Is mothering the new sex?

Old Lady in shock

It used to be that sex was tightly culturally regulated and mothering had no oversight. In 2019, in industrialized countries mothering is tightly culturally regulated and sex has no oversight.

What happened?

For most of recorded history, there were regulations about who could have sex with whom, who pursued and who was expected to resist. From the Bible to the Puritans, the regulations were particularly rigid for women.

Natural mothering is the missionary position of contemporary motherhood.

Men could have sex with any woman (but no men); men could have more than one wife; and men could — indeed were expected — to have sex outside of marriage. None of these practices were thought to have any effect on a man’s virtue. In contrast, a woman’s virtue was situated firmly in her vagina. She was allowed to have sex only after marriage and only with her husband at his whim; she had no right to refuse. Rape was routinely blamed on women and even if they were not blamed, they were “ruined,” condemned to live outside the circle of polite society.

Even within marriage, women’s sexuality was tightly regulated. Certain behaviors were considered the province of courtesans and prostitutes and proscribed for wives. The “good” wife settled for the missionary position when and only when her husband wished to meet his sexual needs; her needs were irrelevant.

In contrast, how she mothered her children was not regulated at all. There were no choices to be made in childbirth, but when it came to infant feeding women could breastfeed, supplemented by or replaced with a wide variety of (generally unsuitable) alternatives like animal milks, or — if wealthy — could hire a wet nurse. For those with means, day to day childrearing was outsourced to hired help or slaves; for those without means, children were often put to work on the farm and, later, in the factories. Your children were your husband’s property. He might care how you treated them; certainly no one else would. No one would have even looked askance if you beat your children regularly. Some even thought regular beating improved their character.

Today, in contrast, sexual license prevails. Have sex with anyone and everyone, inside marriage and outside it; most people don’t care. Sexuality is ascribed to women as well as men; everyone is believed to be entitled to sexual satisfaction as a matter of health and wellbeing. We have utterly rejected the rules that guided sexual relationships for most of recorded history. Instead — at almost precisely the same time — we have created elaborate rules for mothering.

There are rules for what constitutes the “best” birth; there is only one acceptable way to feed a baby; and we have become deeply censorious of mothers spending time apart from their children. So-called “natural mothering” is the missionary position of contemporary motherhood. The “good” mother embraces it. She has no higher purpose than to meet her children’s needs; certainly her own needs are irrelevant.

We have constricted motherhood as tightly as we used to constrict women’s sexuality and for the same reason — to control women.

You don’t have to have a sociology degree to understand that the myriad historical regulations around women and sex were created to protect men’s prerogatives. Every respectable woman was owned by a man and was forced to stay home to meet his needs, raise his children and preserve her virtue. While there were always women who rebelled at such strictures, by and large most women didn’t merely support this view of women, they defended it by shunning women who wouldn’t comply. For a woman, being excluded from polite society meant being excluded from and by other women.

It’s harder to see that the modern prescriptions around mothering — in particular the ideology of natural mothering, also known as attachment parenting or intensive mothering — have been promoted primarily to protect men’s prerogatives. A “good” mother has unmedicated vaginal births, breastfeeds exclusively and for an extended period of time, and literally wears her babies. With the advent of women’s legal and economic emancipation, women have thrown off traditional strictures so they must be forced back into the home. The primary enforcers, as in the case with sexual restrictions, is other women.

But in contrast to sexual restrictions, enforcing mothering restrictions has been professionalized: midwives, doulas, lactation consultants and attachment parenting “experts” profit only when they force women to comply with their priorities. Not surprisingly, they spend a great deal of time pressuring women. In addition to the shaming and shunning that were formerly applied to sex, they have hit upon an even more powerful motivator. They have claimed — with no evidence of any kind — that if women don’t knuckle under to natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting, their will children won’t bond; in other words, their children won’t love them. That fate is far crueler than being shunned by one’s peers.

Make no mistake, I am not referring to women who make affirmative choices:

Some women are affirmatively heterosexual and monogamous. They have husbands and they are faithful to them. They might prefer the missionary position, feel uncomfortable initiating sex, or might not enjoy sex but submit because they love their husbands. I applaud them for living the lives they choose.

That’s very different from women who are forced to appear heterosexual and monogamous on pain of condemnation and shunning. They might want more from a sexual relationship than merely meeting a spouse’s needs and they should not be pressured into believing they are “bad” wives when they won’t submit to their husbands.

Similarly, there are some women who are affirmatively domestic. There is no place they would rather be than home with their children; there is nothing they would rather do than breastfeed a child; they glory in unmedicated vaginal birth. I don’t merely applaud them for living the lives they choose; in many respects I have emulated them.

