Imagining Intimacy, Family, and Sex in a Better World
By Cynthia Peters
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Being active in the anti-war movement, supporting eviction blockades in my city, working with youth who are surviving oppressive schools and violence on the streets, I often wonder how I can justify taking the time to imagine what sex, family, gender, and caregiving might be like in a better world. Isn’t it frivolous fantasizing in the context of humanity hemorrhaging?
Then I notice again the powerful pull these forces have on all of us, no matter what or how dire our circumstances. Being sexual, being intimate, being expressive and nurturing towards each other – these are both the urgent needs and enormously satisfying wants that are important parts of what make us human. We pursue our desires almost no matter what — even in times of war, even in the most mind-numbing, soul-killing environments of degrading work, racial discrimination, gender oppression, homophobia, and the methodical destruction of the planet. We have a powerful drive to connect with others, to share, and to express ourselves, and in some ways, these desires define the core of our world.
Thinking about how powerful these aspects of humanity are, I remember why I do the anti-war work and the eviction blockades. It’s not just because I want to stop the illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq, for example. It’s because I want the Iraqi people to be free of U.S. terrorism so that they can pursue their lives. It’s not just because I want to stop another family from becoming homeless. It’s because I want them to be home, where they will pursue the fine art of loving each other, being neighborly, and creating the great web of kinship that binds us to others and gives us a place in the universe.
Yet consider how little we discuss the ways we pursue these goals now and the way we might pursue them in a better world. What are the systems and institutions that govern the ways we nurture each other, the avenues open to us for seeking intimacy, and the norms that govern the way we have sex? What values do they support? What behaviors and norms do they give rise to? How can we create new systems and institutions that sustain positive kinship networks – those ever-expanding circles of human community that play such a significant role in shaping us, instilling values, and literally helping us grow up?
Progressives should pay attention to these questions for three reasons:
1. The kinship sphere currently includes norms and ways of relating that are oppressive to everyone, especially women and children. If we are committed to a society that values equity, diversity, justice, and solidarity, we must conceive of new norms and ways of relating in the family that will support these values.
2. Without a "reimagined" kinship sphere, it will be impossible to have a truly participatory, democratic society because most women and young people will not be able to be effective participants given the sometimes oppressive constraints of the kinship sphere.
3. The kinship sphere is a key site of intimacy, warmth, and fun. Not to mention sex. We’d be crazy not to talk about it. While parecon folks gather to fine-tune production and consumption patterns and the parpolity folks debate the subtleties of nested councils, over here in the kinship sphere, we get the fireworks.
So, please read on. Try imagining with me what it would be like to have a liberated and liberatory social space in which we could be in family, raise our children, express gender and sexuality, and experience intimacy and love. Imagine that you are joining a process that, if it works well, may never be exactly right for everyone but could be always evolving toward what is most right for most people. We are not looking for exact prescriptions of what should be. As people function in a better society, and continue to do so for generations, surely the family will evolve accordingly. Minds freed from oppressive work and oppressive culture will make much better choices about how to organize family.
Let’s start by looking at four key activities that happen in the kinship sphere:
People create family and all the lifelong attachments and commitments that are implied with that. People create intimacy that is somehow separate from the public sphere of work, politics, culture, etc. even though there is also continuity with those spheres.
People raise children and give them their first experiences with gender identity, language, race/ethnic identity, geographic identity, religious identity.
3. Sex and sexuality
People have sex and learn to express sexuality (though these activities are not limited to the family; they also happen in the community/culture/society, as well as in the economic sphere—e.g., the production of erotic literature, movies, sex toys, sex work, etc. Also, I don’t mean to imply that sex and sexuality are 100% "learned" behaviors. They have roots in biology as well.)
People care for children, elders, each other, tuning in to specific needs and being intimately able to respond to those needs.
Lifelong Attachments, Commitment, and Intimacy
Perhaps in a better world, with things like solidarity, justice, tolerance, participation, and liberty running rampant in our economic and political institutions, the family as we know it will simply wither away. Who needs a "haven in a heartless world" if the world is not heartless at all? Who needs the protective bonds of family intimacy if the workplace, the culture, and the political sphere are not constantly assaulting your humanity? Who says there is even anything necessarily positive about family intimacy when it seems so often to be a cloak for family dysfunction? At best, some might argue, parents create families in desperate attempts to somehow meet their own unmet needs for love and connection. At worst, parents’ approach to children as pawns in their emotional game leads to wholesale oppression of young people, including physical and emotional abuse. Today’s political and social structures give few rights to children, protecting them only from the most egregious forms of abuse, and doing that poorly.
