Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On "womb envy" and way more than you ever wanted to know about my reproductive health

Okay, so there's an interesting discussion over at Pandagon right now. It started with a rant (he calls it a rant; I think it's entirely coherent) by Joss Whedon* at Whedonesque about the stoning death of Dua Khalil in Iraq and theories on the origins of misogyny (a rant which you should read, because it's really moving). He boils a lot of it down to "womb envy," which led to an enthusiastic discussion of the concept in comments.

The discussion goes kind of like this:
Some commenter without a uterus: I can buy that. Being able to bear children is a pretty awesome trick.
Other commenter with a uterus: You've got to be kidding. You should try it sometime.
SCWaU: Well, that's the point. I can't. But it would be cool if I could.
OCWaU: You should try dragging one of these things around.
SCWaU: Hey, I'd love to try! That's kind of a source of power, if you think about it.
OCWaU: Right, 'cause I feel soooo powerful every month as I bleed profusely from my...

And so on.

And while I kind of make light of the debate here, I actually think it's an important one, because to me, it underlines one of the most important points of the "womb envy" concept: men just don't know. They envy because they just don't know.

Sure, medical science has helped us understand the process of gestation and childbirth. We know the anatomy of it. Children know where babies are made, and then we can look at 4-D ultrasounds to see a fetus in the womb and watch TLC to see a baby coming out of the womb. But to know what it's like to actually have the necessary reproductive equipment and to deal with the day-to-day hassles and maintenance, you really have to experience it directly.

For the record? Women's reproductive capabilities? Not so magical. I've never been pregnant myself, but just maintaining my girly bits in a condition such that I can one day be pregnant is a hassle and a half. Skip to the next graf to avoid TMI and Teh Gross, because there are menstrual cramps, which feel like the equivalent (and I've determined this through extended and frank discussion with my male acquaintances) of getting kicked in the nuts ever half-hour or so for an entire day. There are all manner of substances coming out of said region, of different consistencies and colors and smells and serving different biological purposes. I can generally predict, to the day, when, during the month, I will be a) bitchy and short-tempered and b) inconsolably weepy for no reason but cannot control these reactions. There are times when I will crave salty food like nobody's business but not be able to eat it because I will promptly begin retaining, and this is no exaggeration, as much as five pounds of fluid. Some months, I sweat a lot, and I haven't been able to figure out why. And all of that is just the basic monthly maintenance of the reproductive system. Actually make a baby in there, and you're looking forward to nausea, back pain, fluid retention, weight gain, swollen feet, new body hair, changes in complexion, mood swings, food cravings, breast tenderness, and, of course, labor, after which point your body never completely returns to its former state. It's magical!

And a lot of guys know about all of these things, but they don't really know them. I think some of the guys I know think, when I’ve got PMS, that I’m taking liberties and allowing myself to be snappish and coddle myself as a luxury, because it can’t be that bad, right?

Seriously, guys, it's that bad.

I don't want to pretend that the ability to produce a complete and unique human being from nothing more than a couple of gametes isn't impressive; it is. It's also vital to the survival of the species. It's something that you have to be a woman to do. And I have it on authority from friends who have been pregnant that when you really want a baby, all of the hassle and discomfort is negligible in comparison to the wonders of the reproductive process and the little person you get as a result. Pretty cool.

The capacity to produce entire human beings from our naughty bits is pretty awesome; it's just not simple or easy. And that's something you really have to be a woman to understand, and that's where "womb envy" comes into play. Humans have a natural reaction to things we don't understand: We romanticize, and we fear. Organized religion has its base in all of the things that people haven't understood, things that they've romanticized into a supreme being for them to fear. A woman's role in reproduction, being something that men can't entirely understand, is romanticized into a magical power, and it's also feared, because that power really does have the capacity to end humanity. See previous discussions of Children of Men.

The response has been, throughout time, to marginalize and subjugate women to keep them from exercising this (supposedly) awesome and threatening power. Restrict their freedom of movement. Limit their rights. Convince them, all biological evidence to the contrary, that they are weak and frail and fragile and incapable of [insert activity here]. Dress them up in pointy, high-heeled shoes (or bind their feet) and long, tight skirts (or acres and acres of fabric) to physically hobble them.

Then load them down with catch-22s. They have to be sexually attractive but not superficial. They have to be sexually available but also pure and virginal. They have to be earth mothers raising children and keeping a perfect house, but they also have to be self-sufficient, or else they're just sponging off of their husbands. Convince women that nothing they ever do is right, and they'll spend all of their time making up for it, and not conspiring to weild their magical uterus power against the menfolk.

Commenter Nadai makes a really interesting point:
I think of women’s social position as being akin to that of a person being extorted. An extortionist has to walk a careful line - make the price too low, and you’ve lost money you could have got, but make the price too high, and the victim won’t pay. What counts as “too high” depends on what the extortionist has on the victim. I wouldn’t pay a dime to avoid having it revealed that I once littered, but I’d pay a great deal to keep secret that I murdered my husband for $2 million in insurance.

What patriarchy does is raise the stakes on both sides. It defines the “crimes” of women as being extraordinarily bad, bad enough to be worth paying the maximum. Then it demands payment over and over, every day, in terms of our behavior, our thoughts, our allegiances. Of course we pay. How could we not?

And like with most victims of extortion, there’s no way to end it, no way to get back the incriminating recording or the gun with our fingerprints on it, because the crime we’ve committed is being female, and we’ll keep on committing it every day of our lives.

And the scary thing is that the misogynistic thought processes that originiated with the beginning of recorded history still persist today. Patriarchy has become so ingrained and self-sustaining that some people deny it exists at all, and yet we still have a gender wage gap (Women are just going to go off and get pregnant anyway!) and debates about women in combat (They can't carry the weight! They're too emotional! Men will be distracted!) and restrictions on reproductive rights (Women are too emotional to make these decisions! They might regret it later! Make the sluts have the babies!) and disparities in health care (and I can't even come up with a rationalization for that one). Otherwise (reasonably) intelligent people still manage to believe that women are inherently weaker in science or that men are inherently better leaders.

The question is, since we've been pounded literally since the dawn of civilization that women are these others, that we're inherently different and weaker and that any rights we have must be gradually meted out to us by male gatekeepers and caretakers, how do we move past that? What will do the job? Reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? More stay-at-home dads? An experimental, gender-integrated combat unit in the Army? Give Amy Wynn Pastor her own TV show? Extensive therapy for certain nauseatingly paternalistic Supreme Court justices? I'm open to any and all suggestions.

How do we change the mind of a man who watches a woman push an eight-pound human being through her vagina and thinks, "Yeah, totally the weaker sex"?

*Debate also raged as to whether or not Joss Whedon is actually a feminist at all. I tend to think he is, but YMMV. Discuss at will.

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