October 21, 2020

Cardi B, she of the notoriously rude song WAP, has flounced off social media after fans rebuked her for staying married.

When the stripper-turned-rapper initiated divorce, claiming the relationship was “irretrievably broken”, rumour had it that she did so because her husband was upset about her making “thot music”. Others have claimed his repeated extramarital affairs were to blame. But just this week Cardi defended her decision to return to her husband, adding that their two-year-old daughter is always asking for her dad at home.

The effort to plot a course between individual libido and the long view is as old as humanity. Some two millennia ago St Paul advised the Corinthians that while it’s better to be celibate, for those that really can’t keep it in their pants “let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” More recently, that poet of chronic inner conflict Sigmund Freud argued in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) that the essence of advanced societies is a capacity to repress desire in pursuit of long-term goals.

Writing to his wife Martha Bernays in 1883, Freud saw “the extreme case” of civilised repression as marriage: “people like ourselves who chain themselves together for life and death, who deprive themselves and pine for years so as to remain faithful”. Who said romance was dead?

But even before Freud’s time, the opposing view was gathering momentum. The 19th-century ‘free love’ advocate Mary Gove Nichols was a pioneering advocate of pursuing love wherever it led even if that ended a marriage, declaring in 1854: “Marriage and slavery are alike the grave of human liberty, and that which comes nearest to the inner life is, of the two, the greater wrong”.

And yet two years later 1856 the Memnonia Institute founded by Mary with her second husband, Thomas Gove Nichols, was walking free love back in favour of responsible procreation. An Institute circular declared it a “law of sexual relations” that “Material Union is only to be had, when the wisdom of the Harmony demands a child”.

St Paul may have been preoccupied with the spiritual ramifications of desire, but until relatively recently most people — even free love advocates — were unable to avoid the biological one. That is, sexual intimacy has a way of producing children regardless of what “the wisdom of the Harmony” recommends. And before the 20th-century development of technologies to prevent conception or gestation, marriage was the only available mechanism for controlling human fertility — or, rather, de-risking our inability to control it.

A whole genre of folk songs concerns young women persuaded by unscrupulous men that (as Gove Nichols put it), ‘Love alone sanctions the union of the sexes’. Cold Blow and the Rainy Night tells of a soldier who arrives, hat frozen to his head, pleading with a young woman to let him in. She’s eventually persuaded, whereupon one thing leads to another. Presumably in the afterglow, she asks him: “Now since you had your will of me/Soldier will you marry me?”. Nope, he replies:

O then she cursed the rainy night
That ever she let him in – O
Then he jumped out of the bed
He put his cap upon his head
And she had lost her maidenhead
And her mother heard the din – O

The immediate harm caused the young woman in Cold Blow and the Rainy Night is her mother learning of her loss of ‘maidenhead’ and thus, potentially, of her reputation. From a contemporary perspective, this association of premarital sex with shame for women tends to be read as evidence of a patriarchal obsession with controlling female desire. Less often discussed, though, is the fact that for most of human history, reputational damage is a second-order risk whose foundation is the grim realities of solo pregnancy.

The worst-case scenario for the horny soldier was catching some kind of STD. But in a world before contraception and social safety nets, the worst-case scenario for the young woman he sweet-talks (and who, the song strongly implies, is also well up for it) would have been pregnancy but no husband. That is, a grim choice between dangerous medical interventions aimed at ending the pregnancy, abandoning her baby to an orphanage, a decade at least of solo struggle to care for a dependent infant, or infanticide.

The starkness of this, for women, lies dormant underneath the mostly bawdy ‘faithless soldier’ musical genre. When it comes to the surface, the result can be almost unbearably bleak. Another song, The Greenwood Side, recounts the story of a young woman who falls pregnant in an illicit affair, is abandoned by her lover, gives birth alone in a wood and conceals the truth by murdering her twin babies. The affair, abandonment, birth and infanticide are briskly narrated, and the body of the song is a hallucinated dialogue with her murdered babies. The deeply unsettling lyrics blend horror at her deed with profound pity for the woman:

Now, bonny boys, come tell to me
Oh, the rose and the linsey, oh
What sort of life I’ll have after dying?

Down by the Greenwood side, oh

Seven years of visions of blood
Oh, the rose and the linsey, oh
And seven years of hurt in the womb

Down by the Greenwood side, oh

Contemporary feminism has a great deal to say about how unfair it is to shame women for putting out, while letting men off the hook for being faithless. But while this is indeed asymmetrical, in a Pill-and-condom-free world the underlying givens are also unfair, and inescapable. Only women get pregnant. The raw misery in The Greenwood Side conveys something of the suffering faced by countless now-forgotten women, who found themselves making appalling choices in such impossible situations.

