From Soy to Sex: Why 'Natural' Often Means Bad for Women
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Eden Foods—an organic food company that makes everything from soymilk to quinoa chili—is suing the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employee health plans include coverage for contraception. The suit, based on religious objections, alleges that birth control “almost always involve[s] immoral and unnatural practices.” Company CEO Michael Potter is deep in a PR nightmare, with angry vegans peppering Eden Foods’ Facebook page with criticisms of the lawsuit. It didn’t help that Potter told Salon’s Irin Carmon that he has “more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills.”
It may seem odd that anyone who peddles gluten-free pasta could possibly have a problem with contraception—Eden Foods’ previous political activism seems confined to supporting GMO labeling legislation—but perhaps it shouldn’t: claims about what’s “natural” have long been used to reinforce traditional gender roles and values. There are, of course, vast differences between a breast-feeding aficionado and an evangelical patriarch, but in both cases privileging “the natural” comes with consequences that women feel most acutely. A throwback is just that, even if it is shrouded in organic hemp cloth.
Recent anti-choice rhetoric, for example, purports to be primarily concerned with what’s good for women. (Apparently calling them “murderers” wasn’t winning hearts and minds.) In fact, for the first time ever, the GOP’s 2012 platform contained language stating that abortion is bad for women’s “health and well being.” You can see the seeds of that approach in an article published by Feminists for Life in 2008: “A woman’s body is a delicately balanced ecology, not meant to have its natural, healthy process disrupted by invasive machinery.” (Goodbye, colonoscopies!) Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, feels similarly about birth control: “What is really natural about contraception? Isn’t it a practice of using something artificial in the body to facilitate ‘freedom’ from pregnancy?”
Conservatives also frequently trot out the laws of nature to explain why same-sex couples shouldn’t be able to get married or have children. During the Supreme Court oral arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Elena Kagan read aloud from the House Judiciary Report that accompanied the law’s passage; it argued that heterosexual marriage should get “preferential status” because it is “in accord with nature.” Organizations like Focus on the Family have abandoned the phrase “traditional marriage” in favor of “natural marriage.” Tennessee has twice tried to pass a law that would prohibit K–8 students from being taught anything that was “inconsistent with natural human reproduction.” Laws have even been introduced to curb the use of reproductive technology in order to ensure that such services are available only to straight married couples: a proposed 2006 law in Virginia would have banned “intervening medical technology…for or on an unmarried woman, that completely or partially replaces sexual intercourse as the means of conception.” How marriages and children fare after the “natural act” is seemingly of little concern.
It’s hard not to see the similarities in stifling parenting ideologies that promise to restore women to “natural motherhood.” The list of what’s best for baby is centered on complete and undivided attention from mom, from long-term breastfeeding to constant baby-wearing. The latest trend in potty training, “elimination communication”—in which the infant goes diaperless from a few months old—obligates moms to observe their newborns constantly, looking for cues of an impending pee or BM. If mothers are truly attuned to their babies’ needs, they won’t have to encumber them with diapers, goes the theory. (Adaptations for working mothers remain unexplained.)
Whether these trends represent a worthy attempt to respond to inborn human needs or just the fetishization of an imagined “natural” state is debatable. The New York Times pointed out that many of the mothers practicing elimination communication “like the thought that they are rediscovering an ancient practice used in other cultures.” One hub for EC enthusiasts assures its mostly white, middle-class followers that the practice is “not just for African bush-women.” Yikes.
Even the notion that women should have children at all is based on the idea that a woman’s inherent and most important role is that of mother. Shockingly, men’s “innate” roles are a lot more fun than the ones bestowed on women. We must be monogamous because men are naturally promiscuous. Men are meant to build and explore, women to nest. No question as to who got the better deal!
But the one thing that nature lovers don’t ever seem to ask themselves is this: Why does an innate state of affairs take so much work to maintain? After all, shouldn’t it come… naturally? As primatologist Barbara Smuts wrote (quoted in Natalie Angier’s fantastic Woman: An Intimate Geography): “If female sexuality is muted compared to that of men, then why must men the world over go to extreme lengths to control and contain it?” If only heterosexuality is natural, why would interest groups need to fight to enshrine it in law? If women’s natural place is the home, why do so many of us willingly—and happily—leave it?
Besides, “unnatural” inventions have given us vaccines, far fewer women dying in childbirth and TiVo. If hewing to what’s “natural” can make food healthier and our environment cleaner, excellent. But using it to understand how men and women, parents and children, should behave is doing us no favors. It means that we’re still fighting rape apologists who insist “boys will be boys” and legislators who think sex for pleasure rather than procreation should be abolished. So while I’ll hold on to my soymilk (though not from Eden Foods, thanks anyway), I’m leaving the “natural” behind. I’ll take deviance over the boring norm any day of the week.
Emily Douglas traced the funding for birth control under the Affordable Care Act in February and charted it out.