Parenthood in A Brave New World is considered obscene. Motherhood, fatherhood, and family-life are looked upon, not only as antiquated, but as shameful. There is a powerful logic at work in the novel, a logic which is at work in our own culture. When sex ceases to be linked with marriage or reproduction, our bodies and our bodily existence can baffle and discomfit us.
Parenthood (and motherhood in particular) appears vulgar and pornographic when we believe that the sole purpose of our sexuality is physical pleasure.
Pornography is the abstracted instrumentalization of sexual behavior. It commoditizes sex and romance, and it isolates sexuality from its intended emotional, marital, procreative, and spiritual dimensions.
In abstracting sex and sexuality from its primary realities, we alienate ourselves from meaning. In doing so, the human body becomes an enigma to us. On the one hand, it presents a sensually pleasurable aspect; on the other hand, it is seems disgusting, demanding, and even unjust.
The Body At Cross Purposes
This attitude toward the human body can be grasped in our conflicted response toward breastfeeding.
It is not uncommon to see a woman nursing her child in public these days. A decade ago this would have been much more controversial, if not unacceptable. 49 states have found it necessary to protect the practice legislatively. Why?
The act of breastfeeding is challenging because it confronts us with a reality about the female body which intrudes upon a fragmentary conception of personhood. Nursing embodies aspects of female (and thus human) complexity which impinge upon the partial and flawed construction of woman as lust-object. That which was considered possessively and erotically, presents something mysterious and profound, not only about her own body, but about the meaning of our male and female human family. when nursing, a woman can be seen as sexed for a non-sexual (erotic) purpose.
It is not only that nursing women present the reality of motherhood (which does not exist apart from sexuality), but that she expresses motherhood, foremost by her body, and even by those aspects of her body which present her sexuality.
She presents and gives her body over to the process and service of motherhood, and thus gives her body to her child. From the vantage of lust, there seems to be something of mockery or indignity in this. The experience is threatening, lewd, even ironic to the inward lustful gaze.
That those aspects of the female body which seem to proclaim erotic-purpose have a procreative, nurturing, and relational role is difficult to reconcile. Why would a body which once served the purpose of use and pleasure suddenly serve as a center for child-rearing and love?
Meaning and The Great Disconnect
Like many difficulties, this problem disappears when viewed from a different perspective.
There was a time when sex was generally associated with marriage, love, and childbirth. Sex was what married couples did to express their love for one another. It was also what they did to have children. The two might not always converge, but were still united in the general conception of the act. The purpose of sex was understood as twofold: unitive and procreative.*
In the last two hundred years, those two aspects of sexuality (unity and reproduction) have increasingly been separated from one another, and in that separation, the meaning of the human body, chiefly expressed in the female sex, has been sundered from its physical reality.
In severing the unitive and procreative reality of the body, we sacrifice them both.
In the name of fairness, freedom, and happiness, reproduction has been depicted as the enemy of women everywhere. Modern birth-control promised economic, social, and personal advancement. But by nearly every measure, it has failed and contributed to the further objectification of women, men, and our social existence. It has led to an increase in infidelity, abortion, depression, cancer, divorce, and casual sex. It has played an enormous role in the booming pornography industry. But perhaps its deepest wound has been to our self-understanding.
Man and Woman vs. Man against Woman
The idea that the female body is broken, flawed, and itself guilty of injustice upon women arises out of the reality of sexual difference. It is thought that in overcoming this difference, we serve the end of equality and happiness. But in overcoming this difference, we obscure the social and familial ties which are meant to unite us in love to one another.
Without birth-control, it is thought that the burden and consequence of sexuality falls unfairly upon women. Indeed it appears that women bear the weight of child-birth, social expectation, economic and vocational limits, and violence. While men suffer alienation, isolation, and social loss, they do so largely as perpetrators rather than as victims. A woman is victimized both by men and by their own bodies.
The problem with this construction of women as victim is that it is yet partial, depicting human society as essentially divided against itself. Women are indeed sexually vulnerable in ways which men are not. However, there vulnerability is exaggerated, not decreased by establishing them as falsely independent of men and their own bodies.
One solution, the solution popularly pursued, has been to eliminate female vulnerability by means of technology, law, social pressure, and often the denial of difference.
But viewed from the vantage of mutuality, this burden is not merely a woman’s burden!
The vulnerability of the female body, its openness to conception, calls out unto all mankind for its protection and respect. Female vulnerability is indeed human vulnerability. Such a burden can be disowned by men (and women), but never truly eradicated.
In the beginning, God created man (one species) male and female. Further, Genesis depicts human mutuality in man leaving and cleaving to his wife sacrificially. Woman is helpful to man, not as worker or slave, but in calling forth man’s sacrificial love, in part by the very nature of her sexuality.
The vulnerability of the female body is therefore the vulnerability of all mankind, meant to be dignified, respected, honored, guarded, and therefore born by man and woman–by society as a whole.
Today, this vulnerability is simultaneously rejected and denied by popular rhetoric, law, and technology. In doing so, women have not been made free and equal to men, but have joined men in their existential isolation, lust, and bodily alienation. The suppression of vulnerability and difference has damaged the redemptive bonds of love and mutuality which are meant to direct us toward one another, and therefore toward our true equality and freedom.
The bodily vulnerability of mankind, expressed uniquely in childbearing, is meant to call forth the exigency of love which both man and woman desire to give and receive.
That Brave New World
We can now return to Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, and perhaps discover in it a great similarity to our own world. It is is a world in which birth-control has all but severed the link between sex and reproduction. There is little aging, and children are, from the earliest age, reared up in promiscuity, viewing sexual behavior as the preeminent social activity.
There, sex is a casual, civil, natural recreation, but for some reason still freighted with a profusion of meaning.
In A Brave New World, just as in our own world, sex symbolizes unity, but is no longer treated as a symbol with symbolic context. It is seen as the thing (unity) itself. But as the thing itself, this means that unity begins and ends with the sexual act. For this reason, sex becomes, paradoxically, a symbol of isolation, of Cartesian bodies passing in the night, never truly uniting heart, mind, or soul.
The horror of motherhood, of birth, and of familial existence in A Brave New World is the horror of man abstracted from his bodily reality. It is only in the light of divine love that this horror can again take on the aspect and power of salvific unity; it is only in our willing surrender to the reality and limitations of the individual and social body, that we discover freedom; it is only in sacrificial mutuality and dependence that we discover joy.
*This terminology (Unitive, Procreative, Gift, Self-giving, mutuality, sex as sign of unity) come from the excellent book on sexual ethics, Sex and Virtue, by John Grabowski. His book is deeply influenced by Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and by the Moral Theology of Romanus Cessario & Servais Pinckaers.