Hi everyone! This is Sean.
Libby sent me a piece called “The Emasculating Effects of Modern Contraception.” This is about husbands and fathers. Libby is neither, but she happens to know one pretty well – me!
She was wondering what I thought – so here goes. First I’ll start with an excerpt from the piece.
The most recent discussion about “neutered men” brings to mind a casual conversation I took part in a few years back at a sporting event. A group of mothers was chatting on the sidelines and the discussion wandered to the topic of family pets. A woman was telling the story of how they came to own their dog when one of the mothers asked if they had gotten the dog neutered. The woman replied, “Oh, yes,” and then added archly, “All of the males in my house are neutered,” at which point everyone but me cracked up appreciatively.
I sat with a smile frozen on my face trying make sense of what I had just heard – that a nice woman like this would make her husband the butt of a crude joke and willingly belittle her homelife in that way, to the laughter of other mothers. I wish I could say I said something that showed them all how misguided they were but I sat mute and just felt terribly sorry for the man involved, who at the time was laboring away on the field with the boys.
That’s the long way around to the question I want to pose: How much has contraception contributed to the emasculation of men and to men’s shrinking roles as provider and protector?
Men in this day and age are rarely encouraged to procreate freely; they are asked to step up to the plate a couple of times and then are sort of put out to pasture, for lack of a better term. Their role as father is never fully realized (nor is that of the mother but that is another discussion) – it is always held in check, restrained and controlled and eventually severed, whether surgically or otherwise. Have women been emboldened, and deep inside do they look down upon men, who allow this manipulation of their progeny? And have men in turn been weakened – and have they become intimidated by the huge but beautiful responsibility of providing for a family – due to the false sense of control contraception gives, and with it the temptation to avoid heavy family and financial burdens?
The overplanning that contraception allows has led to the view of children as the special creation of the parents alone, pre-planned as they are, with births timed as goals achieved amidst other life goals of career advancement, home-buying and trips taken; these children are born with one or two other siblings and then the line of their would-be siblings is cut short. From this total control of reproduction comes an inflated sense on the part of the parents of their role as the sole creators of life. This is, no matter how sweet the family, a form of arrogance, at the bottom of which is a lack of understanding that they are called to be not the sole creators of life, but co-creators with our Creator himself, a very humbling acknowledgement indeed. And so, as Laura says, the children “are indulged in small things and deprived of big things.”
My first reaction to this piece was confusion: what on earth does contraception have to do with masculinity, or being “neutered”? Libby has an IUD. Does that somehow mean I’ve been neutered – my testicles removed, rendered effeminate, weak, and all the rest of the patriarchally-nasty implications of castration?
Obviously not. So what’s the author’s point? Let’s try to tease it out. There seem to be two strands in the last two paragraphs: a man who isn’t procreating isn’t ever “fully” realizing his god-given role of responsibility for a large family, thus opening himself to derision from women; and contraception permits parents to plan out their children, arrogantly deluding themselves into believing that they are the sole creators of their children’s lives.
The key idea motivating the first strand holds that a man’s natural role is as a virile, freely procreating man who embraces the responsibility of managing and providing for a large family. We’re all familiar with patriarchal gender roles. In Quiverfull circles, questioning the obligation of mothers to manage, love, and sustain large batches of children is almost passe. From my conversations with Libby, we’re aware – but perhaps don’t discuss it as much, for whatever reason – that Quiverfull also shoehorns men into a particular role, albeit one more congruent with mainstream patriarchal expectations.
I want to question it: Why does my “manliness” (whatever that even is) crucially hinge on not exercising control over the most important set of decisions I will ever make? Why does responsibly gauging and controlling my issue mean that I am no longer capable of bearing responsibility – that I have been infantilized?
No. The ability to control my reproduction does not infantilize me – rather, by putting more under my control, it enables me to be more responsible. It does mean that I have more control over my life – more choice in my role, less drifting on seas of circumstance – but I’m better off that way, not worse off. And so is Libby. She’ll be the first to tell you about how well I handle having a project due when the kids are tearing up the house and she’s in the middle of writing a blog post – the idea that somehow the personal growth induced by two more children (if we were Quiverfull, we’d be starting on a fifth pregnancy right about now) would turn my stress responses 180 degrees is just completely laughable.
What about the second strand? Well – perhaps surprisingly – I would like to express agreement. That’s right: by exercising total control of reproduction, parents have become the sole creators of life. No longer are couples’ lives blown on the winds of happenstance – by divorcing sex and reproduction, couples now exercise control over the creation of new life. WE decide when to get pregnant. WE decide how many children to have. WE decide whether to plant that seed of life, to coax it into bloom, to love it and protect it and guide it.
No longer can we escape by imputing responsibility to an imaginary co-creator. Contraceptives force us to face reality. Parents are the creators of new human life. We do bear responsibility for the lives we bring into the world. And we modern humans have severed the ancient link between sex and childbearing – contraceptives permit us to both pursue sexual pleasure for its own sake without great fear of unwanted pregnancy and to exercise unprecedented control in choosing when to have children.
(Isn’t that awesome? Science is so sweet.)
And in the end, does any of that tear down my “role” as a provider and protector? No, because that role no longer exists. I am not the provider and protector. Libby is not the nurterer and in-home manager. Broad economic and social changes (it ain’t the industrial revolution any more!) let us parent together, and both pursue careers in fields we love.
And Libby doesn’t look down on me because we’ve chosen, together, to balance having a family and pursuing our careers. She doesn’t think I’m somehow less of a person because my sperm can’t make her pregnant, or because an eventual vasectomy cuts off my sperm from my seminal fluid. Those are ridiculous sentiments – we’re forging a life together. We don’t have time for nonsensical non-sequitur judgments. We have a family to raise!