Monday, December 8, 2014

Against Biological Determinism, or, There’s Something Growing In There!

Warning, this is explicit, and about body parts. Don’t read if you prefer to not think about body parts or sex.

A skit of James Franco competing with a 4 year old from SNL-- and being 31 weeks pregnant-- inspired me to write about bodies and what they say about who we are.

The skit itself was silly, and made me laugh to myself as Franco (who is almost constantly channeling the dirty old man he will undoubtedly become) yells into the camera about seeing the scrotum of the father of a four year old years before the boy is born. “We play squash together. He took a hard dive and his balls came spilling out of his shorts. They were huge and red and Tommy [the four year old] was still inside them.”

What this reminded me of is the myth of the homunculus. I am not sure where I ran across this thinking, but I’ve always associated it with the deprivation of non-masturbation and genital identification with sexuality. The homunculus idea is that inside each individual sperm there is a miniature person, waiting to be implanted and grown to baby form. If, as Franco jests and 16th century philosophers posited, each sperm is a potential person, than masturbation for people with penises is really murder.

When I was a child, there were whispers of this old viewpoint in the Catholic school I attended from seventh through ninth grade. I was at an all girls school, however, so it was mostly discussed at the lunch table. Lucky for me, I was not from a devout home, so my suspicion of this thinking was high. Not so for other girls. Wide eyed and unsure of what their bodies were for, these girls were the most scared of what was going on down there. I remember listening to girls talking about sins of the flesh, and the risk of boys committing murder if they made sperm come out of them.

In 8th grade, we got to health class, and all these conjectures fell away, except for the specter of the homunculus, and its attendant question-- What are our bodies for? The sisters couldn’t help us, at least not with ease or self-awareness, as they had rejected the urges of the flesh, or sublimated them in good works and self-deprivation. But for we who knew we weren’t heading that way-- once we could believe we were desirable at all-- these questions loomed large. What happens down there?  What are our bodies for?

When I started having sex, it was with people with penises, and then people with vaginas. I found pleasure down there, and I sidestepped any concern about use and function by departing from heterosexual assumption at 15. Without the phantom mythic homunculus, I was free to see my body as my own, and the bodies of my lovers as something other than strictly speaking useful, as I had been taught in middle school. I also started being able to see erotic pleasure in more things than the body, or particular body parts.

In seminary, this experience I named in a feminist sense as body-god(ess)-talk, where the information and the vicissitudes of the body become a site for naming the divine, as a site for worship, as a place that moves between peoples, that creates something new. It wasn’t about reproduction, at least not in the normative sense. It was generative, and it was both about the body and not determined by it.

And then I started wanting to have a kid. I was 32 when I really started having that feeling, and I see this as part of healing for me. Part of rejecting that determinism of the body meant that I felt I also had to reject the possibility of family and parenting. So the desire to have children, from wherever it sprung, was something I repressed, much like those sisters in middle school (I knew I had more in common with them than I thought!). At 32 I stopped repressing, and started healing work to get ready to have a kid. And at 37, #1 came through my body into the world.

And now, #2. As the last weeks of pregnancy loom large, and my belly looms larger, I wonder about the homunculus, and the fear from which he comes. Am I carrying a fully grown being? Am I merely a vessel for this creature? Some conservative thinking about pregnancy and women’s roles would say, yes. The homunculus still lives in the hearts and imaginations of those who do not see what is really happening with pregnancy.

The symbiosis of pregnancy, the incredible interconnection, and the development of a being from very little to a baby is pretty amazing. But it’s not anything to privilege over any other life changing event. Oftentimes I have heard mothers say-- you have no idea until you become a mother, until you are pregnant, until you are nursing, until you are until you are……. You know, this is true! But it’s no more true than someone having other body experiences that are singular, that are personal, that do not ultimately determine who that person is. We are bodies. We have experiences. They are powerful.

What is happening to me is a fundamental experience of the body, but so are most other things. The desire to compare or privilege this experience over other bodies and their experiences recreates the world where the homunculus can grow big in our psyches. And I am truly not saying that what is happening to me is small-- or unimportant. But it does not determine value, or create more meaning or value than other bodies and their experiences. If I did that, if I wanted to have the pregnancy pedestal made for me and other people with uteruses who choose to grow babies in them, then I would be risking the loss of my sense of self to this experience. And I would be ignoring the rich depth of body experience and sources of the divine in my life before having children, before I chose this path of engaging my biology. 

This is my body, in all its vicissitudes, holiness, and commonness. And I honor the body growing in me, as a part of me, and as not all of me.  And with each birth, with each experience of the body, I wave goodbye to the homunculus ghost in this misogyny machine, and know there is more than what we bring to the project of nurturing life, in ourselves and in each other, in this world soon changed by someone new. We'll see who they are. 

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