For all of their intelligence, sophistication, and cosmopolitan ways, Westerners are increasingly uncomfortable with where babies come from.
I realize it’s a humorous and ironic claim to suggest that moderns—who dwell in an over-sexed, over-sensualized world—might actually be uncomfortable with the subject matter of sex. But I’m serious. They’re growing increasingly uncomfortable with where babies come from.
While over 98 percent of babies are still generated by vaginal sexual intercourse—the clinical term I use so that everyone understands what I’m saying—it’s become increasingly commonplace to disassociate sex from babies in the mind.
Birth control is widely practiced, and almost an assumption. Surrogacy is surging. Artificial reproductive technology (ART) is too, and not just due to rising reliance on in vitro fertilization. Additionally, alternative forms of heterosexual sex—in which ejaculation occurs outside the vagina—are increasingly common in accounts of sexual relationship behavior (and in porn are normative). In step, reported use of “withdrawal” as a contraceptive method has actually increased over time—from 41 percent in 1995 to 59 percent in 2008. Homosexual sex doesn’t involve ejaculation at all—in the case of women—or, with men, is not poised to fertilize anything.
Thus “sex” is an inclusive word. In that sense it’s a bit like “hooking up,” a catch-all term that leaves to the imagination the details of what did or did not happen between a couple. Unless, however, such sex is “unprotected.” We know what that means.
In other words, what we mean when we think of sex has shifted—and expanded—rather dramatically. Some celebrate this, concurring with Huxley’s Brave New World character that “fertility is merely a nuisance.” Some lament it. Others struggle to have it both ways, echoing the words my wife and I heard one physician’s assistant utter: “Isn’t it strange how we spend our twenties trying our best to avoid pregnancy, only to spend our thirties doing the opposite?”
Yes, we are increasingly uncomfortable with where babies come from, no doubt about it. Our lingo betrays us. And it doesn’t take a social conservative to perceive it.
Anthony Giddens is a premier social theorist from Britain, a leading intellectual figure in England’s Labour Party, and one of the most famous sociologists alive today. Before retiring, he was director of the London School of Economics. He wrote a book called The Transformation of Intimacy, published a full twenty-one years ago already. Although not chock full of statistics or even original data analyses of any sort, it’s nevertheless excellent as a masterful work of prediction.
Effective contraception meant more than an increased capability of limiting pregnancy . . . [It] signaled a deep transition in personal life. For women—and, in a partly different sense, for men also—sexuality became malleable, open to being shaped in diverse ways, and a potential “property” of the individual. Sexuality came into being as part of a progressive differentiation of sex from the exigencies of reproduction. With the further elaboration of reproductive technologies, that differentiation has today become complete. Now that conception can be artificially produced, rather than only artificially inhibited, sexuality is at last fully autonomous.
Fully autonomous. In other words, free from embeddedness in relationships. By extension, having little to do with moms, dads, and babies. See what I mean? We’re ambivalent about the procreative aspect of sex. Sex is rather all about pleasure, or, to use the lingo of a public-health friend of mine, all about the f***ing. (Forgive my being blunt and crude, but if the shoe fits . . .)
Indeed, the very word procreative is typically met with eye-rolling, guffaws, and LOLs.
Our reticence about where babies come from is also reflected in a new children’s book—ironically titled What Makes a Baby—that’s generating plenty of attention, including over at The Atlantic Monthly where Noah Berlatsky describes its unusual approach to explaining the birds and the bees:
Indeed, the book doesn’t even mention the word “mommy” or “daddy.” Instead, What Makes a Baby explains that “Not all bodies have eggs in them. Some do, and some do not”; and that “Not all bodies have sperm in them. Some do, and some do not.” Similarly, sex isn’t so much tip-toed around as it is relegated to one unspecified option among many. “When grown ups want to make a baby they need to get an egg from one body and sperm from another body. They also need a place where a baby can grow.”
We’re becoming boosters of both outsourcing babies—aided considerably by its association with gay rights—and treating ART as if it’s as plausible and natural as intercourse. As Giddens puts it:
[W]hat used to be “nature” becomes dominated by socially organized systems. Reproduction was once part of nature, and heterosexual activity was inevitably its focal point. . . .
Even though nearly 99 percent of human reproduction remains of “nature” by this definition, it makes a big difference that we no longer automatically associate the two, since naming something in the social world—unlike in the natural world—not only classifies it but often acts back upon the social world, changing how people navigate it. Giddens wrote about that, too—the double hermeneutic—as did sociologist James Hunter, who notes that “to classify something in the social world is to penetrate the imagination, to alter our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, and to shift the perception of everyday reality.”
ART cycles have increased 37 percent between 2001 and 2010. Live-birth deliveries from ART have jumped 60 percent in the same time, constituting just under 62,000 babies. That may or may not sound like a large number, but it works out to be just under four babies per state per day (to put things into time-and-space perspective).
Together with birth control and rising familiarity with diverse sexual acts, the social result is a univocal shift in our thinking about sex and where babies come from. Instead, sex is primarily about pleasure—something with which even our most distant ancestors were no doubt acquainted—secondarily about bonding, and somewhere down the list are the babies that were once equated with consistent paired sexual expression.
Great (infertile) sex is now a priority, a hallmark of the elusive good life. Hence the rise in talk of “needs” and even “rights” when discussing sex. You’d think that quality sexual experiences were as pivotal to human flourishing as clean air, potable water, edible food, and ample shelter. To many today they are. Giddens asserts that our new approach to relationships has introduced the idea of sex as an art form
into the core of the conjugal relationship and makes the achievement of reciprocal sexual pleasure a key element in whether the relationship is sustained or dissolved. The cultivation of sexual skills, the capability of giving and experiencing sexual satisfaction, on the part of both sexes, [has] become organized reflexively via a multitude of sources of sexual information, advice and training.
Even when sex becomes about reproduction, we presume—incorrectly, given rising ART rates—that we retain complete control over the when, where, and how we have children. Popular cultural author Wendell Berry recognizes this, but has chosen to tag it with less optimism than many as constituting an element not of the organic and virtuous life but as a synthetic compound of our penchant for more, larger, and cheaper—a postmodern intersection where Wal-Mart meets Dan Savage. Berry writes:
…our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex . . .
Meanwhile, the most organic citizens in our midst are portrayed as the most restrictive, misogynist, and backwards. Among all the ironies that greet us in the domain of human sexuality, this is one of the most profound. Our language about sexuality is dominated by public health, with its talk of risk, “protection,” health, choice, and rights. It’s not natural and productive. It’s mechanical and consumptive.
And hence we scoff at babies—the crowning glory of natural human creativity—and where they come from.
We are not a rational people. We are a strange people.
Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.