A Second-Wave Feminist Take on Family Planning


CONTENT WARNINGS: Abortion, Sex, Transphobia, Cisnormative Language

Feminist writer Germaine Greer published her second edition of Sex and Destiny in 1986. She says in the book that in the modern world (that is to say, the Westernised and global present) that we have lost touch with our senses of self. According to Greer, women who become pregnant and have children become isolated because society does not value children. Thus, a woman’s sexual identity has changed since the past when the whole community would help to raise children, and a woman’s ability to reproduce was valued.

In this volume, Greer discusses gender roles in many different cultures around the world, but she focuses on Western culture. She mentions that in traditional European societies, a relationship would arise from a prolonged courtship that would have been sanctioned by the community to which they belonged. Men would feel that they had to control women’s reproduction due to their usage of the withdrawal method and abstinence. On the other hand, women would have a long period of time to familiarise themselves with their respective sexual partners. This way, the two people in the relationship would be able to start their own family with the support of the community around them and the resources to bring up their children.

I think that in the modern context we can adapt this way of doing things. However, this should depend upon: how long it takes to decide whether or not two people are suitable for each other long term, both parties’ networks of friends to draw on as their ‘community’ and both parties’ practices of safe sexual health and family planning. After reading about this, I became convinced that this would be possible in today’s society if both parties in a relationship were part of a supportive community and were to take charge of their own reproduction.

According to Greer, people in a relationship in which cisgender male-female intercourse is the main form of sexual activity are able to practice coitus interruptus (‘pulling out’). Because of this, they effectively have no need for chemical contraception or even condoms (or, as Greer cheekily calls it, ‘rubber hardware’). Coitus interruptus is a risky form of birth control which may result in unwanted pregnancies, and therefore, abortions. However, Greer also makes a point regarding this: An abortion could be chemically induced at extremely early stages of conception without any harm to a baby or foetus. Additionally, avoiding the pill would allow women to avoid the side effects that artificial hormones could have on their bodies. However, Greer argues that this is not possible unless the couple have a ‘tenderness’ for one another, ‘creativity’ and probably the sense of intimacy and oneness required to be aware of the moment when they have reached the climax. Nonetheless, she focuses heavily on traditional roles in cisgender, heterosexual relationships.

Regardless of culture, ethnic background or definitions of relationships, the quality of the relationship is generally determined by the amount of energy that each party is willing to put in. People have different ways of showing care. They can show care through physical affection, acts of service, gift-giving, taking each other out for meals and so on. In pursuit of what she feels would be best for society in general, Greer seems to have glossed over what is important for people individually.

Another point that Greer raises is that when people in contemporary Western countries form relationships, they can have the pressure of what their parents and grandparents have told them they should do. This may have been handed down from cultural traditions, which conflicts with the possibilities that modern technology has enabled. For instance, in some traditional cultures, such as the Italians of Tuscany, a lack of reproductive responsibility was frowned upon amongst men and not required of women. There was a certain kind of Italian man who felt that women’s usage of oral contraceptives could expose themselves to selfish men who would take advantage of them. Thus, they would figure out for themselves how to refrain from impregnating their female partners. However, as Greer argues, this kind of attitude was centred on ensuring that men felt they had complete control over their reproductive capacity, rather than fostering cooperation between the genders.

I think that if we can understand this issue in terms of biology, in any relationship in which reproduction is an issue, then there is a constant state of change between those who do the fertilisation and who receives it. In humans, there is a stereotype in cisgender relationships that a man can plant the seed in a woman, and that women can get her eggs fertilised and have children. This stereotype is of course highly variable. However, the ability to do something does not mean that either of those things should be done without the complete and explicit consent of both parties.

Greer’s take on the issue of family planning seems to be connected to her take on the adoption of the ‘nuclear family.’ She argues that we have sacrificed the sense of community that is conducive to raising well-rounded, social children and releasing the pressure, poverty and isolation that parents of these children suffer. She thinks that we should subscribe to the pre-Western traditional roles of the Tuscan, Kenyan or Indian villages, with their ‘wise women,’ ‘shamans’ and group birthing. Incidentally, the kind of community for which Greer advocates bears a striking resemblance to that shown in The Handmaid’s Tale. In this fictional world, the top priority is the health and wellbeing of pregnant mothers and young children. It is also assumed that it is (or should be) the destiny of women to be closely involved with the process of bringing children into the world.

While it would be considered anti-feminist now, that outlook, if it is modified to suit the needs of people today, is not without its merits. People who have a wider ‘support network’ are undoubtedly better off in relationships. In our modern culture, instead of the traditional village, we have networks of friends and acquaintances from work, school or family. We may keep in touch with these networks in person, by text message or social media. Those who are better connected to their networks will have more opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others, as well as pass on what they have learned. In support networks such as these, it is possible to get any kind of personalised information about family planning you could ever want without fear or embarrassment, and in a familiar environment surrounded by close friends.

While the ideas that Greer discusses are interesting, there are reasons why her way of looking at these topics could be considered outmoded by feminists today. She looks at these issues from a solely binary perspective, when in fact people’s identities around sexuality are more complex than this. Nonetheless, Sex and Destiny raises some salient issues for relationships, family planning and sex.

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