I almost didn't want to post anything more about this topic, but the peculiar misunderstandings involved have been getting on my nerves, so what the hell. Hey. that's what blogging's for! You see, I'm a feminist. Look, I came out and said it! And so, it follows that I have a long-standing (and true, my boys) belief that our society puts bone-crushing pressure on women to evaluate themslves, constantly, as objects of male sexual desire. If you think about this context for a nanosecond, you will see that the suggestion that women should consider whether or not they look (potentially) sexy at the moment when their infant's head is crowning as the finale of labor is positively grotesque. Does it follow from this that I am trying to dictate what men's sexual responses should be? Not exactly. Let us consider some hypotheticals.
1. A man meets a woman and begins a committed sexual relationship with her. During the (early) course of it, she develops genital warts due to the HPV she contracted from a previous lover. She gets the warts removed, but the retinal scarring from seeing a warty vagina makes it impossible for the man to find her sexy ever again.
What are we likely to think here? Well, we are inclined to cut the guy a bit of slack, on the grounds that some fear of illness in himself motivates this disgust (even though it's likely that many or most of his previous sex partners were asymptomatic carriers of HPV). We are also likely to say that he was never all that interested in her to begin with, because if that was all that had changed about a woman with whom he was truly infatuated, it seems very unlikely to be a deal-breaker.
2. A man begins a committed sexual relationship with a woman, during the course of which they have unprotected sex, and he infects her with an STD, say, herpes. Let us stipulate that she agreed to this while knowing he was infected with herpes; he is taking medicine, they did their best to avoid outbreaks, she truly loved him, etc.. His retina is scarred during the course of her initial infection (which is unlikely to re-occur at the same severity), and having seen her lesion-scarred vagina he finds it difficult to regard her as sexy ever again, such that there are serious sexual problems in their relationship.
What are we likely to think here? Let's all be honest: we think this guy is an asshole. It seems very unlikely that in a discussion of some real-world case corresponding to these parameters anyone would bring up objections such as "well, it's not for us to say who will find lesions gross", or "if there is a man who really can't get it up after looking at some lesion-scarred vagina, it behooves us rather to be sympathetic to his sexual dysfunction, which is in no wise his own responsibility, rather than to mock him in any way." Or: "Belle Waring is a foul herpes-scarred woman who has a pathological concern that men may no longer find her sexually attractive"; is that likely to come up, really?
3. An article appears in the New York Times which gives rather solemn advice to men that, in the event they find themselves in the grip of a serious gastro-entereological infection, they not seek the help of their long term sex partner. It is a sad fact of this life that every once in a while people find themselves virulently ill; so sick that they are barely able to crawl to the bathroom to vomit; so sick that when they do so they find themselves uncontrollably voiding themselves out both ends on the cool porcelain tiles. But since there are some women who till never want to have sex with their partners again after they see them looking all poopy and have to clean up the bathroom, it might be wise for men to consider hiring a private nurse, calling on a parent or friend during this time, or just toughing it out, sending their lover to a bar while they retch and faint with the formula 409 until all has been restored to cleanliness. [Note that the pregnant woman who decides on her own nickel to spare her husband any potential unpleasantness will employ one of these alternatives as well: hire a doula, ask her mom or friend to be there, or suffer on her own with no one to hold her hand or speak for her to the medical team.] Not to say that all women will react this way, but since it's hard to tell ahead of time, and since the men who ask their partners to put a bucket by the bed for them to puke into may be risking the long-term sexual health of their relationships, then maybe they should take steps to avoid the whole problem by working out some such plans in advance. Also, since societal pressure on women to take care of ther sick partners is so strong, the men won't be able to trust their partners' claims of willingness; they will have to take it upon themselves to fix the problem without reference to her stated desires.
What do we think about these hypothetical women? Assholes. Also,
unusually squeamish about the human body and its foibles; also, they
don't actually love their partners very much and are self-centered and
shallow. What if the article is based on the reflections of a
psychiatrist treating women to whom this has happened, who are now
bemoaning their lack of desire and regretting that they gave into the
pressure to care for their mates? Hmm. Any mild sympathy there? A
nano-sympathy, I guess; it's a sad thing when anyone loses the ability
to enjoy sex with someone she loves. Nonetheless, on the whole, the
verdict is very much: assholes.
