Sunday, December 20, 2009


Sex and secrets are well-known “coin of the realm” when people are too impoverished to have any of the more conventional wealth. Clearly sex and secrets are interrelated because of conventional morality. If no one cared who had sex of what kind with whom, then one president, a number of other politicians and one notable golfer would not have had troubles as they did. But people DO care and not just because Mrs. Grundy says NONONONO.

What makes sex valuable? Love, babies, comfort through the night. And then what makes secret sex valuable? Extortion, blackmail, emotional unfulfilled need, the craving for danger.

Originally sex was valuable because of inheritance law: the progeny got the land, the money, the stuff. So it was important to know whether a child were actually the physical result of sex between this man and someone else. Therefore, it was very important to make sure the woman had no possible way of getting inseminated by someone else. She was kept locked up, surrounded only by women and eunuchs. I wonder whether it ever occurred to anyone to use AI. Maybe not until turkey basters were invented. When was the first turkey baster invented? If someone knew the secret of turkey baster use for AI, what difference would it have made? Would it be different from Mary the mother of Jesus being inseminated through her ear by a dove?

Early AI might be the key to a rousing historical speculative novel plot. In fact, there have always been rumors that Elizabeth II and Margaret were conceived with a little help, but it was medical and the source was the proper father, who was evidently not a particularly good propeller of sperm though he was an excellent father. But there’s a good shocking plot -- if the Royal gendarmes couldn’t get you. Who would be a good sperm donor, if that were the pretended fictional secret? Might be a good parlor game, more fun than claiming the royal families were descended from Jesus. (No one has ever really addressed the fertility of Jesus, though there is a bit of interest in his erection when crucified.)

So there are legal consequences to productive sex. What about sex that was only for pleasure? Or domination? That never produced children. Like maybe between same sex partners or children too young or women too old. Was that one of the sources of Winston Churchill’s and Benjamin Franklin’s valuing of the older women?

At one time vasectomies were secret so that a male lover could play some games with his lack of fertility and women always play games with “the Pill.” One can imagine scenarios that made the advantage go either way, playing expectations off against reality. The pill, of course, occasionally fails, so it has its own games to play. The law, on the other hand, is on the side of someone who claims to be fertile but can’t “come through” as it were. Grounds for annulment or divorce.

A whole new level of secrets might be connected to an abortion or naturally miscarried pregnancy and the disposition of the evidence. If an infant were born dead or killed after birth, or if the whole pregnancy was somehow managed so that no one knew, those all lead to secrets. Adoption has in the past been secret, but modern practical good sense has managed to arrange for open adoption where everyone knows what’s going on and the only games are the usual human attempts to obligate and intimidate. But most sperm donors remain cloaked as well as egg or zygote donors. (I'm guessing.) Surrogate mothers -- in the sense of allowing someone else’s baby to grow in their uterus until delivery -- adds another dimension. Such highly medicalized and technical procedures put enormous secrets in the hands and folders of doctors and hospital records clerks. What about the brief but poignant story of the blastosphere in the petri dish that is NOT chosen to be carried by anyone, but simply discarded or made into stem cells.

Sometimes babies born out of wedlock are quietly acknowledged but not allowed legal rights and other times their existence is denied. The possibility of proving parenthood with DNA has changed the landscape drastically. For one thing, fathers who were merely inseminators find themselves with the power flow going the other direction: instead of claiming that the woman was at fault and his fatherhood can’t be proven, they have now acquired the major liability of the obligation to support the life they started. Instead of bragging about how many babies they’ve made, they might find it more practical to just leave the country. Of course, there is a certain type of male who believes that the woman he has inseminated “owes HIM” because he “gave” her a baby. Some women believe this and end up supporting both baby and husband. They should think it over.

It’s a little strange that sex should be the focus of so much social morality. Maybe. But the use of sex as a distraction from other issues (money, war, politics, even scientific advances) is so time-honored and still so effective because it’s a scarlet thread through almost everything human and certainly everything mammal. Wait! Humans are animals! Wait! What about all those birds, bees, and fish who depend upon sex? Oh, yeah. Most animals don’t “do” sexual morality. They just do what comes naturally. Unless humans divert them. (Big argument about dog “rape racks” and anthropomorphism on one of the H lists.)

But let’s get back to the point. Conventional arrangements about sexual matters -- which are “covert,” which are monetary, which are inter-familial or intra-familial, which can or can’t be examined scientifically -- are arbitrary, but they surely don’t feel that way. Their symbolic weight alone makes them powerful like nothing else except possibly money.

Take the issue of survival in a world where little kids are created and then abandoned because there is no acceptable social structure to protect them. In Dickens’ time, when the shift from country farm to city factory changed everything, the streets were full of unwanted boys, many of whom simply died and others of whom clung to life through extraordinary and disgusting means. Something similar happened to women.

Or, given the season, take a look at Matthew 2:16-18. Because of the prediction that Jesus was being born in Bethlehem, Herod had all children (my New English Bible doesn’t say “male children”) under the age of two killed. (Nothing said about babies still in utero. Maybe Herod was anti-abortion.) Secretly Joseph and Mary had skipped town. (They had not had sex.) There is historical evidence about Herod. No proof that he actually did this. He evidently died in office, so his strategy worked. It was what some might call an endarkenment strategy, more appropriate for the longest night than for a single star.

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