Why have families at all if there is so much danger of them acting as sealed breeding grounds for unhealthy relationships and possibly even extreme oppression?
One of the most important components of family life, I would argue, is the opportunity to experience lifelong attachment and intimacy. In families, people have the potential to experience and to feel unconditional love. That seems to me to be an inherent good that we should protect and nurture in a better society. You don’t have to earn love; simply being born should put you in direct touch with it. And that first love you feel in your family should give rise to lifelong attachments that meet many emotional needs but also make you a responsible actor in the equation.
Consider the love and attachment between a parent and child. Parents might feel overwhelming love for children, but that doesn’t mean they simply bask in the connection that that makes them feel and leave it at that. Instead, they also do the things that children need to have done for them. They feed them in the middle of the night, change their diapers, and listen to their stories. In the process, they make sacrifices, which are often rewarded by deeper relationships and connections, but are still sacrifices nonetheless.
Meanwhile, children—sponges for love and attention that they are—learn something about the responsibility that comes with love and attachment. They see that sometimes making sacrifices leads to a greater good, and that while love is an unconditional right, it’s not something that happens automatically. They have intimate role models for the delicate balancing act of enjoying rights and taking responsibility for them—a balancing act that is key to the success of any sphere in a better society—and which is nonetheless an inherent good. Being loved and giving love back, sometimes sacrificing a part of yourself in the process, puts you in the human community. It’s your first experience of being connected to others, and if everyone had loving, trustful first attachments, you might wonder how much easier it would be to manage things in all the other spheres.
In fact, a guideline for every other sphere could be: Are we organizing systems in this sphere in the ways that are most conducive to nurturing families’ ability to sustain loving, trustful, non-oppressive relationships that help everyone involved hone the great human right to be loved alongside the equally great human responsibility to give back?
If not, think again.
It is an inherent good for all members of society to have a chance to experience the safety of and learn the responsibilities associated with unconditional love. But there is an instrumental value as well, one that we cannot afford to ignore in a better world. That is: most types of oppression (racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, etc.) depend on people buying into the falsehood that "others" are somehow less human and therefore less deserving of justice, equity, and solidarity. For systemic racism to work, for example, white people have to believe that dark skinned people are less than them, that they are other, that they are not truly part of the human family. White people have to agree to be part of an exclusive club at the expense of those who are not allowed to enter. Some of these behaviors (the ability to exclude, the inclination to close ranks against the outside) are learned in the family. And in a better society, the family will need to be structured in such a way that teaches the opposite – that all people are part of a human family – each one as deserving of love as the next and each one as responsible for offering love. How well we do intimacy in the family will have a significant effect on how well and how deeply we address oppressions outside the family.
Learning about Gender Identity, Language, Race/Ethnic Identity, Geographic Identity, Religious Identity
Children, obviously, do not have any choice about what family they are born into, what language they will grow up speaking, what name they will be given, what spiritual practices they might be included in, what city or town or rural area they will live in. All these things will have a big impact on a child, but s/he will have no choice in them, so society has to act as another layer of protection for the child. A child’s emotional development might be centered in the family, but it should not be confined to it, and society has to take responsibility for that.
Say, for example, parents regularly expose their children to a certain religious practice. Those children will participate in rituals, be taught a certain belief system, and take on a community identification—such as catholic or Jewish. By definition, it seems to me, children can’t choose a religious practice. They are born into one, if their parents have one. But society takes some responsibility for what happens in these communities or cultural practices. While there is respect for diverse cultural practices, oppression is not allowed. Intervention into a community’s cultural practice would have to follow certain guidelines and would be based on the level of potential injustice.
Say parents want to baptize their one-year old. They do this by having the minister dab water on her forehead and participating in the ritual of welcoming the baby into the church community. Clearly, the baby has no choice in this matter, but society might judge that there is nothing terribly oppressive about it. As she grows up, she gains the ability to make more and more choices about her religious practices and she lives in a society that affirms her ability and freedom to make changes. But what if she is psychologically tortured by wretched ideas of heaven and hell coursing through her consciousness her whole damn life? Or what if the gory sight of Jesus hanging from the cross is a constant source of nightmarish guilt and fear forever imprinted on a young mind? Well, that’s a problem. The trouble is, there’s no reversing the way she was raised (and we have to acknowledge that that is a significant power that parents have over children). Still, society can and should mitigate the potential for oppressive practices and it can and should seek to nurture diverse cultural/religious practices that flourish freely and transparently.
