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When I teach my graduate course where we examine the ways that the lives and choices of women affect international relations, my students always have a moment of clarity near the end. They reach a point where they passionately wonder how it is that women, having obtained civil rights and property rights more or less worldwide, still cannot bring about equal standing with men and a cessation of male violence against them.

They wonder why the laws that protect women are the most likely to be almost completely unenforced. For example, in the UK, where women enjoy presumably full rights, recent figures show that only 1.3% of rapes reported to the police will result in a perpetrator behind bars. Or in India, where the birth sex ratio is the lowest in the nation’s recorded history, despite there being strict, decades-old laws against sex-selective abortion and female infanticide.

They wonder why it is that the affairs of households, communities, and nations are still largely determined by men. No woman was involved in the decision to invade Ukraine, and there is not one woman at the negotiating table in that conflict, though the lives of women and those they are given the responsibility to protect, are on the line.

They wonder why it is that the world seems to measure only those phenomena that concern men, and why there is so much more investment and research in men’s priorities rather than those of women. For example, the unpaid caregiving work of women is not included in any GDP figures, and holds no ascribed societal value if we examine most social security systems around the world. Even the historical stories we tell ourselves in order to create our national identities are nearly washed clean of women (with but a handful of exceptions); for example, Caroline Criado Perez points out the UK has more statues of men called John than all statues of non-royal women.

They wonder why pornography has been allowed to fester like a cancer, with no real checks—not even age checks to ensure minors cannot access it. Or why the type of pornography now consumed—the depiction of outright torture of women—is not considered under law as a hate crime punishable by jail time. Women wonder why extreme income inequality—which benefits primarily men—is allowed to continue while they are asked to provide and provide for children without the proper means to do so.

All of this became very clear during the pandemic, where women were simply expected to do the impossible at the behest of scientific panels—predominantly male—that had no understanding of the real lives of women. We are still waiting for the reckoning of how many more women died due to domestic violence during lockdown when shelters were closed and there was no place for desperate women to flee. NGOs in the UK calculate that domestic violence rose by at least 33% during that time period. And the effects on women’s poverty, due to the need to quit or curtail paid labor because schools and daycare centers were closed, will probably never be fully accounted for.

Heck, even virtual worlds are unfriendly to women, whether it be groping of females in the Metaverse or AI algorithms that are deployed with misogynist assumptions, or which become misogynist after training on data (“corpora”) from our own world. This is not to mention that the biggest advances in AI and robotics have been spurred not by the Defense Department, but by the male desire to have a simulacrum sex robot.

At the end of the semester of my course, my students ask, Why don’t women rebel against all of this? Why do they put up with it? Of course, at one level, that of physical strength, women can be individually coerced to put up with abuse and exploitation. Or, in terms of unequal relative economic power, they can be financially coerced. At another level, women will do anything to ensure their children survive, even if it means that they themselves must suffer these sex-based indignities. These are three great sources of women’s inability to rebel.

But a very important technological change has finally made it possible for women to successfully register their opposition against their treatment, and against the type of world men have created: birth control.

Before birth control, women were inevitably engaged in reproducing the world men had created. They could not opt out, for the most part. Men could count on their nations and their communities and their ideologies and their religions surviving and persisting, even if these were wholly inhuman in character, especially towards women.

No longer. In the decades since prevalent birth control, birth rates have been falling sharply—even precipitously in many cases. Nations are literally dying out, and it is not due to plague, war, or natural disaster. Women—not by conspiracy, but by individual choice—will not to perpetuate the societies into which they themselves have been born. Let us call it what it truly is: a global birth strike. This map tells the tale: all orange and yellow nations have below-replacement fertility rates, and even in the above-replacement rate nations the rates have seen steep declines:



It is possible that only such a global birth strike can unmake a world made in men’s image, a world designed according to men’s priorities. And this strike is not because women don’t want or don’t love children, generally speaking—indeed, surveys show women all across the world are having fewer children than they want—but because it seems impossible from the standpoint of potential mothers to bring children into the world and take care of them, whether we speak of financial impossibility or emotional impossibility. For example, what woman wants to have children with a man soaked in porn where women are slapped, punched, and strangled during sex? What woman wants to have children in a society that does not value them or support them in bearing and raising children, but instead severely punishes them for doing so? What woman wants to have children in a society where the men have chosen greed and war and depravity over life? Why would a woman want to reproduce any of that?

