Men’s Desire, Women’s Mortality: Do Historical Rates of Maternal Death Affect Our Views of Sexuality Today?

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.

19 thoughts on “Men’s Desire, Women’s Mortality: Do Historical Rates of Maternal Death Affect Our Views of Sexuality Today?

  1. A very suggestive essay, and its certainly sensible that women bear the consequences more of sex. Might it also be possible that the death of women was considered a problem, and restricting men to one partner was a [perhaps ineffective] way to manage it? I take it you are not insinuating that the desire of the sexes is different; but merely that the consequences are. And last, are these essentialist claims? Further, do you think that men expressed sorrow when their partners / wives died?

    I wonder if patriarchy was not merely a way of subduing women; but also a way of also regulating men’s behavior. When sex, property and death were inextricably linked, “patriarchy” may have been one way to solve the problem of rivalry among men.

  2. Interesting, but what of the women that gave birth to 10 and 15 children 100 years ago and lived to tell the tale (I.e., large Irish Catholic families, or one of my great great grandmothers who had over 20 children in Louisiana, also about 100 years ago) all before modern medical technology?

    I would argue that high maternal mortality might have contributed to men viewing wives as interchangeable andperhaps even disposable because there was a good chance you might lose your wife in childbirth and therefore have to remarry quickly so as to have someone to raise the children. Itt might also contributebto a propensity to seek out younger women, as there would be fewer older women if they were less likely to make it into theiir 40s from dying in childbirth.

  3. Hugo, thanks for addressing women’s concerns about the safety of childbirth. There are three points I want to bring up that relate to your essay:

    1. The very real fear certain modern Western women still bear – rationally, of course – of becoming seriously ill or dying during pregnancy and childbirth. Let’s not forget that while modern pregnancy in Western-medicine hospitals is safe for the majority of women, there remains a minority of us for whom it is still unsafe. I take teratogenic drugs and have a very small pelvis and uterus, so I’m looking at risk of suicide and stroke during pregnancy, and obstetric fistula or worse during.

    While the current Left would do well to stop using us as their justification for abortion rights – it looks too apologetic, signaling to the Right that there is some inherent “guilt” or “sin” involved in getting an abortion, feminists, men AND women, and most importantly, modern doctors must be aware we exist. I have struggled to claim my space at the ob gyn when negotiating with arrogant young male residents who denied my reality. And more staggering yet, most Western women are still in the dark about the grave side effects of childbirth. Which brings me to point #2:

    2. I’d like to see feminism in the 21st century position itself as an authoritative source on women’s health, and to be intellectually honest, that must include the side effects of pregnancy and childbirth. It has been my observation that part of the divide between mothers and the childless/childfree exists because many women were surprised by how awful their pregnancies were, how many side effects they brought about, unnecessary emergency C-sections, post-partum depression, and more. Rather than women honestly discussing what childbirth entails, they keep it a secret – for it is still taboo! – and those on the Right and/or the traditionalists shame women who’ve educated themselves and don’t want to go through that.

    I’m not saying women shouldn’t have kids if they want them. But we need to be expanding the definition of “informed consent” to include everything that a pregnancy entails. War, too. Thousands of young American men and women fell prey to Army recruiting tactics during the Iraq War and are now dead, or have TBI, or are climbing out of the depths of hell of PTSD. Feminists must educate the young about all that war entails.

    3. You seem to be conflating sexual desire and sexual violence by the middle of the essay. While it is not necessarily a popular view, I wish to emphasize that rape is VIOLENCE, not reflective of desire. It is feminism’s responsibility to articulate the difference every time. Your approach to discussing rape in this piece muddies the waters a bit and seems to – albeit briefly – make the argument that male sexuality is dangerous and unhealthy. As a woman-born woman who has relationships with woman, I submit that it is not the sexuality that is the issue, it is the patriarchy’s way of dealing with the outcome of sexuality.

