Sex and Fertility: Where the Gender rubber meets the Sex road

Many (all?) of the old fashioned sexual norms that we have today come from a world that is notably different than ours. Those norms were based on an implicit understanding of the relationship between sex (what’s in your jeans/genes), sexuality (who you want to get with), and gender (the social roles that go along with biological sex).

Figure 1: The Sex Triangle — Your biology drives your sexual preference, and both dictate your social roles

There are four monumental technological differences between their world and ours, which necessarily change the relationships embedded in the sex triangle.

  1. Formula — While the official recommendation to breast feed still stands, you have the option in today’s world to feed your child entirely healthy formula. And your kid will turn out fine. Formulas from a century ago probably weren’t as good as ours, but hopefully they didn’t kill your child. But if we go back much further, most children HAD to be breastfed. There just weren't a whole lot of other options. In the old days, you either swapped wet nursing with other women you knew (I’m guessing), or you were so rich, you could afford to have your nannies and slaves do it. Otherwise, if you had a baby, s/he was at your breast.
  2. Good reliable birth control — The old days had awesome and entertaining attempts at birth control. Douching with Lysol or Coca-Cola for spermicide, condoms made out of sheep intestines, pulling out, Catholic timing, they were creative! But not really reliable in the same way today’s oral contraception is. So, if you didn’t want to have babies, the BEST option was to not have sex. If you didn’t want to be supporting bastards, you made sure your girl was only sexing with you.
  3. Safe legal abortion — Now, it’s obviously ok to disagree with the morality behind abortion. But, in terms of modern gender roles and sexuality the ability to get safe legal abortion is a key step. In ye olden times, unwanted children were sometimes abandoned to the elements, mechanical abortion was induced by abusing the pregnant woman’s stomach, or chemical abortions were induced through people who knew their herbology. Some of these were more effective than others. Into the 50s and 60s, health clinics regularly served women with botched abortions. Bleeding, septic infections, and permanent organ damage were all entirely expected outcomes.
  4. Fertility technologies — The ability to have medically assisted fertility into a woman’s late 30s and sometimes 40s is one. The other is the ability for a woman to use fertility services to conceive a child in a clinical setting.

These four technological improvements means that sex can now be separated from procreation. This entirely changes gender and sexuality.

Figure 2: The Post-Technology Sex Triangle. Sex, Sexuality and Gender are not explicitly related in today’s world

The sexual doublestandard comes from the simple fact that women are the ones who bear the children. In an old fashioned world, if a woman has sex, and gets pregnant, then she is the one dealing with it. If a man has sex and she can’t prove it’s his, then he may well not have to support it.

This is why there were such cultural strictures for women to be chaste, and for men to be “decent guys.” The world knew that men could get away with siring children, leaving the women of the world holding all the responsibility. I sometimes hypothesize that this is where chivalry comes in — to illustrate to a woman that one is NOT the kind of man who is going to take advantage of being bigger, stronger, faster. You want to be a gentle-man after all. If you weren’t a gentle-man, and her brothers or father caught you — then you’re getting married or beat.

There is also an implicit awareness here then that what men need to bring to the table are the resources to take care of mama and the rugrats. Again, in ye olden days a man might not get married until he had the means to care for a woman and children. And a man who abandoned a family was a real lowlife. Getting a little on the side wasn’t a great thing, but it didn’t necessarily harm his larger duties, if that makes sense.

This all should sound familiar, and it is close to our conversations over the last couple weeks. This week is different though, because of the focus on sex and fertility.

First sex: Sex is no longer only a procreative tool. People can now have sex for the sheer enjoyment of it (as if they didn’t in the past! — but at least now with the fair certainty they won’t get pregnant if they don’t want to). This effect of this is that our understandings of gender will probably change. Should women be chaste in a world of good birth control and DNA paternity tests? If so why? Shouldn’t a woman enjoy sex for its own sake, with as many men as she likes? Is it possible that a “slut” is just someone who likes sex, the way we expect men to? Or do we expect men to have sex like women in today’s world? Should he be celibate before marriage, and monogamous after? No side chicks, at all? How many partners is ‘too many’ for people in today’s world? And if that number is different for men and women, why?

Regarding masculinity and femininity, if women can make as much money as men in the workforce, does a man need to be a provider, protector, and gentleman? Does a woman need to be nurturing and loving, if she can also be the provider? As you can see, there are more questions than answers.

Second fertility: in ye olden times, the best time for a woman to have a child was in her early 20s, maybe late teens. Why? Because that’s when we humans are physically strongest and most able to heal quickly. As such, the best time to court is right about then too. That also means that if you’re not hooked up by 25, well a life of cats and knitting awaits you.

In today’s world though, it’s entirely legit for a young woman to pursue career success in her twenties and thirties, rather than choosing family and children. For those that do want to have kids, that timeframe can be pushed back into the late 30s and sometimes 40s. Now, women’s fertility on average starts dropping fairly quickly after 35 so having children at that time can be more challenging. This is yet another place where our technology allows us to stretch the strictures of our biology.

So, with the help of fertility specialists women and couples who want to have children later in life can oftentimes (not always though) have children in their late 30s and early 40s. One challenge this creates is that all the milestones are later in life. You may be getting up with an infant at 40, chasing toddlers at 44, teaching driving at 55, attending college graduation at 62. This doesn’t have to be bad at all, but it does mean a little bit of a different life pattern than might be average.

A woman may also choose to have a child of her own at any point in her life cycle if he so chooses. This is clearly not an option anyone had earlier in history. But if a woman can choose a sire out of a catalog, have a physician do the insemination and implantation, that too changes our expectations of women and men.

The saddest part of the fertility discussion is that some people do still get caught by the biological clock timing out. We tell young people “you can do everything!” But, technology can’t make every woman and couple fertile at thirty five, so those who put off the decision to have children may find the decision is made for them.

So to sum:

The relationship between sexual activity and procreation has changed. Gender has therefore changed too. As a consequence, sex itself has also changed — the who what why and how we get it on. This raises a whole set of questions for us as a culture — how do we adjust to this new gender, this new sexuality?

Also, fertility has changed with this shift as well. Again, the who what when why and how we procreate is different than a hundred years ago. How does this change family life?