N.B.: I have left out the stipulation that the women purposely gave their partners food poisoning, because getting someone pregnant is not a hostile act, while poisoning them is. I could not think of a satisfactory way to indicate that the women in this scenario intentionally brought about the men's physical distress. A perfect analogy to the childbirth case would require this.
What do we think about the New York Times writer in this case? Weird. A truly strange person. We think his advice is insane. If we knew of someone who took this advice we would think that person was nuts too. If a friend confided in us about her distress, and how she had lost interest in her husband after he got the flu, it seems possible that out of politeness we would nod in pretend sympathy, but inside we would be thinking: wow, I'm friends with a shallow, self-centered, inappropriately squeamish jerk.
You see where I'm going here? The vehemence of my reaction does not stem from some puritanical feminist impusle to dictate what is acceptable in the realm of male sexual desire. It stems from disgusted astonishment that anyone would suggest this: even in the midst of what might reasonably be regarded as the single most female thing a woman will ever do, a time when she is in pain and terrified, a time when the man who got her pregnant, while he may feel nervous, is undergoing no dramatic physical changes--even then, the primacy of male sexual desire, and the need to regard women solely as objects of that desire means that women should be considering their future sexiness. Not a thought is given to the possibilty that the women themselves are affected by the change from regarding their genitals as a source of pleasure to regarding them as something through which small humans might periodically and painfully emerge. Not the slightest reference is made to the cult of youthful beauty in our society which celebrates the post-pubescent female body and regards all others as repulsive; I can't have been the only feminist who wondered whether it was really only the birth experience which affected the men's desire. Many a post-pregnancy support group online has thread after thread in which women who have a two- or three-month old baby tell of how their husband is pressuring them to go to the gym, to lose weight while they are still establishing breasfeeding, to return to him his rightful object of desire which she has selfishly taken away and given to some squalling infant (and god knows he played no role in the whole thing!). [Please don't take this opportunity to tell me I'm trying to say feminism requires men to be attracted to fat chicks. Just don't, OK?]
Finally, to have every comments thread and many follow-up posts all immediately become...a discussion of male sexual desire! How it can't be commanded, how it's not under men's control, how it may require improbable female perfection and there's nothing sex-hating feminists can do about that, because it's a force of nature, like tides or something! Or erosion! Either you get hard when you look at something or you don't; you can't tell your penis to grow up! If you're a fat, balding 60-year-old guy and you can only get it up for 17-year-old-girls then that's just the way life is, and people should be sensitive to that! Anyone see why I might find this annoying? Bueller? Anyone?
UPDATE: Also, I neglected to mention this before, but, do any of my male readers have any idea how often women are advised to have sex sometimes even when they don't particularly feel like it, for the health of a long term relationship? Like, every single time the subject of sex comes up? Please just go read a few Cosmo "How To Keep The Spice Burning" articles and get back to me, OK? See? Now, here's the thing that's crazy: that's actually pretty good advice, if it applies to BOTH PARTIES in a straight or gay relationship. I'm not talking about some abusive, or un-dead vampire-type fatally flawed relationship; I'm talking about an ordinary, loving, long-term relationship in which the fires of your initial coming together (/Nelson Muntz) have cooled to the lower but more lasting temperatures of love. Why do I say this? Well, because if your partner is horny and you're not, it's just a loving thing to do to have sex with them. Also, sex is actually pretty fun, and even if you thought you didn't want to have sex right then, it's likely that 5 minutes later you'll be like "why did I think I didn't want to have sex? Teh sex r0x0rz!" However, this applies to guys too. If you really love somebody, you'll be able to make the effort. Have these guys never heard of fantasizing about Angelina Jolie going down on Scarlett Johansson? Did the possibility of looking at some porn first not cross their minds? Fake it till it's real is not stupid advice in the world of sex. If you knocked the chick up, suck it up. Have sex enough times without bloody babies suddenly emerging from her vagina and the bad images will be replaced by good ones. Problem solved! Advantage: blogosphere.