Consider the religious practice of circumcision. The baby has no choice in the matter but must live with the lifelong and irreversible choice that someone else made on his behalf. Perhaps society might decide that circumcision is something that should only be chosen by the boy himself when he is old enough to be equipped to make a decision he will have to live with his whole life. Some Jews, for example, attach great emotional importance to the ritual having their sons circumcised, so I imagine a lot of debate on this topic and others like it. Enforcing a ban on circumcision might drive the practice underground in some unhealthy way or drive a whole community to isolate itself from a society that is trying to control its practices. Furthermore, who’s to say that circumcision performed in infancy is not easier to live with in the long run than the gory Christ images imprinted on the brain?
As we all figure out how to function in a better society, there will be a constant balancing of tolerance, justice, etc. and the knowledge that injustice happens along a continuum.
Most would argue, for example, that female circumcision is at the extreme end of the injustice continuum and should not be allowed. It is a much harsher and deeply disabling form of genital cutting than male circumcision is. However, even with that, questions remain. Should adult women be allowed to choose it? Should it be allowed in some less invasive form? Is any form of ritual scarring or cutting acceptable? Does it depend on the nature of the cutting? The age at which it is done?
I am thinking of the lyrics to a song that Bernice Johnson Reagon sings,
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but they are not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
To whom do children belong, then, if not their parents? A feeling of "belonging" is likely a most fundamental human need. So, while society must make it possible for children to be freed from oppressive practices, society must also ensure that children have access to cultural practices, communities, religions, families, etc., that they feel they are an integral part of.
To achieve this, society has to balance privacy with transparency as far as families are concerned. Like religions, families get to make choices about their practices, but there should be many opportunities for family members to air issues that are internal to the family.
Say a heterosexual couple wants to start a "traditional" nuclear family. Some members of society might want to argue that such a family structure would give rise to sexist gender dynamics, which are unjust and should not be tolerated. Or say a commune of adults might want to adopt a child, but some members of society feel this would not give the child an opportunity to develop the necessary attachment to people who were clearly responsible for him or her.
In an effort to respect diverse family choices, society should allow scenarios like the above (despite potential risks to children), but should have supports in place for families to evolve, function well, and continually choose the most healthy ways forward. The heterosexual, nuclear family might indeed find itself recreating sexist practices. Rather than disbanding their unit or somehow reversing their decision, the family should have opportunities to ameliorate the situation, rethink assumptions, change patterns, expose their children to alternatives, etc. Quite simply, society should provide resources for parents to continually figure out what they’re doing. In oppressive societies, our minds are so un-free to make good decisions. In a better society, we won’t dictate right and wrong as much as we will find ways to support everyone’s more freed minds to keep thinking, solving problems, and evolving.
Concretely, society should support voluntary peer support groups—networks that give adults and children a chance to reflect on family practices, get perspective from others, and figure out ways to make changes if need be.
Familiar current examples of these sorts of networks include Alcoholics Anonymous, La Leche League, consciousness raising groups of various sorts, social clubs, etc. These groups have some sort of a clear mission, yet they are volunteer-run, voluntarily attended, diverse in ideologies and norms, open to anyone who wants to attend, and easy to drop out of. In a better society, they could be supported by public money and/or resources—all decided by a participatory decision-making process.
Sex and Sexuality
Sex and sexuality are fundamental to who we are. Although they are spheres of life where people have experienced enormous pain and victimization, they also have found many powerful and beautiful expressions. Unlike economic and political structures, which are harder to imagine, we could actually fairly easily access some decent ideas about sexuality just by looking around, seeing what we like, noticing our own desires, noticing what others like, and caring enough to imagine what it would take to cause these things to thrive in a way that felt fun, freeing, rewarding, and non-oppressive.
The following subsections identify an attribute of healthy sexuality and then discuss what sort of society we would need to be able to give rise to and continually nurture such conditions. This is not meant to be exhaustive, obviously, for two reasons: (1) One would need multiple volumes to be thorough on this topic, and (2) I just don’t think it could be done well anyway, without the participation of many folks, feedback, processing, and re-thinking—all of it evolving over time as we learn things we didn’t know before.
