Form and Content
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616
In Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, Germaine Greer, the author of The Female Eunuch, challenges the right of Western industrialized societies to impose fertility control on the rest of the world. Greer considers the social meaning of fertility and sterility, the history of contraception and eugenics, shifts in family and kinship structures, and the development of the concept of a “population explosion” (which she takes to be a figment of the imagination of racists and statisticians). Her long, dense chapters brim with statistics, quotations, anecdotes, and cross-cultural examples, all related in her characteristic witty and impassioned style.
Much of the book is a warning against the ethnocentric projection of the values of one culture onto the people of another. People who live in industrialized consumer economies (where children hamper adult live) value fertility differently from those who live in subsistence cultures (where children provide entertainment, labor, status, security of aging parents, and existential meaning). The industrialized West has too often assumed that its own values (individualism, pleasure, privacy, and the accumulation of consumer goods) are universal. Greer documents many poorly conceived “foreign aid” programs of sterilization and family planning that have been based on the unfounded assumption that everyone in every culture wishes to live in a small nuclear family. She believes that “foreign aid” that is actually intended to aid would more profitably be based on asking client populations what their own desires are. She suggests that in many cases those desires might be for healthier children, not fewer children.
Greer accuses the industrialized West of cultural arrogance that manifests itself as a failure to recognize the value of age-old strategies for maintaining population homeostasis—that is, the balance of population with resources available for its support. Such strategies include the promotion of virginity, delayed marriage, long periods of sexual abstinence after the birth of a child, induced abortion, infanticide, the cessation of sexual activity after a certain age, coitus interruptus, and any form of sexual activity that does not lead to conception. Family planning programs sponsored by industrialized market economies have, not surprisingly, tried to replace these cheap, low-tech methods with profitable, high-tech contraceptive products, such as condoms, intrauterine devices (IUDs), hormones, and surgical procedures. In so doing, they have often overridden the preferences of their client populations and super-imposed new health problems on the old. For example, unmonitored IUD use results in a high rate of infections and other serious complications. Sloppy dosing of birth control pills, injections, or implants increases the risk of cancer in women and of birth defects in their children who are accidentally exposed to dangerous levels of sex hormones in utero.
Although some of these family planning projects may simply be wrong-headed, Greer also sees racism and classism at work. From the birth of the eugenic fantasy of racial improvement through selective breeding, fertility control has been largely a matter of the rich, pale-skinned peoples of the world trying to reduce the numbers of poorer and browner ones. Greer maintains that this sort of pressure is partly a form of competition between cultures and partly an attempt to consolidate profitable markets. Industrialized nations enlarge their markets by forcing a shift from what Greer sees as the thrifty and efficient extended family systems of the past to the consumerist nuclear family of modern capitalism. In the lonely isolation of the individualistic nuclear family—which Greer often refers to as “the copulating couple”—the only gratifications that are left involve self-pleasuring and conspicuous consumption. The notion that controlling the fertility of poor populations is “for their own good” or for the good of a planet on the brink of suicidal overpopulation is, according to Greer, simply whitewash.
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Critical response to Sex and Destiny was largely negative. The book’s unexpected exaltation of the joys of traditional motherhood and of the traditional male-dominated family caused some disconcerted readers to see it as a sort of puritanical backlash against the sexual liberalism of its author’s youth. Its apparent tolerance of infanticide, Indian bride-burning, and clitoridectomy was difficult to reconcile with its use of morality as an argument against sterilization. Academic readers questioned the soundness of its scholarship and pointed to a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies. For example, Greer attacks the concept of “culling” when it is imposed by bureaucratized sterilization programs, but she apparently applauds it when it is carried out by traditional mothers and midwives who kill handicapped newborns.
In spite of the flaws and controversial positions in Sex and Destiny, or possibly because of them, the book and its author continue to serve as a monument to the multifaceted heterodoxy of feminism. Feminist thought is not a monolithic doctrine, and mavericks such as Greer have continued to expand the horizon of what is “thinkable.” In particular, this book, notwithstanding the storms of dispute that attended its publication, helped to open the narrow focus of Western feminism to include respectful consideration of the needs of postcolonial, nonindustrialized nations. It also contributed to the feminist challenge of the validity, for women, of a sexual revolution that seemed in many ways to be designed expressly for the conve-nience of men.
Greer’s writings have continued to span a surprising variety of forms and issues relating to literature, families, gender, and the worlds of women. Her other works include, in addition to The Female Eunuch, Darling Say You Love Me (as Rose Blight, 1969), The Revolting Garden (1979), The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work (1979), Shakespeare (1986), The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings 1968-1985 (1986), Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989), The Change (1992), and Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Verse (1989), edited jointly with Jeslyn Medoff, Melinda Sansone, and Susan Hastings.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308
Behuniak-Long, Susan. “Feminism and Reproductive Technology.” Choice 29 (October, 1991): 243-251. A bibliographic essay that lists and briefly describes scores of books that engage issues of reproductive technology from a feminist viewpoint.
Boserup, Ester. Woman’s Role in Economic Development. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970. A classic study of the shifting patterns of women’s lives as traditional village societies are transformed by modern industrialization.
Choice. XXII, October, 1984, p. 313.
Cole, H. S. D., et al., eds. Models of Doom: A Critique of “The Limits to Growth.” New York: Universe Books, 1973. Criticizes the methods and alarming conclusions of The Limits to Growth.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1978. Examines the ascendancy of the psychomedical experts who have assumed power over women’s reproductive lives: scientists, doctors, psychotherapists, home economists, and child-rearing specialists.
Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. This study of sexist representations of women shows the continuity of Greer’s basic anticonsumerist message.
Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 887.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 27, 1984, p. 12.
Meadows, Donella H., et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2d ed. New York: Universe Books, 1974. Based on a ground-breaking computer model of current trends in population, agricultural and industrial production, natural resources, and pollution, the authors present the argument (which Greer opposes in Sex and Destiny) that a crisis of population and overconsumption of resources is imminent.
The New York Times Review of Books. XXXI, May 31, 1984, p. 15.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 29, 1984, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LX, April 30, 1984, p. 121.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 16, 1984, p. 74.
The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, May 18, 1984, p. 24.
The Washington Monthly. XVI, June, 1984, p. 60.
Women’s Review of New Books. I, July, 1984, p. 3.