. The technology that helps the good girls out is, in Napoli’s world, to be withheld from the bad girls.
As we can detect from Napoli’s frightening quote, cruel as it sounds, there is a strong undercurrent of rape apologist discourse that says rape is the natural consequence of … well, of something. Of women displaying sexuality, or sexual autonomy, which really just amount to this: some folks think that rape is a natural consequence of women being women.
Perhaps the most singular and disturbing example of an appeal to nature to justify rape is Thornhill and Palmer’s evolutionary psychology paean to sexual assault, A Natural History of Rape. The work is part self-promotion by guys who made money and careers off of the controversy, and partly the usual evo-psych true believer nonsense that whatever they want to justify is eternal and ordained. I think the whole field has about as much to recommend it as phrenology, and scientists were quick to point out that Thornhill and Palmer had no meaningful support for their theory. A good rundown of the book by Jennifer Pozner is here.
These “scientists” seriously put forth a theory that rape is an evolutionarily selected trait, and then proposed that women protect themselves by wearing more clothes and not being alone with men. (Where have we heard that before? And evolutionary psychologists wonder why so many people think all they do it tell “just so stories” to justify the status quo?) Though they attempted to deny, in interviews, that they engaged in rape apology, it can’t have eluded them that calling rape a natural tendency has the political implication of making it not blameworthy. After all, who can be against what is natural? They claimed to offer advice to women to prevent rape – as if rape, something that happens to women, is their responsibility to stop – but of course it was the same advice that has been given for centuries, and that shows just about zero efficacy in the real world. (Proposing corrective measures that have been tried and have not worked is an element common both to anti-choice and to rape-supportive discourse.) One can only conclude that either these “scientists” are stupid, or in the alternative, that they like the way things are, and seek to promote a theory that justifies it and can be used to push back against efforts to change the status quo.
Roles and Revolution
A basic principle of progress, that technology should protect us from the frailties of our bodies and the dangers of our environment, is suddenly in question or discarded when the subject is control of women and sexuality. Perhaps the signal element of civilization is to strive to rise above “biology is destiny,” but we make exceptions.
What would it look like if we didn’t make exceptions? What if technology completely divorced us from the effects of sexual and reproductive biology? What if we accepted completely the conclusion that biology need not be destiny when technology allows us to overcome it?
Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic Of Sex set out to answer that question. Despite being an incredibly influential Second Wave text by the co-founder (with Ellen Willis) of the Redstockings, it has been out of print for several years. Its influence continues, and Kathleen Hannah has praised it. I have a copy and I recently reread it; it is a deeply flawed work. Much of it holds up, in my view, very poorly forty years on. I defy any feminist reader to get through the material on race without cringing, as it applies a reductive pop-psychology to all black men and all black women that analogizes every single black person’s life to a single role in a psychosexual melodrama. Angela Y. Davis rightly criticized it in Women, Race and Class. There are other problems, including a number of historical and empirical assertions that I doubt, and Firestone said some things about childhood and sexuality that I think are hopelessly naïve. So by saying that the book is interesting as a thought experiment in a very different world, I do not mean to imply a wholesale or even a qualified embrace.
That said, Firestone imagined a world where every baby was a test-tube baby. In that world, the female body is not the locus of reproduction, and femaleness is not especially connected to childrearing. In fact, Firestone believed that the entire notion of the family would fade away (and with it, as her work largely reinterprets Freud, the whole corpus of family-oriented repressions), replaced by households (she did not use the word “family” in any positive sense) of choice, formed by contract among small groups of adults and children as voluntary associations. Firestone’s book is fundamentally utopian, of course, and in my view just plain wrong about a lot of things. But it has the virtue of really thinking outside the box.
Firestone wrote before the internet, before William Gibson’s Neuromancer, before the term “virtual reality.” It is, in fact, possible to imagine a world even more divorced from biological limitations than the one she wrote about. It is possible to imagine a world where either a mind-body dualism is fully realized (Gibson largely gets there), or for those of us that don’t particularly like separating our minds from our muscles, where we are able increasingly to use technology to shape those bodies as we see fit. What if our biology was primarily fluid to conform to our self-identification, instead of mostly the other way around?
I will leave that thought, because I am not a fiction writer, and we do not live in that world. The internet has not brought us a space free of the misogyny of meatspace, but instead one where the lack of the human element has made hatred, division, harassment and misogyny even more virulent; and for my readers who are women operating in an online world, I don’t need to cite any evidence of that, but I’ll reference one example: Kathy Sierra.
Still, what we live with does not describe the limits of the possible. In almost every area of human life, the limits of the natural are largely treated as challenges to be overcome. Discussions of gender, of sexuality, and of women’s personhood should be consistent with this notion, though they rarely are. “Natural” is a description, and, even where accurate, not a proscription. Broadcast communication, indoor plumbing and anesthetic are unnatural in that we use our technology to do what we perceive as better than what our raw environment provides. We do it all the time. We do it by habit. In fact, one could say that transcending the natural is human nature.
“Because when you do/ Go against nature, that’s part of nature too.”
Thanks to Kendall McKenzie for working through these ideas with me and editing drafts.