(1) Healthy sexuality is a powerful and necessary form of expression in which we act independently and inter-dependently, and which is fundamental for every human being.
Sex and sexuality can be a means toward an end—i.e., reproduction (at least as far as heterosexuals are concerned), but with technology being what it is, you don’t need sex to fertilize an egg and you don’t need to be a biological parent to make a family. So, while many people use sex at least in part as a way to make babies, it seems most useful to think of sex and sexuality as something we do for pleasure, to deepen our understanding of who we are, and to create intimacy. Just that right there practically makes it a radical undertaking.
Sex is both a need and a want, and so it has something in common with other things we need and want—like solidarity, diversity, equity, artistic expression, delicious food, engaging work. Sex doesn’t enrich anyone; it doesn’t impoverish anyone; it doesn’t create ownership or disenfranchisement. Instead, it’s a place you go to just be or to experiment with your being or to experiment with what it means to be close to another being. Often, it’s a process more than an event, but maybe sometimes it is just an event. In any case, sex is where you claim your needs/wants either alone or in conjunction with others. In the process, you express some part of your deepest self—not because you have to, but because you want to, and claiming that want is empowering and life-affirming.
(2) Healthy sexuality is sometimes fluid and includes a wide spectrum of behaviors and feelings—from genital-oriented sex acts to other activities that are erotic, sensual, or sexual, such as dancing, singing, touching, and playing.
If sex and sexuality are where we pursue pleasure, a sense of self, and a sense of belonging and connection to others, then we must put a lot of care into the forums where it is carried out and where it is learned. It is a precious part of ourselves and an integral part of being human, so it deserves utmost care and attention.
Parents and families must get great quantities of support so they can pass on great quantities of the same to their children who will need it so they can be loved unconditionally, their bodies treasured and kept safe, their minds allowed to roam but also seek guidance, their desires affirmed, reflected on, and never shamed. Assuming parents are also sex partners, they’ll keep their actual sex life private, but the sexual energy they emanate, which they surely will and which any kid with half the typical kid-radar will pick up on, should broadcast respect, care, and appropriate degrees of lust, too. Right? Why not? If parents are not sex partners, if they have sex with various partners or in some other configuration, they too will have to think about how to communicate to their children messages about this private part of their lives. Whatever the sex lives of the parents, children should get lots of physical love and attention that walks a very special line between pure abandonment and clear boundaries. How do we achieve all these tricky, challenging, nuanced goals? The only way I know is through experience, seeing how others do it, reflecting on how it was done to you, and learning from others. This kind of learning happens when communities and families make time to talk and share.
Schools and community centers must offer engaging, empowering education around sex and sexuality. Understanding how the reproductive system works, along with the mechanics of birth control and sexual health are vital, but only small parts of sex education. Through mentoring, creative writing, artistic projects, kid-led support groups, kids should have the opportunity to explore sexuality. All along the way, kids should receive powerful messages that their bodies (and everyone else’s) are precious, that sharing a sexual experience with someone should be respectful, mutual, safe, and fun. And there should always be older kids or peers or adults available for kids to talk to about whatever they want.
By reorganizing work and reducing the degree to which caregiving work is done privately in the home, society must do away with rigid gender roles and definitions of sexuality so that people are free to seek identity and intimacy in whatever way(s) they see fit. The culture must support art and music so that those channels are available to all for expression and reinforcement of diverse sexuality. Work cannot be so boring, alienating, or demeaning that it’s impossible to feel desirable or desire after a long day. In fact, there shouldn’t be long days of work. Maybe one of the principles around which work should be organized is: does it leave people enough time and energy to go home and have sex?
Finally, it should be understood and reinforced in various ways in the culture and society that a person’s sexual identity might change over time—opening and closing the door on various practices or approaches. Or a person might take a lifelong "polyamorous" approach to sex and sexuality, holding onto many identities and forms of expression at one time. Or a person might be happily monogamous, and that all these choices can be affirming expressions of sexuality. As sex-positive commentator, Greta Christina, asks in her blog, "My Vision for a Sexual World," why not think of our taste in sex as something that might change over time similarly to our taste in music? The music metaphor is quite useful for talking about sex and sexuality. Christina continues,
We understand … that music is a basic human activity, maybe even a basic human need. We understand that music exists in all human societies, and has existed in human society for tens of thousands of years. We understand … that music is a fundamental part of how our brains and our minds operate. We see music as an activity that is both necessary and joyful, a vital social bond, something that connects us to our history and projects us into our future.