Is it possible a global birth strike is the only way to get this message across from women to men? Is it possible that those always considered last and least have come to the fore in the end?

Men—politicians, religious figures, scholars, pundits—have been lamenting these declining birth trends; a great case in point is our own Tony Stark—Elon Musk—who said, “I'm really worried about this birthrate thing. That's been troubling me for many years, because I just don't see it turning around. Every year it's worse. And I drive my friends crazy with this.” Unfortunately, as I browse the internet for analysis, many commentators tend to blame female education (!), females gaining the right to divorce and own property (!!) and the rising costs of having a family (quite true). But they almost never inquire about the quality of male-female relations in any of these discussions, or they go so far as to assert male-female relations must be re-founded on hierarchy (male on top, of course) for birth rates to rebound. Here’s but one egregious example: “More effective [in restoring higher birth rates] would be a return to the New Testament approach to relationships between the sexes, re-emphasizing their different roles including wives' submission to their husbands, and an attack on the errors of feminism. Shouldn’t we be looking at factors like the unfortunate social acceptability of women in the workplace?”

Even without such over-the-topness, I’ve noticed those wringing their hands about birth rates just never talk about the quality of male/female relations: here’s an example: “Overall most low fertility rates are connected to women marrying later in life and postponing child bearing until the latter part of their fertile years. Basically, they just run out of time.” Notice the dog that doesn’t bark here—you can apparently write an explanation for low birth rates without ever once touching the subject of how males and females are interacting. It’s utterly bizarre.

I submit that any society that approaches the birth rate issue with the idea that this is solely a woman’s problem is never going to come up with effective policy. For example, Western Europe provides amazing—and I do mean amazing—maternity benefits and childcare to support women having children, and their birth rates are still below replacement despite women generally stating they want more children than they have. Think about that for a moment. Shouldn’t that give us a clue there is more going on than solely temporal support issues?

This next commentator comes closer, but still misses the mark: “I think it’s entirely possible that we are losing the skills for how to reproduce. I’m not talking about ‘how to have sex,’ but I’m talking about the human skills needed to form families and perform the basic task of every human generation: produce the next one.” So close! Just one step more to see that the human skills needed to form families derive from how we have sex. As Washington Post (!) columnist Christine Emba puts it, “In different ways, both genders have lost confidence in their ability to be together—they no longer know how to do it correctly, or if it’s even possible.” In days when women were unable to control their fertility, the consequences of how men had sex with women literally could not be reflected in the birth rate—though it was reflected in family trauma and all that meant for the family’s inability to adequately nurture the next generation, consequently producing lots of broken human beings. But now the connection is clear for those with eyes to see: because of how men (generally speaking) choose to have sex with women, we cannot form families, broken or whole. As Michelle Goldberg, an opinion columnist for the New York Times (!), describes it, “modern heterosexual dating culture appears to be an emotional meat grinder whose miseries and degradations can’t be solved by ever more elaborate rituals of consent . . . many women seem to feel entitled to one-night stands, but not to kindness. What passes for sex positivity is a culture of masochism disguised as hedonism. It’s what you get when you liberate sex without liberating women.”

It feels ridiculous to even have to articulate it, but how we have sex is now the most important factor in whether babies are born. It wasn’t the case in the bad old days when humans could not decouple sex from reproduction, but now it is. And in this way a real message is being sent by women to men all over the world.

Some persist in seeing those bad old days as good—after all, no matter how men behaved towards women, there would still be babies. (And for multi-billionaires like Elon Musk, that logic still holds. [1]) But those days weren’t good. They weren’t good for women, and they weren’t good for the children born to women. As the famous first-wave feminist Lucretia Mott put it, “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of women, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source." Amen. We got precisely here because of then.

