Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

Greer’s first book, The Female Eunuch (1971), was an outcry against the suppression and misrepresentation of female sexuality. The enormous impact of that work raised the prospect that whatever came from the pen of its author could be filed under the heading “feminist theory.” Contrary to those expectations, Sex and Destiny is not about the power imbalance between men and women. Instead, it concerns the power imbalance in another dominance relationship, the one between the “developed,” largely Eurocaucasian, industrialized market economies and the “developing,” largely equatorial, postcolonial Third World.

Greer takes a respectful position with regard to the practices of traditional nonindustrial societies. She repeatedly illustrates ways in which customs that seem bizarre and negative to the urbanized West were beneficial to the survival of groups that practiced them. For example, ritual sexual abstinence during the growing season had the effect of slowing the birth rate to a level that could be accommodated by available food supplies. Greer’s understanding acceptance is not, however, limited to relatively neutral practices such as customs regulating when and where sexual intercourse is allowed. She also speaks, with utilitarian respect of clitoridectomy, infanticide, Islamic purdah, patriarchal kinship systems, and menstrual seclusion. These practices, although legitimately “traditional,” have long been instrumental in the oppression of women. For this reason, some readers who expected a straightforward feminist message from Greer have been disappointed and even betrayed. Others have complained of the logical inconsistency of a cultural relativism that accepted and positively valued the practices of all cultures except, irrationally, one’s own. Of her own culture, Greer has not much good to say. She diagnoses it as being anti-child, immoderately greedy, and pleasure-mad.

Greer’s reputation as author of The Female Eunuch and apostle of the sexual revolution also predisposed readers to look for a message supporting sexual liberation. Instead, they find a serious examination of the merits of chastity, along with a critique of what Greer calls the modern “sex religion,” the “new opiate of the people.” This new religion is founded on the elevation of genital pleasure above all other values, and its ritual practice is the pursuit of the perfect orgasm. Greer demonstrates that this primacy of genital sensation is purely local to modern society and, by centering on the pleasure principle, draws off energy from motivation for political action. She also shows it to be directly supportive of capitalist consumption patterns in its focus on immediate gratification instead of on the well-being of a kinship line across the generations. Furthermore, the genital orgasm preoccupation does not nourish the diffuse, whole-body sensuality that is natural to women and infants. Instead, it exerts pressure toward remaking female sexuality into the image of male sexuality: goal directed and genitally centered.

Aside from the debate generated by Sex and Destiny’s refusal to stand on a predictable feminist and sexual liberationist platform, the book also takes its place in the controversy between those who claim that humanity is in the midst of overwhelming population growth leading to imminent collapse and those who claim that the human crisis is not caused by overgrowth of population but by uneven distribution of the goods needed to support that population—in other words, by poverty. Greer numbers herself among the second group. She dismisses overpopulation as a “myth,” a “theoretical catastrophe” created by statisticians to rationalize the quasi-genocidal fertility control imposed on poor nations by rich ones. She supports her position with evidence that famine and the cheapening of human life existed even before population entered its present phase of precipitous growth. Greer accepts the theoretical possibility that the human population may outstrip the earth’s capacity to feed it, but she insists that the planet has not yet reached that point. The human misery that is evident in many nonindustrialized nations, she argues, is a product of the poverty of the many and the extravagant overconsumption of the few.

Although Sex and Destiny takes the issue of fertility control as its subject, Greer’s larger concern is the transformation of human beings into machines of consumption in the service of economic systems. This concern is consistent with her earlier work in The Female Eunuch. The isolation of individuals into nuclear families, the disruption of extended families, the recruitment of indigenous peoples into consumer society, the diminishment of the rewards of parenthood—Greer sees all these superficially unrelated processes as parts of a larger process: the victory of consumerism over the art of living.

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