Salon culture critic Meghan O'Rourke discusses Dr. Keith Ablow's recent New York Times essay about men who are put off sex by childbirth. [Permalink] The blogosphere's heated reaction to Ablow's essay prompted O'Rourke to wonder: "How do we deal with the messy, intractable fact that our desires don't conform to our ideals for an egalitarian society?"
But Ablow's piece isn't about men who don't want to attend births as much as society thinks they should. It isn't even about normal visceral reactions to birth and fatherhood. The article described a few cases of men who developed long-term sexual dysfunction after witnessing childbirth. Ablow didn't spot a trend, he described a rare pathology. His proposed solution? That women and health care professionals coddle the entire male gender to protect the libido of a handful of weak-minded individuals. Now that's male privilege!
Today's women aren't celebrating pregnancy as a mystical orgasm, but they do see having the father in the delivery room as a necessary component of a healthy marriage, one in which both partners contribute equally to collective partnership. This is an absolutely reasonable request: Childbirth is scary and painful, and it makes sense to have reassurance and help from the person you're closest to (and your child's father). But the belief that men should be on duty no matter what assumes on some level that sex is just like all the other functions that the body performs. What the experience of the men in the therapist's article suggests is that, for at least some, this isn't true; for some, the erotic depends on maintaining a distinction between the sexual and the reproductive.
O'Rourke is urging us to be compassionate towards these poor souls whose libido is no match for biological reality. Fair enough. However, it sounds as if many of the "traumatized" fathers are responsible for their own ongoing discomfort insofar as it arises from modifiable irrational beliefs. Despite what O'Rourke says, the conviction that men should be on duty for their wives and children doesn't assume anything about the ontology of sexual and reproductive functions. Reality, however, establishes that sex is like other bodily functions. If that's not true "in your experience," you need a therapist who will emphasize gross discrepancy between your experience and real life.
Feelings are what they are. But mature adults develop coping strategies to prevent these feelings from derailing their lives. Adults understand that real life isn't always as sexy as fantasy. To borrow a construction from Jaegwon Kim, "That's why real life is real life and fantasy is fantasy." A patient who claims to have permanently lost sexual desire for his wife after seeing her give birth is laboring under some classic irrational expectations: That traumatic experiences necessarily cause permanent emotional damage, that if his wife isn't perfectly sexy she's not desirable at all, that it's intolerable that his real-life responsibilities interferred with his fantasy life, etc.
Appropriately, an interview with Albert Ellis, the father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) appeared in the Village Voice about the time Ablow's essay came out. I couldn't help but imagine how Ellis would approach a man who was complaining about losing desire for his wife after seeing her give birth.
Patient: I'm alienated from my wife's vagina.
Ellis: Is there something wrong with it?
Patient: No, but I saw it give birth--it was so awful, there was blood and stuff.
Ellis: It still works, right?
Patient: Yes, but now that I've seen it squeeze out a slimy, bloody baby...
Ellis: It's not bloody now, is it?
Patient: No, but every time I look at her I can't help thinking about how awful it looked.
Ellis: Why can't you help it?
Patient: The mystery is gone.
Ellis: What mystery? What part of making babies didn't you understand? [...]
There's plenty of good advice that Ablow could have offered to dads and prospective dads. Practical: Guys, if you're squeamish, park yourself at the head of the bed and don't look under those drapes. Logical: The whole idea of "mystery" is pretty nebulous. You already knew where babies came from. Maybe you saw some gore and maybe that upset you. But why should a fleeting visual sabotage your libido indefinitely? Existential: Yes, parenthood requires major psychological and physical adjustments. No, of course you're not a bad guy for getting squicked. However, if this experience is chronically undermining your sex life, the problem lies with your coping skills, not with the intrinsic horror of the natural process you witnessed. In these cases, the patient's attitude is making his dick limp, it's his therapist's job to help him adjust that attitude. It's not the therapist's job to convince the rest of the world to accomodate the patient's delusions.