The Book Club

What the Meaning of Sex Is

Dear Katha, Dear Judith,

Whether we find it interesting (Katha and me) or annoying (Judith), we seem to have reached a consensus that The Female Eunuch contains no workable political program, at least not one that could improve on the results of organized feminism. So I’d like to circle back briefly to Tuesday’s discussion and be a little clearer about why that political fecklessness does little to detract from this book’s value.

Certain books dashed off in a burst of ideological certitude derive their lasting appeal from elements that have nothing to do with their politics—and were perhaps invisible to the author. If Alfred Kazin, Murray Kempton, and Christopher Hitchens revere Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, for instance, it’s not because any of them would choose to live in the society—a theocracy administered by the subscribers of National Review, perhaps—that Chambers envisioned. They love the book (I simplify) for its portrait of a conscience in torment. Similarly, Greer’s is not the utopian vision she took it for, but a much more personal demand for liberation.

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And all personal-liberation struggles have things in common, beyond the specific injustice or hardship the person is liberating himself from. Otherwise, Helen Keller would have only blind readers. Page after page, I get the impression that Greer is bravely working through considerably more anguish than she lets on. It wins my empathy and admiration. We’ve all noted that Greer was unusually beautiful and glamorous for a best-selling author. But I cannot imagine that being a 6-foot-tall adolescent subjected to Australian schoolyard wit was a picnic. And the book is full of unsourced passages like, “Many a woman sorrowfully reflects that her more recherché sexual techniques, her more delicate apprehensions of her polymorphous partner’s needs, her very sexual generosity has directly entailed her lover’s eventual revulsion and estrangement.” This is hard-won wisdom. Despite the attempted camouflage of “Many a woman …,” I suspect she did not get that out of the Kinsey Report. If she seems to lack compassion, she always seems to have a guilty sense that something has wrung it out of her. If she is constantly combative, it’s only because she is fighting (not always winning, I’ll grant) her battle against the alternative, which is self-pity.

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And then there is her splendid (and, pace Judith, erudite) mind. Greer has been proved so correct in certain of her lobbed-off judgments—like “The take-over by computers of much vertical thinking has placed more and more emphasis on the creative propensities of thought”—that it’s easy to forget that almost everyone in 1970 thought exactly the opposite. She’s a splendid quoter, and if she’s sometimes slapdash in her historical assertions (using Petrarch to show that the objectification of women began in the Renaissance), she’s sometimes eye-opening and wholly convincing (using 17th-century ballads to show an unself-conscious pride in their bodies from which 20th-century women had been estranged). She’s also the only writer I’ve read in the past five years who uses the word “ancillary” and knows what it means. She would!

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It surprises me, since Greer has a reputation as a groundbreaking theorist of sex, that much of the sexual theorizing in the book should be so dubious. Greer accuses Betty Friedan of assuming that “sexuality is the enemy of the female who really wants to develop these aspects of her personality.” That’s a bit unfair to Friedan, who tends to talk about sex (roles) more than sexuality (sex). But even if it weren’t, what Greer is expressing here is a mere metaphysical opinion. It comes down to what you think the meaning of sex is, whether you think it’s an important aspect of a person (Friedan) or the real core of a person (Greer). At the very least, Friedan has broken freer of Freud than Greer has—and one of the things that has dated least well about The Female Eunuch is its leitmotif of castration, an empty concept in retrospect that we’ve found it quite easy to do without.

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Greer seems naive about some of the ways women’s sexual liberation served men more than women (“Miniskirts have increased mobility” she says, without a glimmer of curiosity about why trousers wouldn’t have served the same purpose). She even gives vent to a confused and scolding puritanism from time to time, sounding like a killjoy Montague or Capulet when she says that love (but not sex?) sets up expectations “which no human being could fulfill.” Or when she asks how many lovers “stop to assess the real consequences of the fact that ‘all who love are blind’ …?”

I’d gladly rise to the bait on your shared enthusiasm for government-funded day care. But I think these things depend on contexts that it would take a week to lay out. I don’t reject it categorically, but there are some obvious risks. Chief among them is that government day care does nothing about the core injustice, which is that child raising is the last uncompensated labor left in society. Since non-mothers vote too, day-care funding is likely to be meager. Galbraith, in fact, has shown that such programs are underfunded even when electorally popular. So, what government day care would likely do is merely shift intact the present arrangement—a class of underpaid immigrants at the beck of First World yuppies—from private to governmental hands. A government monopsony risks depressing wages further, and making day care lousier. My own (gut) preference would be to raise the dependent-child deduction through the roof. That would permit women the option of staying home with their kids. I assume it would also release a great pool of cash that would bid up nannies’ wages. But again, that’s dependent on a great deal of context.

There’s a lot more I’d like to talk about, but it’s late. As Dylan Thomas once said, “Something is boring me … and I think it’s me.” So I’ll just thank you both for a most enjoyable week.

All best,
Chris

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