The XX Factor

Skepticism About the Natural Woman

KJ , I agree that it’s probably just plain old experience that’s causing Colleen Oakley’s friends to snicker at her self-assurance that natural childbirth is going to work out well for her.  I’m reminded of how hard it is to take it seriously when a teenager swears her first love will be forever. But part of me also wonders if women aren’t just getting sick and tired of all this female-centric pressure to be “natural.”  God save me from ever hearing the word “natural” again, especially when the subject is women’s nether-regions.

Yes, yes, I get it. Women’s bodies have been overly medicalized, and it’s important for women’s health care to be woman-centric and not based around male desires or doctor convenience.  But sometimes legitimate criticisms of these kinds of sexist historical trends just disintegrate into the knee-jerk assumption not only that “natural” is better, but that we can even conclusively determine what “natural” even means. All too often, “natural” just means assuming one option is morally superior to another because it’s messier, more painful, or difficult. I never stop being amused that people who live in air-conditioned homes, drive cars, and work on computers get obsessed with the idea of “natural” when it comes to women’s bodies. The most common form of this is guilt-tripping women who use painkillers to give birth, but you also see a lot of self-righteousness about using “natural family planning” instead of manufactured contraception, using reusable pads and cups instead of tampons, and breast-feeding for years on end.  And this extends to childrearing, of course.  My favorite example is the pressure to go “diaperless ,” which means nonstop watching of a baby so that you can scoop him up and put him on the toilet the second he starts to look like he needs to go.  Sometimes you get the strong impression that “unnatural” can be defined as “anything that makes women’s lives more pleasant.” Of course, the most dangerous example of this is the anti-vaccination trend.

I’d seriously like to see even one-tenth of this pressure aimed at men. That would basically be an end to the “natural” trend. I’m trying to imagine men putting up with being told they should quit their jobs to raise chickens and watch babies all day looking for signals that they need to poop, and I can’t do it. Or that they should go through painful, life-altering medical events that used to kill many people … without pain-killers. Most of this natural woman stuff is harmless enough, but as Thomas at Yes Means Yes noted, when the right starts using “natural” rhetoric, it gets downright misogynist .

The use of technology to free us from the unwanted consequences of nature is largely uncontroversial. There are exceptions, but they are few, and share a common theme…..

We demand that people in general be protected, by technology, from consequences. But there are powerful cultural and political movements to ensure that women specifically must live with the consequences of sexual conduct.

He’s mostly interested in the way the right uses “natural” to fight attempts to liberate women sexually with technology from vaccines to the pill. But I see a similar enthusiasm for “natural” on the left, at least when it comes to women. Anxieties about modernity and technology tend to be dumped on women. We take on the scut work of living out fantasies about Edenic perfection, and the rest of the world can just click along with the assistance of modern innovations.

The worst part is that the initial move toward natural childbirth was based in the historical tragedy that was twilight-sleep labor, where women’s memories of childbirth were wiped out but their in-the-moment experience was pure hell.  Ending that practice was a human-rights necessity. But sometimes I worry that we went too far in the other direction.  If the problem with twilight sleep was that it was painful and terrifying for women without the reward of remembering their baby’s birth, I fail to see how it’s some great innovation to keep the pain part in play.  The medical establishment seems to get no credit whatsoever for finding ways to relieve pain while keeping the happy memories alive.