Sperm kills.* For hundreds of millions of women over the course of millenia, the riskiest action they ever took was having sex (consensual or otherwise, married or not) with men. As medical historians will tell you, until the 20th century, childbirth was the leading cause of death for all women of childbearing years; in some societies that maternal mortality rate may have reached 40%, while other researchers prefer a lower figure of 1 in 5. Given that many women in the developing world still have half a dozen children or more, as they did in previous centuries, the overall risk is compounded by the sheer number of pregnancies carried to term. (1 in 7 Afghan women today die in childbirth.)
Our cultural memory of this devastating toll is limited. We have a Mother’s Day, of course, but we have no public rituals to honor our countless female ancestors who died — quite literally — so that we could live. There is no Tomb of the Unknown Mother in Arlington, though more American women died from childbirth than male soldiers did in war for the first century and a half of our republic’s history. This legacy lives on best in fairy tales, replete with stories of single fathers (Beauty and the Beast) or wicked step-mothers (take your pick). When I ask my students what happened to Cinderella’s birth mother, it drives the point about maternal mortality home.
Whatever the exact figures, childbirth has probably killed more women than any other single cause in human history. Until very recently (a miracle two millenia ago in Palestine notwithstanding), the only possible cause for pregnancy was heterosexual intercourse. So if childbirth kills women, and sex causes pregnancy, then by the logical transitive property, heterosexual intercourse has been, not so indirectly, the most lethal of all human activities for one-half of the population. To put it even more bluntly, men have killed far more women by ejaculating inside of them than they have by any other method. Semen has killed more people than any other body fluid (and yet it is menstrual blood that is considered far more “unclean” in many Western traditions.) (This, by the way, is a good moment to note how absurd the argument is about AIDS being “God’s punishment for homosexuality.” Even if we were to assume that AIDS was primarily transmitted through same-sex sexual activity, the number of deaths globally from AIDS has not yet risen to the historic levels of those from childbirth. If God punishes by death those who engage in forbidden sexual activity, how then to explain that the leading cause of death for women for centuries was having intercourse with their own husbands?)
Very few, if any, men ever presumably sought to kill their wives or lovers through intercourse. But men did devise patriarchal power structures that forbade women from using contraception or from refusing sex to their husbands. From both a moral and a statistical standpoint, cultures that don’t allow women access to contraception — as well as the right to say “no” after marriage as well as before — are complicit in the death of countless millions of women. Of course, many women surely enjoyed sex despite the risks; many women surely longed for children even in the face of the grave dangers that attended pregnancy, labor, and delivery. All the more reason to honor the bravery and the sacrifice of those who fought for life against death on a battlefield far more lethal than those on which their husbands, fathers, and brothers struggled.
But the point is unmistakable: men’s sexual desire for women has always been dangerous for those who the objects of that longing. Our fears about male sexuality are at least partly rooted in historically verifiable physiological truths. Male desire and cultural obligation killed women for centuries, and are still killing women today. Of course, without intercourse, our human race would have died out long ago. But without uncontrolled male sexual desire, and without a culture of entitlement that gave husbands unlimited access to their wives’ bodies, women might well have been able to do what they generally do when given the chance: practice one form or another of traditional family planning which would have limited the number of times they conceived.
So what does this mean for the conversation about men, women, sexuality, and trust? One thing it means is that the conversation we’re having about women’s justified suspicion of men isn’t taking place in a vacuum; it’s taking place in a specific historical context, one in which the memories of death and danger are deep-seated and enduring, even if they exist, as they do for many, in the subconscious. Women are not, thankfully, dying in childbirth as often as they once did. But females of all ages are still objectified, harassed, molested and assaulted at a staggering rate. Whatever the exact statistics, women in 21st century America have no fewer reasons than their foremothers to be wary of male desire. Encoded into our history, and into our very bodies, is the unforgettable reality that heterosexual desire can bring delight to men and women alike and it can bring new life into the world. But its dangers are not borne equally by both sexes.
We have come a long way towards reducing maternal and infant mortality in the developed world. We still have a long way to go. But what we’ve managed to do is create an environment where, today, a healthy middle-class Western woman who discovers she’s pregnant will, among her many reactions to the news, probably not be overwhelmed with anxiety about dying in childbirth. For a growing number of privileged women, we’ve removed one very basic fear from the process of reproduction. The harder task is not merely to expand quality medical and midwifery care to the developing world so that all women can know this freedom from fear. The harder task is to do the same thing to the very real fears about rape and sexual assault. This isn’t just about protecting women from harm, it’s about making men fundamentally safe. The struggle to end rape and the dehumanizing objectification of women must be as central to our work as the global struggle to end poverty or infant and maternal mortality. If men want to be trusted, if we want to be safe, we need to put this struggle at the very center of our work.
* An earlier version of this post appeared in 2009.