I'd like us to see sex the same way. I’d like us to see sex as something that we couldn’t possibly get rid of, and wouldn’t want to get rid of even if we could. I’d like us to recognize that sex is one of the most fundamental ways that our minds are wired, one of the chief lenses through which we view the world . . . and not only recognize this fact, but accept it, and even celebrate it. I’d like us to see sex as one of the great joys, inspirations, consolations, forms of communication, forms of connection, and just pure forms of entertainment that the human race has.
(3) Healthy sexuality is powerful, but it does not victimize. It is always safe, even if it sometimes causes pain.
When I was in college, my politically correct lesbian friends used to joke about how they tried to have politically correct sex. They took turns, each getting five minutes "on top." But sex isn’t like a political meeting, where everyone should have an equal opportunity to talk or a balanced job complex where everyone does similar amounts of empowering and disempowering work. It seems to me, sex is a place you go to work out deep, pleasurable, and even painful feelings about vulnerability, power, being in control and not. Maybe you’re a lifelong "bottom" who’s found a devoted "top" as a soul mate, and you discarded the stop-watches a long time ago. Maybe hovering along the line between pleasure and pain is exactly what turns you on the most, and you and your partner have communicated well about this and so sometimes you feel pain (exquisitely), but you are not a victim.
No matter what kind of society we create someday, there will be emotional and physical hurts that we might look to resolve through sexuality.
I have a friend who was in a terrible car crash when she was a young child. Her brother died and she experienced severe burns over much of her body. The emotional and physical pain from this experience figure prominently in her life. She told me once about getting her labia (or was it her clitoris?) pierced. I cringed. "Doesn’t that hurt?" I asked. She didn’t answer with a simple yes or no, but rather with some background on how she has a long, complicated relationship dealing with hurt and loss in her life, and with her body being worked on, and operated on, and treated in various ways. At that time in her life, she was using her sexuality, and specifically piercing her vulva, to work out that relationship to pain. I don’t pretend to fully understand, but I support her choice of expression.
In a book I read about Borneo, the writer describes how men implanted their penises with various hard barbs or sticks (or something!) in order to increase the sexual pleasure of their female partners during intercourse. Presumably, they checked in with the women about this, and the women did in fact agree that there was some benefit in it for them.
The golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," does not apply when it comes to sex. What you would do unto others, they may have no desire to do unto you. And you can’t make them. And that’s okay. Sexuality should play itself out in wide open (emotional) spaces with very few prohibitions. If what someone does in her private life makes you uncomfortable, then don’t do it yourself.
However, it may be worthwhile to pause and pay attention to what makes us cringe. There may be something to learn from it, and we may have something to offer to each other. Being non-judgmental doesn’t mean turning off your brain. If we care about others, we should be present for them. I could be available to listen to my friend as she works through her issues around pain. I could be what various people have referred to as a "fair witness" (see Patrick Carnes)—someone who offers a reality check, a warm embrace, a willingness to bring a different perspective if she is seeking that. In a society that supported these types of informal exchanges, maybe even encouraged them using available communication channels—schools, the media, etc.—maybe people would be less likely to replicate their hurts in sexual encounters. Or at least maybe they would have more true choice about it.
(4) Healthy sexuality is learned in families and in societies and cultures that embrace diverse feelings and expressions, but also constantly reinforce the need to balance rights and responsibilities.
No matter what kind of society we create someday, it may be that we are never completely rid of rape, sexual abuse, or coercion. Progressives should support a strong and fair judicial system that enforces legal protections, but the first line of defense against these crimes should be the existence of institutions—e.g., the family, schools, the workplace, the civic community—that stress the mechanisms by which people both experience their rights but also take responsibility for the rights of others. In the family, in the community, on the job, and in the political sphere, people should continually have the opportunity to practice getting their wants/needs met, and making sure others are as well.
So, if, for example, you have learned in the workplace that a guiding principle is that decisions should be made by people who are most affected by them, then you have some practice at this concept. It is a fair principle that is just as true in the bedroom as it is in the workplace. If you are off on some sexual adventure that involves only you, then you have 100% decision-making power. Go for it, as they say. However, if you are with a partner who will be affected by your desires, now you have to modulate your adventure, allowing it to be changed and affected, by the other person. The sex/music metaphor holds well here. If it’s just you and your earphones, then you get to listen to whatever you want. If it’s you and your friend jamming in the basement, you two get to work it out. If your band is playing in the streets at 2:00 am, there are other people you’ll have to take into consideration. What if your teenager is blasting grossly misogynistic lyrics at full volume through his earphones? Is it really nobody’s business but his own? Of course not. In our better world, someone is paying attention.
