Celibacy and Childbearing
I found the article by Debra Norton in the last Midwifery Matters on celibacy in pregnancy disturbing, and I think it needs answering on three levels: physiology, politics and spirituality. These three levels are all intermingled, but I shall separate them out for the sake of clarity.
What was stated was not based on what I recognise as physiological processes. It was speculative to quite a large degree, and made a number of assumptions based on a theory of physical functioning which involves an emotive and, I believe, inaccurate use of language. The use of the word putrefying, for example, to describe what happens to semen in the reproductive tract implies a revulsion towards the sexual, and is an inaccurate use of the word. She also states that pressure on the reproductive organs from undigested food leads to sexual arousal. This is a mechanistic view of sexual desire: my experience is much more multifarious and holistic (and pleasurable) than that. The use of the concept of the toxic to describe normal physical processes of change also implies that the body is a rather revolting and dangerous place. This use of the idea of 'toxins' is prevalent in a certain type of New Age thinking. It was with great relief that I recently read the Guardian's medical correspondent's response to someone asking about colonic irrigation to 'detoxify': she said that a bowel without faeces was like a heart without blood. And to describe sexual activity as leading to phosphorus loss in a pregnant woman and therefore risking 'retarded brain development' is simply scaremongering.
She compares the contractions of orgasm and labour, with a possible loss of oxygen to the fetus. This is possible, but it is speculative, and it is also possible that fetuses are well able to withstand contractions of either kind. She assumes the nature of the hormonal influence on fetal awareness will be detrimental. Maybe a fetus relishes the raised level of arousal. And if maternal hormones influence fetal well being - and I believe they do - then there are many opportunities other than sex to stress the fetus with negative emotion. If happy mothers make for happy babies - what if sex makes her happy? Some women do like it and are not coerced into it. It causes a release of endorphins after all.
Postnatally she points out rather half heartedly that breast is best and misses the undeniable point that if women's milk is adversely affected by pesticide residues etc. where do breast milk substitutes come from? Are cows somehow immune?
These speculations are based on a number or assumptions and values, all of which underplay the body and the physical. These assumptions relate in my experience to various political implications.
Lucy Goodison, in her book on feminism and spirituality shows how certain dualities are enshrined in much spiritual discourse, and how they incorporate both sexism and racism. Up and down, head and feet, heaven and earth, soul and body, light and dark. In all these cases the former is valued above the latter. And women have come to be seen as the earthy, the physical, even the dark. The language and assumptions of male dominated obstetrics are very similar to that used by Debra Norton to describe physical change: they also see the womb as a rather dangerous place, not easily amenable to vision and measurement. The needs of mother and baby are seen as opposed, and there is an implication that it is much safer for a compromised baby to be out and in the clear light of day in a neonatal unit than to remain in the mother. From this it is easy to extend the view to a mistrust of the process of gestation and of birth.
Speculation about the experiences of the baby relies on an assumption that peace and serenity are good and excitement is bad: the political implications of this are that women should be calm and quiet. This, taken with the rhetoric about cleansing and detoxifying, implies a circumscribed role which is almost Victorian in its prescription of passivity and purity.
Yes there's an unhealthy emphasis on sex in this society. I am interested in discovering a healthy one which is not simply that of repudiating it. Here it is implied that a large extent of women's sexual activity in pregnancy is to please men. My mother, born in 1913, told me that sex was 'only for men'. Fortunately at the time she told me I had already discovered that this was not true. I believe that sexual energy is powerful and life affirming and that it should be available to women as well as men.
There are different spiritual beliefs: I believe that all spiritual practice leads to one summit, and that there are many routes, but here one set is presented quite dogmatically and again there are questions of polarity, the spiritual (higher) versus the mundane (lower). I infer that the views stated here relate to aspects of Hinduism and that these specifically Hindu assumptions are taken to have universal application. My particular route is based on Tibetan Buddhism, for reasons I don't fully understand, and Celtic shamanism, for reasons of geography. The latter embeds me in nature, the physiology of the earth, in processes including death and dissolution. Buddhism teaches equanimity and the inevitability of suffering. This has interesting implications for the type of argument Debra Norton advances. Why is blood in the heart good, but faeces in the bowel bad? Why is the denser arrangement of energy in material form inferior to the spiritual?
I believe that all institutional religions include dogma which serves social purposes rather than the spiritual, and that these social purposes are often misogynist and intended to maintain a social status quo which keeps power in the hands of an elite.
I might say that the apparent contempt expressed by Debra Norton for the world of form, the physical, feeds into this misogyny. She implies a very stereotypical role for women with an emphasis on purity. I am suspicious of purity. I think it often embodies fear and denial of the dark and the difficult: when the great Zen teacher D.T.Suzuki developed cancer, a western devotee remarked that he couldn't be enlightened then. But spirituality does not defy death or illness.
Some, possibly most, schools in my tradition teach a view of karma which may imply that the soul determines the body, but this view can easily become a sort of spiritual fascism which does not allow for contingency or accident and which blames people for suffering. This blame allows the person blaming to continue to consider themselves superior or immune to the inevitable vagaries of the facts of life, which include not only sex but also disease, infirmity and death.
I think the views expressed by Debra Norton are interesting in the assumptions they are based on, and that many of these assumptions are valid: that childbearing needs to be understood within a social, psychological and spiritual context as well as a biomedical one; that fetuses are sensitive and that perinatal events can influence a person's way of being in the world. But I also think when expressing these types of views that it is important to be explicit about the theoretical assumptions on which they are based if they are to be responded to with clarity.