The Myth of Sexual Autonomy
by Julianne Wiley
Note: Julianne Wiley (aka Juli Loesch) was the founder of Prolifers for Survival, the predecessor group of Consistent Life (CL). This is an updated version of an article published in the Spring 1987 version of Sisterlife, then newsletter of CL member group Feminists for Life.
Occasionally on the web we find abortion defenders compelled to admit that the Left and the media are more likely to be won over by the “seamless garment” approach, which includes opposition to abortion in the context of opposition to other kinds of sanctioned killing. Or that prolife feminists have grasped some “essential feminist truths” which make their arguments against abortion more compelling.
With the game beginning to go against them, some will fold the rest of their hand and slap their highest card on the table: sexual autonomy.
No matter what else happens, and no matter what “utopian” changes may come, there will always be the vagaries of sexual passion and the failures of contraception. Thus, come what may, abortion will always be “necessary” if we are to be free to live “sexually autonomous” lives.
Ellen Willis in the Village Voice hurled the following challenge: “I have yet to hear any right-to-lifers take full responsibility for that fact or deal seriously with its political implications.”
On the contrary. I think that it’s the advocates of sexual autonomy who have failed to recognize its political implications.
The opposite of sexual autonomy, or independence, is sexual bondedness, or interdependence. What the autonomous wish to enjoy is precisely unbondedness; and one of the bonds to be rejected is a bond to offspring who were conceived without deliberate choice.
To the defenders of such autonomy I would like to post these questions: Is there such a thing as parental obligation? If so, when and how, and for whom, does this obligation arise?
In the past, people assumed that simply by engaging in heterosexual relations with each other they acquired parental obligations if and when pregnancy resulted. But now, this is to be seen as a denial of sexual autonomy. Obligations now arise, not from the decision to have sex, but from the strictly separate decision to bear the child.
But please note: The decision to have sex is a decision made by both partners. The decision to bear the child is made by only one of them: namely, the woman.
Thus, the woman’s responsibility corresponds to her choice, made at some point during the pregnancy. If she doesn’t want to assume any obligation, she can choose abortion and any question of parental responsibility is foreclosed.
But for the man, parental obligation supposedly arises from the woman’s choices: her choice to bear the baby, and her choice to name him as the father and even to bring legal action to compel his support, if it comes to that.
The problem here is obvious. You can expect increasingly to hear the sexually autonomous male’s just complaint: “How is it that she gets a choice, but I don’t? She chose to be a mother. I didn’t choose to be a father. I just chose to have sex!”
There will always be men who, at any given moment, want sex but don’t want a child; some of these men will get women pregnant. But sexual intercourse now implies for each of them – exactly nothing, no responsibility.
It’s only the woman’s subsequent and separate option that determines everything. That being the case, why should any man feel he’s acquired an obligation if the woman decides to give birth? Because he deposited sperm in the woman’s vagina? Don’t be medieval.
Am I predicting that the elevation of sexual autonomy to the status of a “right,” coupled with the availability of abortion, will cut men loose entirely? That paternal responsibility will sink to zero? That men are not only going to take off, but feel justified about it?
Hell, no. I’m not predicting that. I’m reporting it. I’ve done my share of women’s shelter work. I saw it all the time. A couple has a child. Three years down the line he decides he isn’t cut out to be a father. “But you can’t just walk out. This is your child too!”
“Sure, sure. But it was your choice.”
Well, the gentleman is right, given that the availability of abortion has made procreation a unilateral female decision.
Most male commitment to the long-term responsibility of child rearing is not obtained through court order. It is obtained voluntarily through a man’s sense, bolstered by society, that it’s right and fair. Why? Because the choice that obliges both him and the woman is the choice they made together, in the act that made the child.
The vast majority of women and children in this world rely upon webs of interrelation predicated upon a sexually connected man: a man whose sexuality makes him the husband of this woman, the father of this child. It’s sex that binds him, obliges him to another gender and another generation.
If the act of generation loses this weight, this significance—and the abortion culture simply blows it away—then you end up with fathering that never makes a father, mating that never makes a mate, short-circuited sex that dreams of nothing more than being plugged into its own sockets.
Autonomy—in this sense—is as pro-woman as poverty and as pro-sex as an amputation. And abortion—the dismembered offspring—is not only its program, but its most perfect and fitting image.
I do like the way you have framed this matter and it really does present me a lot of fodder for consideration. Nevertheless, through what precisely I have personally seen, I really trust as other opinions pile on that folks keep on issue and not start upon a tirade associated with the news of the day. All the same, thank you for this outstanding piece and although I do not really agree with it in totality, I value the standpoint.