Then women were powerless to send the message that they were unhappy with the world men had created, and that they wanted to change it. I cannot help but remember a three-hour interview one of my colleagues and I had with a woman who had escaped the Warren Jeffs polygamous clan. She talked about how the women were controlled, and the primary means was through impregnating them. The men told the younger men, in essence, “Get her pregnant, because the minute she gives birth, she’s not going anywhere. All you have to do is threaten the child, or threaten to take the child from her, and she will capitulate.” How simple. How effective. How evil.

And again, it feels so ridiculous to have to say this, but wouldn’t a better approach to the contemporary birth rate problem be to create a society where men’s and women’s sexual interactions were characterized by integrity? And wouldn’t the principle of sexual integrity in male/female relations be the great key to creating a society where women were secure and felt secure in all ways, where their reproductive work was truly valued, where women would enjoy equal standing, equal voice, and equal development with men? Would this not be a society of true brothers and sisters, a true partnering of the sexes in the life of the society? Ask yourself: Would women wish to reproduce such a society? You bet they would.

Indeed, reproducing such an unprecedented and revolutionary society would probably feel to a woman to be one of the most meaningful aspects of her life. A world of true and truly equal flourishing for both women and men is, I assert, the only world a woman would actively want to see extend in both time and space. Giving birth would not only (finally!) feel rational, but would feel far more than that—it would feel deeply right. My own life is only one data point, one dismissible anecdote, but I offer it here. While my larger society is certainly not a world of flourishing for women, my personal world is. I am highly educated, am engaged in a terrific and meaningful profession where I am able to contribute the talents God gave me to help others, am married to the most amazing and supportive husband on the planet, in which marriage I jointly controlled my fertility with my husband in a context of full sexual integrity and fidelity, and belong to a religion where Heavenly Mother is acknowledged as co-equal with Heavenly Father and where Mother Eve is not seen as a sinner. This is about as close to the full monty as you can get as a woman on the planet—and I know just how fortunate and unusual my present life is because I rent my heart living without those things during the first half of my life. More to the point, consider what that fully monty wrought in terms of family size: I so love my personal world and so passionately want to extend that goodness through time and space that I chose to have a large family (we have 8 children). In fact, I would have been happy to welcome more children if my body hadn’t closed its doors; I gave birth for the last time when I was 44.

While but one extreme outlier data point, a consideration of the psychology involved is instructive. For example, note that education and employment were not barriers to my fertility, but part of the reasons for my fertility. Note that it was diarchy, not hierarchy between my husband and I that prompted this unusually large family size. Based on my own life experiences, I can’t help but wonder: Have we been thinking about causes of demographic decline amiss? Have we been thinking about them from a largely male, and not a largely female perspective?

Someone once asked me why I had so many children, and I answered, “Because I love my husband and he loves me.” What I meant by that simple statement was that my husband and I had created such a great little world between the two of us that I ardently wanted to share that happiness with as many souls as I could. And the key to that great little world was a life of absolute sexual integrity. In light of that, pause for a moment to consider what we have learned from Western Europe’s example. You can attempt to provide women with (more or less) equal standing, (more or less) equal voice, and (more or less) equal development with men, but if sexual integrity is still lacking in a context where women can access birth control, one sees very little uptick in birth rates.

Why is sexual integrity the great key? Again, it just feels so ridiculous to have to answer that question, but such are the times in which we live. Sexual integrity is, at a minimum, chastity before marriage and perfect fidelity after marriage. More expansively, sexual integrity also entails a rejection of sexual entertainment in all its forms (porn, strip clubs, dirty jokes, etc.), and refusing to engage in sexual practices which demean, degrade, and harm one’s spouse. Even more expansively, sexual integrity means treating one’s spouse as a full human being, co-equal with oneself, and treating them as you yourself would wish to be treated.