In a better society, all the ways we practice solidarity, equity, and diversity in all the various spheres of life will provide the greatest disincentive to violent, coercive, or even just inappropriate behaviors when it comes to sex and sexuality. We will be schooled in how to act according to these principles, and we will bring that knowledge to our private relationships and our roles as mentors, "fair witnesses," parents, peers, and community members.
(5) Healthy sexuality takes a certain amount of work (for lack of a better word). Let’s call it intentionality.
I think we live with a certain myth that sex and sexuality spring unbidden from deep biological urges (mostly) in men or are tied to romantic swoons (mostly) in women. Sure, sex has something to do with biology and sexual pleasure can be tied to love, but it’s okay to be a little more intentional about it as well! Maybe that’s why these myths persist—to save us from being intentional about our sexuality. It is so embarrassing, after all. It would be a lot easier to consign it to some murky part of ourselves that we can claim to have no control over.
A friend of mine who was steeped in motherhood, full-time work, and the demands of home and community told me recently she had zero sexual drive. She missed it. I suggested she try reading some erotic literature to see if that might spark her interest. She looked shocked. I think she thought that if it didn’t happen on its own accord, there was nothing she could do. But there’s a lot we can do to fully embrace being sexual, and in a better society, this sort of renewal would be expected and supported.
There would be a wide range of erotic literature, movies, and music. There would be support groups, how-to books, mentors, friends, and enough time to keep in touch with this important part of yourself.
But when I say "wide range," surely there must be parameters. What if someone seeks sexual "renewal" in a way that others consider oppressive? This raises the question of pornography and the long and sickening history of male power being used to sexually subjugate and objectify women (and sometimes children), often violently. Perhaps participatory economics will partly deal with this. Women won’t need to be sexual slaves to husbands for economic reasons; women won’t need to earn a living as sex workers; women and their sexuality and everything about them will constantly be reinforced as autonomous and inviolate. Furthermore, men will be liberated from the need to use women’s bodies as the battleground on which they prove their masculinity.
But what if rape still exists? What if there is some drive (which our better society has not yet foiled) for men to see women as "other," which they might then seek to act on through sexual abuse and/or rape? It goes without saying that non-consensual sex of any kind would be illegal. But what about pornography or erotica that suggested non-consensual sex or showed images of it—for the express purpose of turning people on? Obviously, there can and should be prohibitions against certain acts (such as non-consensual sex), but should there be prohibitions against fantasies, stories, and images?
To answer these questions, we need open dialogue and society-wide problem solving. We need positive, sex-and-sexuality-affirming people to consider the sensible parameters in the sex trade. On Susie (the sexpert) Bright’s website, she mentions viewing some pornography that left her unsure whether to cry or masturbate. Clearly, a whole society (even a "better" society) of people "being intentional" about sexuality will have to muck around in exactly such a gray area to figure out the parameters of sex-positive intentionality.
Caring for Children, Elders, and Each Other
The costs of sexist divisions of labor are high, and in a good society, all the spheres—political, economic, community, and kinship—will have to puzzle over how not to allow sexism to emerge in our institutions and daily practices. The family is where children have their first experiences with "gendered" behavior.
In a better society, families might aim to have balanced job complexes within the family – aiming to make sure men and women evenly share the typically gendered tasks, such as caregiving. Even if families were to master the sharing of caregiving across gender lines, there still may be pressure on women to do more than their fair share of the mostly invisible mothering work. The costs of this imbalance are high. Women hone the selflessness that seems to be an integral part of mothering. Their radar is finely calibrated to pick up and respond to the needs of others. Men, meanwhile, seem to screen out some of the incoming neediness messages. They have more time for themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with either of these qualities; in fact, they are both necessary. All parents, whether men or women, need time when they are fully present for and tuned into their children. They also need a break from that—the opportunity to be cared for themselves and/or to follow pursuits outside the parenting role. The problem with these qualities is when they are monopolized (or nearly monopolized) by one gender or another.
How, in a better society, might we ensure that everyone has more equal access to care—both the giving and the receiving of it? Parecon lays out in great detail the ways that work would have to be structured in a better society in order for it not to unfairly concentrate power and decision-making ability in the hands of a few. A similar effort needs to be made in the kinship sphere. How could family life be organized to ensure that caregiving work is not concentrated in the hands of women?
