In my “beauty and the body” class, I’m using one new book I’ve never assigned before: Lisa Jean Moore’s Sperm Counts: Overcome By Man’s Most Precious Fluid. I gave my first lecture on sperm yesterday. After a brief physiology lesson where we distinguished sperm from semen and talked about things like the Cowper’s gland and the prostate, we went into the main material of the lecture, which was the spiritual significance of ejaculate in both Western and Eastern culture.
Both the Eastern and the Judeo-Christian traditions imbue semen with sacred properties. The differences, of course, are enormous. To oversimplify enormously, the Hindu and Buddhist perspective regards ejaculate as a source of divine energy. Refraining from masturbation for all, and the practice of celibacy for monks, allows men to retain rather than lose this source of inspiration and insight. Yogis and others who go without ejaculating for years and years are believed to be sustained and nourished by the retention of this precious fluid. The celibate’s batteries are charged, in other words, while the ejaculator’s battery is regularly depleted. Thus Taoist and Tantric traditions suggest that even for the married, sex should be infrequent so as not to exhaust the body of its most valuable resource.
On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more explicit in connecting semen to “seed” — and thus to male domination. The Hebrew word “zera” means “seed” in the common agricultural sense, but it also means semen. I didn’t want to overwhelm my students with bible quotes, but the key passages are from Genesis.
Genesis 17:9, King James Version: And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. God’s covenant is with a substance — semen is the physical glue that binds a people together. It is, in a sense, the ink through which the covenant is written.
In Genesis 38:9, the wicked Onan “spills his seed” upon the ground (practicing the withdrawal method) rather than inseminate his brother’s widow. God kills Onan for the crime of having squandered the divine substance.
But what is so significant about “seed”? From a feminist standpoint, it’s quite simply at the very root of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards women. As is widely known, from the time of the Hebrews until the discovery of ova and the process of conception during the Scientific Revolution, Western authorities were largely convinced that women had very little role to play in the reproductive process. Women were like fields, soil which needed to be ploughed and planted and fertilized; the identity of the future child was entirely contained within the man’s ejaculate (the notion of the Homunculus).
Each act of heterosexual intercourse, therefore, mimicks the story of the human creation. In Genesis 2 (which is, of course, the second creation story, written well after the earlier story of simultaneous creation of men and women), God makes Adam out of the “dust of the ground.” The soil has no life until it is given life by God, just as women cannot give life unless animated by semen. Thus semen is not only the fluid of the covenant, it is the substance that makes each man in some sense like God, granting him the chance to share with the creator the joy of creating. To “waste” semen, whether through masturbation or the withdrawal method or barrier contraception, is not just missing out on a chance at making another life –it is the willful refusal to act like the Creator. (Hence the Roman Catholic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish hostility to condoms and jerking off!)
The explicit connection to misogyny comes easily. In the Western tradition, women are dangerous because they tempt men away from their responsibility to “act like God.” The righteous woman is a careful guardian of men’s semen, and she guards it through modest dress (so as not to tempt men to lust, because then they might masturbate and waste the sacred fluid). A strictly observant Jewish woman makes sure that her husband’s semen only comes into her body after she has ritually purified herself through the practice of Niddah; she’s got to earn the right to take something so magical, so male, so pure, into her comparatively unclean body. Throughout much of the broader Abrahamic religious tradition, women are responsible for protecting semen in two distinct ways: one, by doing all that they can to keep men from irresponsibly “spilling”; two, by being radically open to conception. Contraception and abortion, the great bugaboos of religious conservatives, are hated not merely because they empower women but because they are seen as women’s rejection of the sacred spermatic gift. Continue reading