But that’s very different from women who are pressured into unmedicated vaginal births they don’t want, breastfeeding they don’t enjoy, and enforced isolation with small children instead of a job or career they prefer.

Our society has gone from sexually puritanical and unrestrictive about motherhood, to sexually licentious and rigidly restrictive about motherhood. That’s not an advance. It’s just a different way to do the same thing: domesticating women by convincing them that they exist for the benefit of others, while their needs and desires are ignored.

  • PeggySue

    In the States, in white evangelical Christian communities, how women have sex is still subject to strong pressure. In theory, men are held to the same standards, but in practice, that is not always the case.

  • swbarnes2

    Today, in contrast, sexual license prevails. Have sex with anyone and everyone, inside marriage and outside it; most people don’t care.

    Well, for lots of people, it’s not that there are no rules, is that there is one overarching rule…respect consent. Lots of things which were okay, or winked at before are not okay now, because they violate consent.

  • Beth Presswood

    Your description of our sexual culture is WILDLY optimistic. We still live in an intense purity culture, where abstinence-only education is the majority and the 2 largest denominations (Catholic and Southern Baptist) are EXTREMELY sex-negative.

    • StephanieJR

      Yeah, I can get the analogy, but we still absolutely shame women (and, to a lesser extent, some men) for having ‘alternative’ sex lives. There’s a lot of bullshit yet to overcome.

    • alongpursuit

      This article is pretty accurate in the context of Quebec where people have liberal attitudes toward sex, but the natural motherhood ideology is very strong. There’s a weird feminism/progressiveness here that I find paradoxical. For example, about 1/3 of people aged 25-64 live common-law here, but when I formula-fed in public I would frequently get negative comments. To my dismay, the majority wants to prevent hijab-wearing women from working as judges, police officers, teachers or public servants. I think telling women what to wear (or what to do with their bodies) is completely incompatible with feminism and has no place in progressive society. We definitely have a lot of bullshit to overcome here too.

      • MaineJen

        I legitimately don’t understand why people have problems with the hijab. Like: WHY. And would they have the same reaction if a man wore a yarmulke in public life? Or if a nun wore a veil?

        • swbarnes2

          Well, extra coverings tell women that their very bodies are by nature sexual displays, and only made appropriate for being in public with lots of covering, while a man showing a little skin is just a person doing person stuff.

          But the way to fix this is not to force women to abandon the hijab, especially among women who aren’t free to defy the men in their lives. The way is to get women to want to stop wearing it, because they observe that the wider world treats them as human beings, and not sex objects, no matter what they wear.

          • rational thinker

            I heard something years ago that in one Muslim dominant country women had to fight just to be able to get the slit over their eyes so they can see.

            They should not be forced to wear it but in some places it is forced. But if they want to wear it that is their right and nobody should tell them they cant wear it.

          • alongpursuit

            I worried too that the hijab was a sign of oppression, but (at least here) it’s a choice many Muslim women make so it would be oppressive to force them remove the hijab to participate in society. I started reading accounts of women who wear the hijab because I was curious and now I want to defend their right to wear it.

            https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/why-i-wear-the-hijab-i-want-people-to-really-hear-me-and-really-see-me

            There’s an uproar in Canada about a Quebec minister of education who stated that Malala Yousafzai would only be able to be a teacher in Quebec if she removed her hijab. I think that’s terribly paternalistic and misguided.

          • FormerPhysicist

            I read this and think: She’s reinvented the hijab.

            https://www.seventeen.com/celebrity/music/a27467918/billie-eilish-style/

          • AnnaPDE

            By the same token, American attitudes to how covered-up women are supposed to be cause serious surprise in other countries. E.g. that leggings aren’t acceptable as pants in school dress codes, or that spaghetti-strap tops without some shoulder cover are too revealing…

        • PeggySue

          Anti-Islamic bias. And not all Islamic women wear the hijab because of pressure from men. Women should be perfectly free to wear it, or no. How someone else chooses to dress just isn’t any concern of mine.

      • StephanieJR

        Every woman should have both the choice and the freedom – and that’s legal freedom as well as the social freedom – to wear whatever the fuck she wants. If wearing something is part of her expressing her religion, such as wearing a necklace with a depiction of the crucifixion on it, or a hijab/other head covering, so long as she is not being forced to, she should have the right to do so.

        The problem is not the piece of clothing. The problem is policing women.

    • MaineJen

      You are right. Living in large cities or more liberal states, we can easily forget that some unlucky women now have both sex AND motherhood tightly regulated.

      • seenthelight

        Yeah I’m in Alabama… We get both!