A man who doesn’t want to watch his wife give birth is a jerk. This was the overwhelming consensus reached by a host of respected blogs after the publication last Tuesday in the New York Times of a piece by a therapist noting an unhappy trend: A number of his male patients have reported that after witnessing their wives have babies they no longer feel attracted to them. “I mean, how are you supposed to go from seeing that to wanting to be with …?” one husband asked, unable to finish his sentence. It made no difference that these men were patients in search of help, not Neanderthals who’d ditched their wives; the bloggers —many of whom are usually temperate—were outraged. “Would it hurt if I call you a big pussy?”one woman queried, adding, “Luckily for me, I didn’t marry a total asshole, so I didn’t have this problem.” According to one post, a husband who finds his libido gone in the wake of the delivery room merits the same scorn we’d direct at a man who leaves a woman after finding out that she has a black grandparent.
Dr. Keith Ablow, the author of the article, certainly can be faulted for blithely suggesting that the solution lies mostly in mothers’ hands. But what was nonetheless striking about the debate was the vehemence of the hostility directed at these men. The bloggers clearly felt that the men’s desire (or lack of it) was objectively wrong, like that of a pedophile or a rapist, and ought somehow to be controllable. The animus against these men illuminates how powerful even relatively new cultural norms can be—and how dramatic the conflict is between what we think people should want and what they actually do want.
For most of human history, of course, men didn’t go anywhere near women in labor, and any expectation that they would is relatively new: In Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, set at the turn of the century *, a father is sent off to the bar by the household women so he doesn’t have to hear his wife’s cries of pain. This changed in the 1960s, when a doctor named Robert Bradley put power in patients’ hands, reducing the number of Caesarean sections and episiotomies he performed and playing up natural ways of making childbirth less painful. One method, he discovered, was to invite the husband in to have him talk to his wife—a practice popularized in the 1970s. Putting husbands in the delivery room not only coincided with feminism but was intimately wrapped up with the natural childbirth movement and its effort to see the modern body in a more holistic fashion. (Bradley himself was no feminist; he told husbands to enforce a natural-foods diet he designed so that their “statuesque” wives wouldn’t pack on pounds.)
The idea that childbirth was natural and therefore beautiful wasn’t actually embraced by all feminists. Shulamith Firestone insisted that modern feminism shouldn’t celebrate childbirth, but hope that science could soon render women’s role in it obsolete. She writes, “Pregnancy is barbaric. … The husband’s guilty waning of sexual desire, the woman’s tears in front of the mirror at eight months are all gut reactions, not to be dismissed as cultural habits. … Three thousand years ago women giving birth ‘naturally’ had no need to pretend that pregnancy was a real trip, some mystical orgasm.”
Today’s women aren’t celebrating pregnancy as a mystical orgasm, but they do see having the father in the delivery room as a necessary component of a healthy marriage, one in which both partners contribute equally to collective partnership. This is an absolutely reasonable request: Childbirth is scary and painful, and it makes sense to have reassurance and help from the person you’re closest to (and your child’s father). But the belief that men should be on duty no matter what assumes on some level that sex is just like all the other functions that the body performs. What the experience of the men in the therapist’s article suggests is that, for at least some, this isn’t true; for some, the erotic depends on maintaining a distinction between the sexual and the reproductive.
This doesn’t mean, as bloggers seemed to believe, that the man who finds childbirth sexually traumatizing is nursing a retrograde desire for a Stepford wife and exposing his inability to confront his partner at less than her loveliest. In fact, these men were getting at a more distinct and elusive problem that Firestone alluded to: their psychological discomfort with the violent erosion of that sexual/reproductive boundary. Sexual attraction is highly variable and individualistic: Some relationships are grounded in hippie-ish holistic celebration of bodily plumbing (the kind of couples who don’t close the bathroom door) and others thrive on a sharper separation between sex and the everyday framed in more ritualistic terms. The squeamishness of the men described in the Times article may be immature and even selfish. But I’m not sure it makes them sexist.
At the crux of the debate is one of most important and vexed questions of modern feminism: How far into our imaginations should it reach? For one strain of feminism, epitomized by thinkers like Catharine MacKinnon, * there’s no room for a compartmentalization of sex from the rest of life, and the idea that sex requires a certain measure of artifice is utterly unacceptable. To have a “healthy” and “mature” relationship demands not only mutual respect in and out of the bedroom, but an acceptance of womanhood in all its guises along a fluid (so to speak) spectrum. This approach—which effectively politicizes the bedroom—is a theoretically valid way of conceptualizing equality between the sexes. And according to its terms, the men in the Times article truly are morally unlucky—stranded at an unfortunate crossroads of biology and culture.
But somehow this perspective seems ultimately impoverished. It’s not just that it assumes individual male arousal is controllable, or that it assumes that even if it isn’t we should despise these finicky men. It’s that it aims to define which sexual feelings are and are not appropriate. Feminists (both female and male varieties) want to have it all ways: loving, unfaltering sexual devotion between husband and wife, and absolute domestic intimacy too. But there’s no room in this view for the notion that sexual devotion (and sexual obsession) might depend, in some cases, on the survival of an erotic vocabulary that’s distinct from a biological one. What these men’s concerns should make us wonder, for at least a moment, is just how far we can socialize sexual desire—and whether we want to even if we can.
How do we deal with the messy, intractable fact that our desires don’t conform to our ideals for an egalitarian society? I’m totally sympathetic to the hostility women feel toward these men; ironically enough, a few days before the article appeared, a good male friend of mine told me he was uneasy about witnessing his future wife give birth, and I basically tore his head off. On a gut level most women, and plenty of men, feel anxious about the imbalance of power that stems from the fact that only women can give birth (among other things). And it seems absurdly unfair to do all the physical work of bringing a child into the world only to find that its squeamish father is too grossed out to make his way back to the marital bed.
But it doesn’t help to pillory these men as blackguards and short-circuit a conversation that clearly needs to be had. (One blog even shut down its discussion thread about the article, claiming that the few posters defending the men were being unacceptably “narcissistic.”) Until 30 or so years ago few men were in the delivery room, and now nearly all are: That’s a huge cultural shift. Beginning a conversation about it doesn’t mean we want to go back to days when the father was sent down to the bar so he didn’t have to hear what was taking place. It means acknowledging that perhaps a one-size-fits-all solution is foolish when it comes to complicated questions like sexual desire. The last few years have seen a rising movement among women to go ahead and have epidurals or say they want C-sections—to make individual choices about childbirth, in other words, rather than follow a doctrinaire routine imposed by dogmatic ideologists. It seems all the more odd, then, not to acknowledge that men, like women, aren’t all wired the same way, even if we wish they were.
Correction, Aug. 30, 2005: This article originally stated that Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was set in the 1940s; in fact, the novel was published in the 1940s and set in the early 20th century. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Aug. 31, 2005: This article originally referred the feminist Catherine MacKinnon; the name in question is spelled Catharine MacKinnon. (Return to the corrected sentence.)