Sexual integrity is, I argue, the foundation of a humane society. There is no other way. As Anthony Sweat of BYU put it, “The covenant of chastity is about more than sex—it is about learning to develop a character that can be trusted, exercises restraint, respects boundaries, won’t selfishly abuse power and has the ability to create and maintain a . . . family." We all know this at a deep level, which is why studies have found that “the number one reason cited by singles for not getting married was what they perceived to be the difficulty in finding the right person to marry. Regardless of income, a vast majority of singles who desire marriage want their future spouse to be “responsible,” “emotionally stable,” and share the same values about having and raising children.” But such individuals are becoming scarce in lockstep with our abandonment of the foundation upon which these characteristics are built.

For several years now, I have tried to articulate how important sex is to the world we want to create. I'm not talking sex as a category here; I am talking about actual sexual intercourse. It is the most intimate physical connection between two children of God outside of biological motherhood. Yet our culture views sex as anything but an intimate connection. Such a worldview unplugs the power that sex has to shape our society for the better. How we have sex, how we view sex, how we treat sex is an incandescently powerful force.

Consider this quote by Aaron Kheriaty, Professor of Psychiatry at UCI (UC-Irvine) School of Medicine and Director of the Medical Ethics Program at UCI Health:

"Before making decisions about our sexual behaviors, we need to ask ourselves some questions about what we want to be doing to our brain and our body—what kind of neural tracks and networks do we want to be reinforcing through these behaviors? Do we want to be fusing sex and love? Sex and security? Sex and attachment or commitment? Sex and fidelity? Sex and trust? Sex and unselfishness? Or do we want to be fusing in our brain and in our experiences sex and violence? Sex and dominance? Sex and submission? Sex and control? We shape our brain by our choices. And we develop increasingly automatic and ingrained habits by our repeated choices. But the initial choice of which path we embark upon is up to us."

While Kheriaty is speaking about personal choices, I believe that the aggregation of personal choices leads to some pretty powerful societal effects as well. If the most intimate physical connection between two adults is sex, what sex means becomes the horizon for the society. [2] If sex means love, then love is possible in the society. If sex means trust, then trust is possible in the society.

Conversely, of course, if sex means control or violence or dominance or even indifference, then those things are all that is possible within your society. Pace what porn-soaked individuals might think, you cannot build a healthy society on violent, controlling, domineering, indifferent sex. Kheriaty is right that we have agency in this. With every sex act we engage in, we either create a world that has the possibility of love, trust, and respect—or we create a world where those things are impossible. Consider that one study found “91 percent of young girls feel regret immediately after hooking up. They feel used and guilty. Eighty percent even wish it never happened and that same number say they felt vulnerable.” One young student at Middlebury College, Leah Fessler, experienced this visceral feeling of regret and decided to research the topic for her senior thesis:

My girlfriends and I were top students, scientists, artists, and leaders. We could advocate for anything—except for our own bodies. We won accolades from our professors, but the men we were sleeping with wouldn’t even eat breakfast with us the next morning . . . We were desperate to know what it felt like to be wanted; desperate for a chance at intimacy. Desperate for a hand held in daylight, for public affirmation of desire typically expressed only after too many drinks. Desperate to try commitment, then decide if it wasn’t working, rather than being prematurely cut off from it. I wished that I could be like the guys, who seemed not to care at all. Months after things had ended between us, Ben said, “I didn’t think of you as a human being while we were hooking up” . . . After interviewing 75 male and female students and analyzing over 300 online surveys, the solidarity was undeniable: 100% of female interviewees and three-quarters of female survey respondents stated a clear preference for committed relationships . . . The women I interviewed were eager to build connections, intimacy and trust with their sexual partners. Instead, almost all of them found themselves going along with hookups that induced overwhelming self-doubt, emotional instability and loneliness . . . The truth is that, for many women, there’s nothing liberating about emotionless, non-committal sex. The young women I spoke with were taking part in hookup culture because they thought that was what guys wanted, or because they hoped a casual encounter would be a stepping stone to commitment. In doing this, we actually deny ourselves agency and bolster male dominance, all while convincing ourselves we’re acting like progressive feminists. But engaging in hookup culture while wholeheartedly craving love and stability was perhaps the least feminist action I, and hundreds of my peers, could take.”

