You can ask my mother: I do not like talking about sex. You know that “Talk” that parents are supposed to have with their kids? I avoided that very well. Anything I wanted to know about sex I went to Wikipedia for rather than listen to my parents explain the mechanics, the biology and anything else. Even now as a much more “enlightened” adult, I still do not care to discuss sex. “Oh, you have great sex with your boyfriend? That’s great, but how about this weather?” Let’s just say I’m squeamish and leave it at that.
So it was slightly unusual for me to pick up The Sex Lives of Australians at the library and actually check it out. I avoided taking the book on holiday, preferring instead to read it at home where no one could see the cover. It’s a painting of a naked lady by Lefebvre. I can still feel myself blush every time I look at it. But, surprisingly, the book was hugely enjoyable to read!
The author, Frank Bongiorno, does an excellent job of recording the history of sex in Australian culture. He starts in the early days of colonization when the ratio of men to women was extremely lopsided and goes straight up until our own times. Despite knowing just a little bit more than I wanted to know about heterosexual sex (sorry, guys), I was intrigued by the change in views on abortion, homosexuality, contraception and the role that religion and government often played in this story. What is really brought home in this book is the fact that sex is a part of culture and culture plays a role in monitoring it, whether it be by religious moralist mandate or by the legality of certain acts by a government. It was this cultural history that reeled me in and kept me reading avidly until the end.
Summarizing even one topic from this book is impossible. In fact, the book itself could be considered almost a summary of the last two hundred or so years of sexual culture. But what really stuck out to me was the continuation of some arguments into our own time, particularly about abortion.
I am well-versed in the anti-abortion arguments, both secular and religious. I was not surprised to hear that abortion was opposed by many throughout history, but I was interested to see how similar the messages are to today’s. One thing you hear a lot of is that the number of abortions represents a treat to population numbers. “We’re aborting ourselves into oblivion,” I have heard some of my adult acquaintances say. That argument has existed far longer than you might thing, going at least as far back as the 1940s and the post-WW2 era.
What was fascinating to me, however, was the racial element in opposing abortion. One Melbourne priest said back then, “It is useless to win the war against a foreign enemy if the nation is to die by a cancer within.” Abortion for a long time was considered a threat to the continuation of the white race, at least in Australia. This rhetoric of extinction through abortion continues today. There are plenty of websites about “white extinction” and “black extinction” that center around opposition to abortion. One website I stumbled upon was so virulently white supremacist in its opposition to abortion that I will not even bother to link it. The point is that racism had its role to play in the abortion debate and it still does to a certain extent. Some things never change.
But I wondered if maybe there was a connection between this racial aspect and today’s less racist abortion opposition. As the book itself notes, “Feminist critics have stressed the continuity between earlier accusations of ‘race suicide’ and conservative complaints of an abortion epidemic.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think of this.
I found an answer in the Quiverfull Movement. This is the religious anti-abortion, anti-contraception, pro-conservative family movement. Its most visible adherents are the Duggars, who have nearly 20 kids. Their movement is called “quiverfull” because of a Bible verse:
“”Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.” (Psalm 127)
Already I was seeing a connection between the “race war” attitude of the 1940s and today’s anti-abortion movements. This was further confirmed in a Newsweek article about the Duggars from 2009:
“Quiverfull advocates Rick and Jan Hess, authors of 1990’s ‘A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ,’ envision the worldly gains such a method could bring, if more Christians began producing ‘full quivers’ of ‘arrows for the war’: control of both houses of Congress, the ‘reclamation’ of sinful cities like San Francisco and massive boycotts of companies that do not comply with conservative Christian mores. ‘If the body of Christ had been reproducing as we were designed to do,’ the Hesses write, ‘we would not be in the mess we are today.’ Nancy Campbell, author of another movement book from 2003 called “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” exhorts Christian women to do just that with promises of spiritual glory. ‘Oh what a vision,” she writes, “to invade the earth with mighty sons and daughters who have been trained and prepared for God’s divine purposes.'”
Okay. My theory was right. Instead of race, however, the war is between Christians and non-Christians and children are the weapons with which it will be fought. I was starting to wish I hadn’t learned this.
While this history is centered in Australia, I would not be surprised that it has its analogues in America since the cultural exchange between the two countries is so great. The more important point that I took from it, though, was the continuation of history. Sex is a huge part of our culture and it always has been. There has never been an asexual history where everything was pure and sex wasn’t something anyone thought about. Human are sexual beings. Always have been and always will be. The way our ancestors had sex actually does affect us today (and not just in a “so glad my ancestors gave birth to my other ancestors” kind of way).
The anti-abortion rhetoric is just one example. There are countless others. As an American, I was particularly interested in how Australians have historically treated homosexuality and the concept of “mateship.” I feel like I better understand Aussies’ reactions to me being gay now.
This book is amazing. And if you’re squeamish like me and don’t want the one with the naked lady on the front, there are other editions.