Feminism Ad Absurdum
Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility.
by Germaine Greer.
Harper & Row. 541 pp. $19.95.
Anyone reading this book might find it hard to believe that its author also wrote one of contemporary feminism’s pioneering texts. The Female Eunuch (1970) was a racy, radical, best-selling manifesto that posited sexual freedom as the key to women’s liberation. Germaine Greer, with her disheveled Anna Magnani-style sexiness and sharp dry Cambridge wit, became a talk-show and counterculture celebrity, shocking her then perhaps eager-to-be-shocked audiences with outrageous ideas, such as the obsolescence of marriage and the dispensability of underwear.
Times of course have changed, but even changing times cannot fully account for what appear to be the violent reversals of her newest book. To be sure, Miss Greer has not lost her power to shock. Where The Female Eunuch deplored every inhibition placed on women by the patriarchal West, the present book manages a good word for such Third World practices as the veil, menstrual segregation, and even polygamy. Where The Female Eunuch preached spontaneous self-realization against the oppressive forces of civilization, the present book speaks glowingly of the self-sacrificing collectivity of extended families in underdeveloped countries. Where The Female Eunuch suggested that we find ways to deepen our sexual delight (because “the sexual personality is basically anti-authoritarian”), the present book decries the cooptation of sex by consumer society and tersely recommends chastity as a form of birth control.
In Miss Greer’s current view, the West is now oversexed, subfertile, and hopelessly materialistic. Our skimpy nuclear families are centered on the consumer-oriented “copulating couple,” who indulge in “recreational sex” and barely manage to turn out a child or two as they contend for orgasmic bliss. In addition, because of our insistence on genital sex without conception, we have accepted the dangerous pharmacological hardware of modern birth control, and lost the ability to remain chaste or to employ the healthy varieties of anal sex and coitus interruptus.
Moreover—and this is the second theme of the book—we are, true to our imperialist selves, enforcing our own corrosive arrangements all over the world. Miss Greer excoriates Western efforts at birth control in developing countries. Declaring that overpopulation is a myth concocted by elderly right-wing millionaires, she argues that we are imposing our own hatred of children, together with our fevered consumerism, on countries where children are loved and enjoyed—all to insure that the darker races not inherit the earth.
Sex and Destiny contains so many startling shifts in thought that one might expect they would be accompanied by deep soul-searching and lengthy explanations. In fact, they are barely acknowledged. A few superficial admissions here and there cannot disguise the profound lack of self-insight that is one of the book’s presiding deficiencies. Nowhere in this 500-page harangue, for instance, is there any speculation on how Miss Greer’s own former beliefs helped prepare the ground for the state of affairs she perceives today. Traditions she attacked and helped destroy in The Female Eunuch still receive from her nothing like the sympathy she now extends to traditions supposedly threatened by the advance of imperialist capitalism.
The book’s weighty scholarship is suspiciously one-sided in its deployment. Miss Greer catalogues anything incriminating she can find in Western practices and omits anything that might serve as balance. One needs to read between the lines to surmise that great numbers of women in developing countries are gladly availing themselves of birth-control devices, Miss Greer’s rehearsal of the horrors associated with them notwithstanding. After hearing idealized stories of the tender care afforded the elderly in traditional societies, one is startled to be reminded (in a separate context, of course) that there are far fewer old people in these countries than in our own—a factor that might well influence differing approaches to the problem.
In truth, despite plentiful research, most of Sex and Destiny is simply an angry, impressionistic, and tendentious tirade against the Western way of life. Traditional societies are described at their best; ours at its worst. Sunny Third World moppets disport themselves with loving female kin while irate Western mothers stuff sweets into the mouths of their screaming young to quiet their greed. Stately, beloved matriarchs are contrasted with our own lonely “blue-rinse widows.” When Miss Greer speaks of the hapless Indian surrounded by children he cannot afford, she compassionately invokes the mysterious powers of sensuality under which he has struggled and lost. Our own failures at chastity, however, are simply due to selfishness, laziness, and irresponsibility. Even the book’s one or two tender moments are edged and sharpened by disdain for the West. She remarks on the sweetness of children, but cannot resist adding that this sweetness is more apparent to people worn out from toil than to our own “smooth-skinned, overfed selves.”
The West, then, is utterly worthless, and Miss Greer cannot use the word democracy without putting it in quotation marks. We have, according to her, no values; what values we think we have, we have no right to promote. She openly declares that the annihilation of our whole civilization would be of little consequence. A feminist counterpart of those starry-eyed Western travelers to totalitarian dictatorships, Miss Greer praises or condones practices in underdeveloped countries—abruptly dismissing clitoridectomy and the unbelievably barbaric practice of female circumcision—that she would never tolerate in her own.
Miss Greer thinks as little of the natural processes which gave her life as she does of the civilization that nurtured her. Despite, or perhaps because of, her own prodigious and much chronicled sexual indulgence, her hatred of sex, men, and biology itself runs deep. She remarks with irritation on the wastefulness of the human reproductive process: “billions of sperm are doomed to struggle and die completely pointlessly.” But sperm at least call up some admiration in her for being “lively,” while their female counterpart, the blastocyst, earns Miss Greer’s contempt: “torpid,” “passive,” “lumbering.” In her promotion of anal sex, one senses a scorn of the womb; despite her frenzied enthusiasm for large families, she commends the Marquis de Sade for calling this form of sex “‘la plus délicieuse’ of the ways of cheating nature.” In the insistent way in which she argues for coitus interruptus, one senses a disdain for male potency (she characterizes male ejaculation as the “trivial spasm,” although elsewhere she is forced to concede that it is this “spasm” that produces life).
Ironically enough, given her “liberation,” Miss Greer does not really seem capable of handling the immense freedom of Western women; certainly she praises more prohibitive arrangements as superior. Although she reasserts in this book her old sentimental belief that it is only the consumerization of sex she deplores, and that human libido can renew the earth, she means by this nothing so definite as the urge to reproduce. This libido, rather, appears to be an ideological construct, Miss Greer’s vague and fitful version of the God she cannot bring herself to believe in.
In the end, after one has considered the startling reversals of Miss Greer’s earlier views, a certain demented continuity emerges. For what Sex and Destiny most clearly reveals is that feminism—at least in its messianic, world-transforming manifestations—was less a rational program with fixed goals than an irrational shriek of hatred against the human condition itself, one that will not be silenced until every aspect of life, with its attendant irregularity, imperfection, and inequality, has been eradicated. This book is a reversal of feminism only if one assumes that feminism is the humane movement it purports to be. In fact the book is no reversal at all, but a logical, if absurd, conclusion.