The principles that guide a pareconish society would do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to addressing gender imbalances outside the home. In a participatory economy, if there were any income inequality, it would favor those doing the most tedious and difficult work. There would be no question of women being financially dependent on men, so a major cause of the systemic pressure on women to agree to stay in domestic situations that were unfair or imbalanced would be eliminated. The structure of institutions would ensure equal access to decision-making, so women and men would be equally experienced at taking on empowered roles. Attention to systemic racial and ethnic inequalities, would also be necessary to ensure that caregiving work didn’t get de-gendered only to stay racialized. (One of the manifestations of systemic racism, after all, is that people of color have been burdened with the work of "caring for" and in various ways servicing whites.) Parecon, parpolity, and cross-community justice would all be necessary to create the outside systemic pressures that would help put men and women on equal footing in the home, but I’m not sure they would fully address the intimate and very gendered nature of caregiving in the home.
Part of the problem is finding structural solutions to private, familial configurations. One thing I hope for in a good society is that there are diverse family configurations—with very little public input about what is right or wrong about how to be a family. There would have to be prohibitions on certain things, of course, such as child neglect and child abuse. But I hope we would avoid prescribing how people might choose to love each other, make commitments to each other, raise children or not together, grow old together, etc. I hope we would embrace diverse models, trusting that there are probably nearly infinite ways that people can positively interact over the short- and long-term.
I would not even want to prescribe equal amounts of mothering and fathering work in heterosexual couples. Even if it could be proved that equally sharing the mothering and fathering across gender lines would produce a whole generation of non-gendered caregivers, I would still not support it. Who am I (or anyone, for that matter) to know what is right and sensible for any given family at any given time? When a baby is first born, the nursing mother will be doing most of the mothering work. That’s obvious and is dictated by biology (assuming the baby is breastfed). Fathers can do a lot of nurturing in this context, so the imbalance does not have to be enormous, but the fact remains that a nursing mother is going to tune into her child’s basic needs in a direct biological way that a man is not likely to experience. Perhaps a mother will choose not to nurse, and perhaps a father will be the primary caregiver, and so develop the intense bond that comes from being constantly tuned into a baby’s needs. Or maybe the parents will equally share this work, and maybe even share it with others, too.
It’s not the job of the public to decide how families carry out these roles.
But it is the job of the public to make sure that each new generation has more than just private family to depend on. Why? Because it will help de-gender caregiving work, which is a key way that sexism reproduces itself. Socializing caregiving work but preserving individual liberty in families will begin the process of unraveling sexist kinship structures at the same time that it supports diversity in families (see New Family Values by Karen Struening ). It’s a process that will take generations and that will require (obviously) other efforts in other realms of society as well, but it should be a key focus of attention for a society that is committed to non-sexist practices in all levels of daily life. Here are five reasons why we should socialize caregiving work:
(1) Children represent the future.
The next generation—whether your offspring are included in it or not—will inherit our collective messes and triumphs. They will be the engineers that sort out what to do with the garbage we leave behind. They’ll have to figure out how to preserve whatever treasures we create. They are the ones who will take care of us when we are old. They are tasked with nothing less than carrying on. Not only is it their right to be born into a society that looks out for them, but we better hope they have such a society, if only in our own self-interest.
(2) We need women’s contribution in the public sphere.
We also better hope we can find effective ways to de-gender the caregiving work. If women are doing the lion’s share, the simple fact of the matter is that they will be more worn out and less able to participate in other aspects of society, and so we will miss out on their contribution. Just as there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are ill-equipped to participate because they do un-empowering work all day, so there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are sleep-deprived or are overwhelmed by private caregiving responsibilities. We care about democracy not just because of the principle that says everyone should have a say, but because we can do with nothing less than our collective imagination and will in the ongoing work of making a better world.
(3) No matter what the gender configuration of caregiving in each family, every person needs access to caregiving work via public institutions (in the same way they need access to empowering work).
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have argued that a balanced job complex should include a fair mix of empowering and un-empowering work so that everyone is equally empowered to participate in decision-making. But what if this leaves out another whole kind of work—caregiving?