    When male and female rape victims of all ages are given space to bring their attackers to justice, when teens in America receive honest sex education that includes the message “AIDS kills,” when women across the globe can be guaranteed a safe and legal abortion, and when Sharia is toppled both abroad and at home (where its cousin, Christian Fundamentalism, lies coiled and waiting to attack), we will have made strides toward nullifying the effects of patriarchy on the disadvantaged classes. Call it logical harm-reduction on a grand scale.

  4. A very thoughtful piece. Very reminiscent of the discussion last year on PIV-related harm as espoused by friend of the blog, FCM. The historical dangers of pregnancy are at the same time obvious and enshrouded in an almost “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. I agree with Juliet that in the effort to romanticize pregnancy, women don’t often enough share the pain and difficult aspects with one another. Perhaps more important is to share them with other men, so that our eyes and minds remain fully open to the possibility of bringing harm to those we profess to love.

    Of course, the sociological reality is that the vast majority of people focus on the “biological reality” in a “well, that’s how we make children, so what can ya do about it” manner. I despair that people around the world have no interest in getting your point and those in our own “educated” Western world would point at this as naive and “anti-human” or some such.

  5. If sex with a man is so dangerous for women, where is the feminists’ advocacy of the Male Pill? And yet women’s groups are either silent on the matter or up in arms against the idea, because it takes away some of their control over reproduction (and child support!) whenever they want it.

    If women wanted men to have the option (and there are male pills under test that have nowhere near the side effects of the female version) we would already have it in the family planning aisles of the supermarket.

    • I challenge this. If MEN wanted to take a pill to prevent pregnancy, it would be on the shelves. Truth is, most men don’t want to be bothered. There is still a prevailing sentiment, despite all the PSA’s and education on men’s responsibility to fatherhood and to use condoms, that it’s still “the woman’s problem.”

      Also not true that women’s groups haven’t posed this or advocated for it. I’ve read a number of articles on both the liberal and radical fem sites asking exactly this question.

      • I do agree that more men should educate themselves and show the strong demand for a male Pill.

        “Truth is, most men don’t want to be bothered. ”

        Really? The usual slam at us “feckless, irresponsible” men.

        If a fraction of condom users preferred a male Pill instead, it would be a a big seller. And men deserve the option at least, even if not all choose to take it (same as women).

        “Don’t want to be bothered?” Try the alternative – losing all rights to your child (whether aborted, adopted out, or kept by mom) and 18+ years of child support. I think given the choice, most men would pop a male Pill.

        • Oh I forgot, add to that fraction of condom-users that would prefer a male Pill, those men who would consider a vascectomy – or vascectomy reversal. I think they might not mind the “bother” of a male Pill as an option, either.

          • I would like to think this is true. I agree with you in spirit, but when I speak with other men, especially younger, I too often hear the old “pregnancy is the woman’s problem” meme. And I’m with you. Really? In 2012? Yeah, sadly, really.

  6. I have pagan, goddess-worshiping guy friends that go on and on about how before THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH those of “the old religion” celebrated female sexuality and women engaged in sex without fear or shame. Women didn’t have sexual hang ups until THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH made female sexuality evil, and every pagan holiday before THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH bullied its was across Europe climaxed with the entire community getting down and getting it on.

    When I call B.S. for many of the reasons you describe in your post, dudes that are down with The Divine Feminine get angry and defensive.

    Because, you see, before THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH made wonen ashamed of their bodies, sex and pregnancy were mystical experiences and ways that women communed with “the Goddess.” Children were wanted and welcomed (no matter how many) and childbirth was a spiritual experience.

    You know, like in Afghanistan.
    This is where I’m accused of being cynical.

    Because before THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH women were wise in the ways of contraception and midwifery. When I ask what sort of contraception was used, I’m told it was “most likely herbal,” but we don’t know, because the Divine Feminine was so threatening to the Christian God that THE PATRIARCHAL CHRISTIAN CHURCH completely eradicated the knowledge of the wise woman.

