Amanda has a terrific post up this morning on the subject of male discomfort with the reality of women's bodies, particularly post-partum. She's responding to this Slate article by Meghan O'Rourke, a piece that offered a mild defense of men who lose sexual desire for their wives after watching them give birth.
I read both posts with great interest, and urge my readers to do the same. I will say -- perhaps not surprisingly -- that I'm with Amanda on this one. I'm not terribly sympathetic to men who struggle with what O'Rourke calls their psychological discomfort with the violent erosion of that sexual/reproductive boundary. In blunter terms, these are fellows who are shocked to come face to face -- literally -- with the reality that the vagina can be, to put it rather vulgarly, a two-way street.
Amanda has a number of objections to O'Rourke, all of them sound. From a male perspective, my problem with the Slate article is more limited. I am deeply troubled by the psychological discomfort O'Rourke describes, largely because it seems to so clearly represent a kind of unhealthy compartmentalization of women. Mind you, I am not suggesting that "healthy" men ought to find the sight of their wives or partners giving birth to be intensely arousing! I'm not a woman, nor will I ever give birth, but I can't imagine that many women, if any, find childbirth an erotic experience.
At the risk of sounding a bit like the 1960s feminists whom O' Rourke derides, I'm convinced that part of having a healthy sexual relationship with another human being is embracing all aspects of the earthy, coproreal reality of the other. That doesn't mean, of course, that one should never shut the door on one's spouse when using the toilet; I'm not advocating for the complete eradication of privacy, even in marriage. But giving birth and using the toilet are two different activities. When a woman goes to the bathroom, she is not doing so as a direct result of something she and her partner created together; when she gives birth, it is a natural outcome of an action that she and her husband took (presumably mutually) some nine months earlier. To delight in conception and be horrified at delivery is to mock the reality of women's unique burden in reproduction.
As O'Rourke points out, a great many men are in the delivery room these days. The problem is not the willingness to be present; the feminist and pro-feminist movements have made great strides in encouraging men to be more active participants in childbirth. But it seems that for some men, their libidos have lagged behind. (I wonder if evolutionary biologists would point out a natural strategy here: given that women need time to heal and nurse after delivery, it's helpful if a man's sexual desire for his partner is -- at least temporarily -- lowered. But I've never been much for those sorts of theories). Obviously, we can applaud those men who do come to the delivery room and do what their fathers and grandfathers did not do. I don't mean to make light of the commitment of millions of husbands and dads. But real commitment isn't just about doing the right thing at the right time (though it's a lovely start), it's about taking responsibility for one's desires. If needed, that means actively working through the psychological barriers that prevent a man from seeing his partner as both a mother and a lover.
If there's one thing I've learned through my previous marriages, it's that the marriage process does a superb job of stripping away romantic illusions. Inevitably, what was once mysterious becomes commonplace; what was once hidden becomes revealed. The mistake that all too many of us make is to grow frustrated with the familiar, and begin to seek out new mysteries in that hopeless pursuit of "everlasting novelty." What I've learned in recent years is that a healthy male sexuality is one that doesn't respond only to the new, the unexplored, and the concealed. A healthy, adult male sexuality is one that no longer needs careful illusion or rigid "sexual reproductive boundaries" in order to respond. At its best, healthy male sexual desire is unafraid of the maternal. That has nothing to do with an Oedipus complex or the fear of one. Rather, it means recognizing that one's wife can be both a mom and a focal point of one's lust. Vitally, the acceptance of one aspect of her identity does not mean willfully ignoring or obscuring the other.
Ultimately, of course, sexual desire is profound and complex. It doesn't respond well to coaxing, nor do our libidos always match our ideological commitments! I'm not naive about that. At the same time, it would be wrong to say that our desires cannot change or grow. (In this regard, both cognitive and behavioral therapy can work wonders; trust me!) While it's not fair or helpful to ridicule men who aren't prepared for the reality of childbirth, breast-feeding, and so forth, it is possible to challenge them to work through whatever psychological impediments stand in the way of seeing their wives and partners as full and complete human beings.