Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

1.3 Sexuality and parenthood

In this course sexuality is used to refer to heterosexual reproductive sex, relationships and relations, and the meanings and discursive constructions which are associated with these. Sexual practices resulting in conception and the experience of parenthood are among the few remaining areas that are considered a ‘natural’ part of human existence. Just as sexuality has been seen as a ‘natural’, elemental drive in human identity, parenthood has also been closely associated with the ‘natural’, even animal, instinct to reproduce. This is in sharp contrast to those sexualities that are seen as ‘unnatural’, ‘deviant’ or ‘exceptional’, which have been the primary subjects of the ‘science’ of sexuality. In this course we focus instead on the ‘unmarked category’ of procreative sexuality and parenthood located within marriage. This is where the normative and usually unexamined performance of sexuality and parenthood took place, and against which ‘deviant’ or ‘other’ sexualities and parents were measured.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, parenthood was the usual consequence of procreative sex and was an ever present possibility in the personal lives of sexually active, fertile heterosexual couples. As we shall see in Section 2, parenthood was increasingly confined within a particular construction of marriage and family, which included assumptions based on heterosexuality and monogamous sexual practices of husbands and wives. According to Weeks, during the many centuries of Judaeo-Christian dominance, parenthood was the only justification for sexual relations (Weeks, 1986). Thus procreation, the generation or production of a child, was seen as a central purpose of both marriage and sexuality within it, and as such constituted as a key element of what we might refer to as heteronormative relations as they were constructed at that time. Within this norm of procreative sexuality, there were debates about the role of sexual pleasure in marriage between those who argued that procreation was its sole purpose and those who held that sexual pleasure without a reproductive purpose was a legitimate part of married life. Consequently the meanings attached to sexuality within marriage were constructed around a narrow set of parameters with procreation at its heart.

Although historical evidence about heteronormative sexuality is sparse, it is clear that there were great diversities of experience despite the dominance of monogamous marriage between 1860 and 1930. Sexual relationships are never entirely contained within marriage, and neither is sexual activity within marriage always understood as procreative. Within marriage, procreative sex might be performed by a couple who are not solely heterosexual. After all Oscar Wilde, an iconic gay figure of our historical period, was married and fathered children. However, very few people, including policy-makers, would have used the word ‘heterosexual’ to describe themselves at the time. The terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were both first used in 1869 (Katz, 1990). The terms were subsequently taken up in medical and scientific discourses in the early twentieth century. Katz argues that the term ‘heterosexual’ was only coined to define the norm of a sexual partnership between a man and a woman against which ‘homosexuality’ could be distinguished. As such, heterosexuality remained largely unexamined in scientific discourse.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, differences between masculine and feminine sexualities were considered to be particularly acute, closely associated with what were understood as biological differences in procreation. Men were portrayed as sexually and procreatively active, with women in an opposite, complementary, passive role. The biological processes of conception were not well understood at this time and the underlying assumption was that men provided the active element for new life contained within their sperm, while women were the passive nurturers of an embryo implanted by the man. This mirrored the common beliefs of the time of men as the active initiators of sex and male sexuality as a powerful, even destructive natural force, which had to be tamed by civilisation and rationality, particularly through the responsibilities of parenthood. We can see these tensions expressed in Henri-Frederic Amiel's advice to men in 1850: ‘in his relationship with the female sex, a man it seems to me, becomes a complete human being only when the angel and the animal blend into each other’ (quoted in Gay, 1984, p. 123).

It was widely believed that women did not normally experience sexual feelings at all. It was very different in the medieval (c.1100–1400) and early modern (c.1500–1800) periods when female sexuality was often shown as highly active, even predatory, and marriage was understood as a crucial means of controlling female sexual energies. Victorian and Edwardian women on the other hand were meant to be protected from what were seen to be the bestial and earthy aspects of life which included most matters of a sexual nature. Women were expected to experience their deepest personal satisfactions through motherhood, and to embody the higher (that is desexualised) feelings of a more civilised world.


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