    I think about Jessica Valenti’s harrowing experience with preeclampsia and the premature birth of her daughter, and wonder how even the most talented midwife of ye olde merry times could have saved them. Again I’m told with complete confidence that for sure remedies existed and were “most likely herbal.”

    Even today women struggle to combine their ambitions with their desires for families. When I suggest that nuns and celibacy get a bad rap because at the time they were ways, albeit imperfect, for young, ambitious, intellectually curious women to escape the tyranny of their fertility, dudes that wear the divine feminine on their sleeves get even angrier. Suddenly I’m anti-sex.

    Not to dis paganism, but there’s a certain type of new-agey cluelesd guy for which worship of the divine feminine and female sexuality in general is really just a rebranded version of the Playboy mansion.

    “You really have issues with sexuality.”

    Oh, but I have even bigger issues with you.

    • I’m impressed that there is this contingent of men who believe in and worship under pagan-based Goddess religion. I don’t know any. I can’t help but think, despite some of the problems you outline, at LEAST they realize there was/can be a matriarchal/feminine-led culture. That’s a kind of progress that gives me some hope.

      • Please make sure that anyone you counsel, or any judges you testify in front of (family court or juvenile dependency) know that you “hope for” a feminine-led matriarchal culture.

        Actually the family court/child protective system is a pretty good example of that culture, propped up by male chivalry and funding though.

        Honestly, how long could an LCSW keep their license if they espoused instead a “return to traditional patriarchal values” as a personal opinion?

        • Twees,
          I responded to your actual thought below, but wanted to throw in that psychotherapy licenses have nothing to do with personal politics or opinion. There are many therapists that practice in ways I strongly disagree with, such as homosexual reparative therapies and the like.
          Now if I acted against the ethics of my professional body, Social Work, they could certainly sanction me, but that still wouldn’t affect the license.

      • I know quite a few. Not all are like the ones I described above. I agree, I think it’s a good thing. But for a certain subset of men “embracing the divine feminine” is more about young attractive women being sexually available to them on their terms and without complications than it is about incorporating a feminine perspective into their lives. Romanticizing gender relations in a pre-Christian society reminds me of those that romanticize the gender roles of the 1950s. Evil feminism ruined it for the 1950s. Evil Christianity/patriarchy ruined it for the pagans. For each, there’s this idea that women have lost something. A woman’s frustration with finding work/life balance has nothing to do with her partner not putting in his fair share with child care and household chores, but rather with feminism for deluding her into thinking she could have it all. When a woman doesn’t want to sleep with you it has nothing to do with you, but with Christianity for making her deny her sexual self. It isn’t as black and white as this, of course, but if I had a quarter for every time I hear one of these guys (again, not all of them) complain that their girlfriend isn’t orgasmic because she was raised in x-religion or y-church, I’d have enough to set a world Mortal Kombat record.

  7. Andrew Pari,

    Found a matriarchal/feminine-led culture. Don’t let any of the icky men in, except you.

    You may quickly find that it’s not a utopia.

  8. @tweesdad: The “hope for” reference was not saying that I hope for a matriarchal led society. While I have an interest in knowing what that would look like, since in some ways I imagine it would be a drastically different culture in ways that I couldn’t imagine, I also believe there would be many of the same problems we have now, just in a different form.
    No, my comment meant that it gives me hope to know that there are men looking into and considering the ideas that goddess-based religions espouse. Opening the mind to new ways of thinking is part of what we need to change and grow, for everyone’s benefit.

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  11. While not contesting the general thrust of this argument, I believe that you have misinterpreted the maximum “maternal mortality” figures. The “40 percent” is for puerperal (childbirth) fever, which was extremely contagious, *in certain hospitals*, which would never have been the experience of the female population as a whole. (Hospitals in general killed more people than they cured prior to the 20th century.) The highest maternal mortality figures for any general population actually cited in the Wikipedia articles you link to are on the order of 1 percent, which is bad enough.

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