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The Crux Project Archives: Sex & Family
In Praise of Free Love
To most people today, fertility is a disaster waiting to happen. Getting pregnant is like contracting a disease—thankfully, there’s a pill to vaccinate against it. When accidents happen, men have it fairly easy. But it’s no fun being a woman. What’s desirable is to be free—to be like a man, able to enjoy sex all the time without getting pregnant.
This attitude is expressed well in a 1964 ad for Enovid, the first contraceptive pill:
From the beginning, woman has been a vassal to the temporal demands of the cyclic mechanism of her reproductive system. Now, to a degree heretofore unknown, she is permitted . . . suspension of cyclic function and procreative potential. This new method of control is symbolized in an illustration from ancient Greek mythology: Andromeda freed from her chains.
Most women seem to agree with this assessment: in America, nearly 80% of women born after 1945 have gone on the Pill at some point in their lives. Recognizing the enormity of this revolution, The Economist named the Pill the greatest scientific advance of the twentieth century.
But is the history of contraceptive advances really a story of liberation for women? Or is it a story of women’s increasing bondage to pharmaceutical corporations and to men who want sex without responsibility?
According to the promoters of contraception, a woman is a slave to her cycle and freedom comes from the mechanical control of fertility. As Margaret Sanger said in 1920, “Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.”
Contrast this with the wisdom literature of ancient Egypt and Israel, which offers another perspective on fertility. In a hymn to Aton, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV sang,
All the beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing. . . .
Creator of the seed in women,
Thou who makest fluid into man,
Who maintainest the son in the womb of his mother. . . .
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
In Amenhotep’s view, fertility—both of the earth and of our bodies—is a mystery, a gift to be received joyfully. The Hebrew scriptures agree:
Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.
You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. (Psalm 128:1–3)
In the ancient view, a human being is not a machine but a person—a unity of soul and body. The wisdom of the past would caution us against artificially suppressing any part of the person—including their fertility.
Health is wholeness. It involves being connected, living in harmony with our bodies, our environment, and our fellow human beings. Industrialism, however, tends toward division. Applied to sexuality, industrialism has fostered a separation between sex and fertility, which, in turn, has lead to a separation between sex and marriage.
“Until recently,” writes Wendell Berry, “there was no division between sexuality and fertility, because none was possible. This division was made possible by modern technology, which subjected human fertility, like the fertility of the earth, to a new kind of will: the technological will, which may not necessarily oppose the moral will, but which has not only tended to do so, but has tended to replace it.”
“For the care or control of fertility,” Berry continues, “we have allowed a technology of chemicals and devices to replace entirely the cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints.” It was through these cultural, or ecological, means that our ancestors harnessed and preserved sexual energy. These include the upholding of marriage as the proper context for sex and the discipline of periodic abstinence for the spacing of children.
A woman, with her cycle of fertility, is not a forest to be cleared or a mountain to be strip-mined. Instead, she’s like a garden, yielding her fruits to the patience and care of the loving husbandman. Neither are children pests to be warded off with chemicals. Instead, they’re a crowning gift of marriage, the visible fruits of a love too strong to be contained in just two bodies.
Even so, at times it is prudent to avoid the gift of children, by exercising stewardship over our fertility. Looking to the garden, we can see how to manage fertility in harmony with nature. If you want a field to lie fallow, you simply refrain from planting seeds during the fertile season. The same is true of our bodies—to avoid pregnancy, a couple can learn to follow the wife’s signs of fertility, and avoid intercourse during the fertile time.
Gandhi believed that self-control is the only means of limiting fertility in accordance with human dignity. “The existence of the world depends on the reproductive act,” he writes in his autobiography,
and since the world is God’s domain, and a reflection of his power, this act must be subject to controls, the purpose of which is the continuation of life on earth. The man who understands this will strive at all costs to master his senses, arm himself with the knowledge that is necessary to the physical and spiritual welfare of his posterity, and transmit this knowledge to the future, for its benefit.
As Ghandhi recognized, real sexual freedom doesn’t come from contraceptives. It comes from honoring and guarding our sexuality, and situating it in the context of a loving marriage that’s open to procreation.
Romantic love involves total self-abandonment. For a romance to flourish, year after year, it needs the promise of life-long fidelity and a commitment to something bigger than itself—a commitment to the raising up of children. Paradoxically, we can only experience the freedom of love when we give ourselves away.
We’ve had a sexual revolution. What’s needed now is a revolution of love. •