Far from being a patriarchal imposition of purity culture, then, aimed at repressing women’s innate libidinousness, before contraception ‘no sex before marriage’ was a profoundly pro-women position. Norms forbidding pre-marital sex might seem repressive to the modern eye, but shielded young women from the risk of being knocked up by faithless shaggers and left to deal with pregnancy alone.

So it’s no coincidence that the drive, already nascent in the 19th century, to pursue human flourishing by liberating sexuality from commitment, didn’t get much buy-in from women until a century later, when birth control became widely available. At that point, social norms that sought to constrain human libido in the interests of the longer-term project of child-rearing came to seem more oppressive to women than to men.

In 1970, ten years after the FDA approved the birth control pill, the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone argued in The Dialectic of Sex that the root cause of women’s oppression is our reproductive role. Gestation makes women physically vulnerable, and human infants have an unusually long period of dependence, so creating and raising them takes time and resources. Thus women and children have historically leaned on men for support and protection, and the temptation for men to exploit that dependency has been irresistible. The result has been millennia of male supremacy.

Firestone thought that the way to liberate women from reproductive oppression was decoupling sex from reproduction. Abortion, contraception and — eventually — artificial gestation would free women from the ungainly and physically risky business of motherhood. And as these technologies developed, the principal means of dismantling  male dominance would be destroying the institution at its heart: the nuclear family. Mallory Millett, sister of the groundbreaking radical feminist Kate Millett, recalls attending a 1969 ‘consciousness-raising’ group with her sister:

“Why are we here today?” she asked.
“To make revolution,” they answered.
“What kind of revolution?” she replied.
“The Cultural Revolution,” they chanted.
“And how do we make Cultural Revolution?” she demanded.
“By destroying the American family!” they answered.
“How do we destroy the family?” she came back.
“By destroying the American Patriarch,” they cried exuberantly.
“And how do we destroy the American Patriarch?” she replied.
“By taking away his power!”
“How do we do that?”
“By destroying monogamy!” they shouted.

Firestone’s vision was of a world that had achieved “not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself”, as she put it. She dreamed of a world in which it simply doesn’t matter which type of reproductive organs you have, and as such there was no need for monogamy at all. In the course of this radical de-coupling of desire from reproduction and the family, heterosexual relations could be disentangled from the historically unbalanced power relations between men and women, and Eros liberated to suffuse society.

Some decades on, this has to a great extent been achieved. We no longer see sex and reproduction as inextricable, because they aren’t. The project to unchain libido from commitment only remains unfinished to the extent that people still (on the whole) prefer to see their kids grow up. Were it not for two-year-old Kulture Kiari Cephus, the desires of Cardi B and Offset variously to make ‘thot music’ and shag everything that moves wouldn’t even be an issue, because no one other than them would have any serious stake in their continuing a relationship should their desires lead them elsewhere.

But even leaving aside the question of whether this brave new world of unchained desire really is that desirable, we should be cautious of taking the unchaining for granted, or imagining it’s irreversible. Shulamith Firestone’s radical feminism accords with centuries of folk wisdom in showing how women’s reproductive role makes us vulnerable, and she’s right to see contraception as key to freeing women from sexual constraint. But while this change is understood today as a priori evidence of our moral progress, in truth it’s a fragile state of affairs, wholly dependent on technology. Only take contraception off the table, and the entire illusion of women’s sexual liberation evaporates.

It would take a cataclysmic shock to modern social and technological infrastructures to disrupt the mass availability of birth control. But the last twenty years have seen 9/11, the Great Crash, and now a pandemic that’s driving a global economic downturn likely to make 2008 look like a Monaco yacht party. Add climate change and the looming prospect of a new era of great-power conflict into the mix, and only the delusionally optimistic could insist without a flicker of doubt that (as Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory celebration declared) things can only get better.

Let’s hope they don’t get much worse. Because if we’re to be confident that abolishing marriage in favour of a sexual free-for-all is in women’s interests, we’d better be equally confident that welfare states and reproductive healthcare will always be with us. Should that ever change, we’ll need a radical revision of what ‘feminism’ looks like. And in that unsettling scenario, we might discover that far from ‘free love’, the pro-women position is once again ‘no sex before marriage’.