Womb and Doom

A very short book excerpt

Joe McKendry

Let me say something potentially controversial about female anatomy. Women are not only saddled with the entire excruciating, immobilizing burden (sorry, “privilege”) of childbearing. Among nature’s other little jokes at our expense is the placement of the clitoris, a primary locale of female sexual pleasure, at some remove from the vagina, a primary locale of human sexual intercourse. Perhaps this mainly affects women who have sex with men, but that’s still a majority of us. Apparently some percentage of men don’t automatically fathom these anatomical complexities—or so say researchers who’ve compared women’s orgasm rates with men’s, on which score women lag far behind. (I realize that orgasms aren’t the sole index of sexual pleasure, but surely they’re something.)

Now, we could conclude that women are anatomically constructed in such a way that a certain amount of sexual dissatisfaction comes with the territory, and leave it at that. But mostly we don’t say this, because the socially favored narrative at the moment is that sexual pleasure is as much a woman’s right as it is a man’s—even the men’s magazines say so! Pretty much everyone these days knows that, with a small amount of reeducation and communication, men can be schooled into becoming better lovers. A lot of men take pride in developing such skills—I’ve seen T-shirts to this effect.

When it comes to sexual pleasure, culture overrides anatomy. Yet when it comes to maternity, somehow everyone’s a raging biological determinist. Women aren’t just the designated child bearers; we’re typically appointed the social role of raising children too, leading to the well-rehearsed motherhood-versus-career dichotomy. Except that it’s not a dichotomy; it’s a social choice masquerading as a natural one. Society would find different ways of organizing child-rearing if women were as inventive at demanding maternity reform as we’ve been about equity in sexual pleasure.

— Adapted from “Maternal Instincts,” by Laura Kipnis, in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum (published in April by Picador)