by Jean Roberta
Netflix has changed my life. Not only can I binge-watch my favourite TV series from the beginning in order to understand plots and the appearance of new characters (Who’s he?), I can watch without the interruption of commercials. Watching a backlog of episodes of a currently-running series is somewhat like cramming for an exam, but much more fun.
Lately, I’ve been catching up on the BBC serial Call the Midwife, a dramatization of midwife Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of delivering babies in the gritty East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s. As the viewpoint character, Jenny Lee, tells us in a reminiscent voiceover (in the mellow voice of Vanessa Redgrave) “midwifery is the very stuff of life.”
The birth scenes are certainly not sexy, but they show the natural consequences of sex in a time when it was only supposed to take place in marriage, and when married women were expected to spend most of their adult lives bearing and raising children. They didn’t always have a choice.
In Season 1, there is an episode in which Conchita, originally a refugee from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, is giving birth to her 24th baby by her English husband. He seems to dote on her, but he never learned Spanish and she never learned English. Their older children are fluently bilingual, and they translate the midwife’s questions for their mother, and their mother’s answers for the midwife. The proud father tells the midwife: “Conchita and I understand each other,” presumably without words.
This episode raises questions about sex in the context of a long-term relationship. Is it possible to have love without language? (I can hear the cynics in my life saying it probably works better that way.) Is it possible to enjoy unprotected sex, year after year, knowing that it will produce more mouths to feed?
As far as I know, few people in modern urban society experience heterosexual sex the way most people experienced it in past centuries: as part of a bond that was supposed to last a lifetime, and which led to pregnancy and childbirth, over and over. Sometimes pregnancy led to the death of the baby or the mother, or both. I can’t imagine maintaining my enthusiasm for the sport after the fourth or fifth or sixth baby.
Watching birth after birth, I’m profoundly grateful that most of my sex life has had no such consequences, wanted or otherwise. I’ve only been pregnant once, and that was by choice. For the past thirty-five years, my sex life has been with other women, and therefore I haven’t even had to think about birth control. It hasn’t been needed.
Much of my reading—fiction and non-fiction—during that time has involved sex and gender disconnected from reproduction. I’ve been sent review copies of books by authors who define themselves as “non-binary,” as “masculine” (if not born with a penis) or “feminine” (if not born with a vagina). Queer or “non-binary” writers who write speculative fiction often write about characters who also have a fabulous (in the literal sense) disregard for physical limits. Same-gender couples in these stories often have offspring in ways which don’t involve nine months of pregnancy and a painful finale. It almost goes without saying that male dominance, as crudely expressed by old-style men like Donald Trump, rarely exists in these imaginary worlds. Speculative fiction in our time, especially if erotic, is a great distraction from the here and now.
I would like to believe that the future of the human race is queer, bionic, diverse, and limited only by our imaginations, but I don’t see much real-life evidence to support a “non-binary” vision of the coming utopia. As a case in point, I sometimes have reason to explain to a binary male person (gay or straight) how the birth control pill works, and the only ones who seem to catch on are health-care professionals who already understand the term “ovulation.” In general, cis-gendered males have less reason to think about pregnancy than do females, and less reason to research various ways to prevent it. Even male couples who want to raise children don’t seem to dwell on questions about how babies are conceived, whereas female couples considering parenthood usually consider the possibility that one of them will develop a child in her womb. And this difference is visible in “queer” communities where gender roles are generally more fluid and less hierarchical than in the heterosexual mainstream.
So I watch dramatic representations of women giving birth in slum dwellings because it does seem to be the very stuff of real life, in the past and—for the majority of human beings—in the present. One hopeful note in Call the Midwife is that health care in Britain, since 1948, has been free even for the poorest, unlike in the U.S. and most Third-World countries. An American fan of the series wrote about how impressive the British health care system looks, even in a TV drama. As a Canadian, I’m able to take for granted the local version of that system, established in 1962.
I can’t help wondering what will happen to millions of Americans if Trump’s administration succeeds in destroying Barack Obama’s monument, the Affordable Health Care Act. The contrast of the apparent working partnership of Obama and his lawyer wife, Michelle, with the uncomfortable distance between Trump and his wife Melania doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Women tend to support universal access to good health care, and so do left-leaning men who can see beyond their own crown jewels. No guaranteed access to reproductive support correlates to powerlessness for women.
Do I think erotic fiction should include more references to birth? Not necessarily. As I’ve mentioned, scenes of poor women in labour don’t look especially sexy, even to woman-loving me. However, I would like to see more acknowledgment that sex between men and women is more than a form of recreation. It is literally the stuff of life.