Fessler is suggesting that deep down we all know—yes, know—that sex should involve love and commitment, but our society befuddles our minds about this connection. Helen Lewis cogently asks, “How can we untangle what people “really want” from what they are offered, over and over, and from what everyone else is being offered too? No one’s sexual desires exist in a vacuum, immune to outside pressures driven by capitalism. (Call it the invisible hand job of the market.)” She’s right on one level, and she therefore concludes pessimistically that, “No, tomorrow sex will not be good again. . . We will never simply want the things we should.”

I beg to differ. I choose to have hope, despite the overwhelming stats on porn use in our society, despite the documented rise of brutality in the bedroom that has even resulted in women’s deaths, despite the huge rise in child-on-child sexual assaults, despite girls fleeing their female sex like a house on fire because they see how women are treated by men during sex (“two-thirds of men under 40 have slapped, spat at, gagged or choked a partner during sex”). I have hope that both men and women can, together, see the simple, clear way out of this misery-making death spiral, a path described by this small anecdote: “Recently, [a psychologist] counselled a man who had been choking his girlfriend during sex for years. It was only when the girlfriend mustered the courage to say she didn’t like it that he admitted he didn’t like it, either. They were both, it turned out, going along with what they thought the other one wanted, and each secretly wishing the other would make it stop.” Social theorist Amia Srinivasan writes that “My male students complained about the routines they were expected to perform in sex; one of them asked whether it was too utopian to imagine sex was loving and mutual and not about domination and submission.” Believe it or not, there is now a “radical monogamy” movement—more power to them. A new student organization at Princeton, the Anscombe Society, actually promotes chastity before marriage. There’s been a growing trickle of research and opinion pieces exploring the toxicity of modern sexual mores for women, and for men as well. [3] For example, consider this hopeful thought appearing in the Washington Post (!): “There are many situations in which a partner might consent to sex—affirmatively, even enthusiastically—but in which sex would still be ethically wrong.”

These things, I submit, are the tiny green shoots of a pathway of life rising from the rubble of our society . . .

Want to change the world? Change the kind of sex you are choosing to have. Choose sexual integrity. Do it because you want to be happy, and do it because you want happiness for your sexual partner. And somewhere in the back of your mind, consider also that you might thereby actually help produce a world that women would want to reproduce.


NOTES:

[1] Somehow we are not surprised when Musk’s first wife, with whom he has five sons by IVF, says, “’I told Elon, in a soft voice that was nonetheless filled with conviction, that I needed our life to change. I didn't want to be a sideline player in the multimillion-dollar spectacle of my husband's life. I wanted equality. I wanted partnership. I wanted to love and be loved, the way we had before he made all his millions.' After one month of counseling, Musk filed for divorce.” https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10719535/How-Billionaire-SpaceX-founder-Elon-Musk-went-loner-South-Africa-richest-man-world.html For his part, Musk has revealed, “'If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy. I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me. It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there—and no one on the pillow next to you. F**k. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?'” In total, Musk has had two wives and several girlfriends, one of whom has borne him two more children. [Back to manuscript].


[2] I also think the quality of motherhood sets that horizon as well, but let's stick with sex in this essay. [Back to manuscript].


[3] Here are some, for your reading pleasure:
https://archive.ph/9jbT7
https://unherd.com/2022/01/why-do-men-hate-women-2/
https://www.feministcurrent.com/2017/12/12/women-obligation-speak-pornography/
https://unherd.com/2021/07/keep-your-kinks-to-yourself/?1625669676186
https://unherd.com/2021/11/the-sexual-revolution-killed-feminism/?=refinnar
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/07/opinion/sex-consent-dating-boundaries.html
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/madeleineholden/gen-z-sex-positivity
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/24/opinion/sex-positivity-feminism.html
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/17/sex-ethics-rethinking-consent-culture/
https://unherd.com/2020/12/how-sexual-empowerment-screws-women/
https://genevievegluck.substack.com/p/billie-eilish-is-right-pornography?s=r
https://archive.ph/k0pls
--- [Back to manuscript].



Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2022) "The Great Global Birth Strike," SquareTwo, Vol. 15 No. 1 (Spring 2022), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerBirthStrike.html, accessed <give access date>.

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