Caregiving is neither tedious nor empowering. It is both and neither. It requires both creative energy as well as endless patience. It is in a league of its own because the caregiver, although often performing rote and repetitive tasks, is in a position of responsibility regarding the emotional well-being of the person being taken care of. This responsibility has unfairly fallen on women. Nancy Folbre in The Invisible Heart defines "caring labor" as work that "is done on a person-to-person basis, in relationships where people generally call each other by their first names, for reasons that include affection and respect. … Much of this work is done on behalf of family members … Much, though not all of it, has an explicitly compassionate dimension."
There have to be publicly structured ways to share caregiving work or else the biological/gendered pressure for women to monopolize it will win out. We can’t dictate what private families do, but we can make sure that all individuals, no matter how they were "mothered" or "fathered" have access to the work of caregiving—and so learn about it themselves and hone those skills.
Would everyone perform direct one-on-one caregiving? Probably not. Some people may not have the disposition, and those people could engage in any number of indirect ways of providing care. But my guess is that almost everyone could find a way to participate in direct caregiving. Given the wide range types of caregiving, it would be hard not to find a way to fit in. Whether changing diapers, coaching a sports team, teaching chess, setting up an apprenticeship at your workplace, or simply providing an extra pair of arms to hold your neighbor’s baby when needed, you would be contributing to meeting human needs.
In the process, all the young ones would have access to caregiving from a great variety of sources. Thus they would experience it as a non-gendered activity, and as they grow up, they would be better able to pursue their own inclinations and proclivities in that field in a way that was at least not defined by gender.
(4) The more caregiving is socialized, the less invisible it will be.
Another benefit of including caregiving in a balanced job complex is that the work of caregiving becomes structurally impossible to make invisible. This is not to say that everyone has to help raise everyone’s children, but they do have to participate in creating a safe, nurturing, educational space for the next generation to grow into. They have to be part of the web that makes sure that other people’s needs are getting met. Thus, they have to be tuned into and aware of the mechanics of caring. This will lead to better decision-making in the same way that if you experience rote and empowering work, you make better decisions about how to organize work because you are more invested in fairness, etc.
A society that sees caring for children as a collective responsibility and that creates institutions that share caregiving work will make better decisions about how to organize daily life, the economy, politics, etc. (For now, my focus is on children, but clearly there are many other age groups and types of people that would benefit from caring. Indeed, I can’t think of group or type of person who would not.)
(5) Finally, if successive generations receive caring (in some form or another) from all adults, caregiving work will become less and less woman-centered.
Even in a society that embraces diverse families, women are still the ones who give birth and have the capacity to nurse. These biological pressures alone will probably mean more women being the primary caregivers in the early months or years of a child’s life. Women’s potential to be the primary caregiver, however, does not have to mean that caregiving is seen or experienced as "women’s work." Nursing moms could have food delivered and prepared by men. Men (or women) whose balanced job complex included supporting and nurturing families with newborns would mostly support and nurture the mother and/or other family members—cleaning, cooking, caring for siblings, reading out loud, playing music, preventing a new mother’s isolation, etc.
If there are social supports for old people to stay in families, then there could be another lap nearby, another set of arms, another source of lullabies—great assets for any family with a newborn.
Outside the home, there could be emotional support for people in the newborn’s family. People working as playground monitors would help solve disputes, keep kids safe, apply Band-Aids when needed, and walk children home when they are tired. Sufficient teachers, tutors, and mentors could mean older siblings arrive home relaxed and confident rather than in desperate need of maternal support.
The nursing mother would be providing one element of nurturing in what should be an elaborate web of nurturing. Children growing up in this context would perceive nurturing as gender neutral, even if it is sometimes at least partly informed by biology (as in the case of breastfeeding). Children would learn caregiving skills from men and women. It would be seen as a valued and integral part of everyone’s work. This would be true whatever the family configuration might be – single mother, heterosexual parents, homosexual parents, multiple parents, extended families, whatever.
The kinship sphere is where people go to practice the special "arts" of loving, experiencing intimacy, expressing sexuality, raising children, and both giving and receiving care. It is more private than economic, political, and cultural spheres, but it still requires the participation of everyone to ensure it nurtures rather than hinders liberty, justice, solidarity, diversity, and tolerance.
Negotiating the porous boundaries between private and public will be key to evolving better practices in the kinship sphere. Consider the case of my friend who is in her fifties and is having trouble in her love life. Her long-time lesbian partner has identified that she is transsexual. She feels that she is a man inside, and she wants to be loved and appreciated as a man. Where does this leave my friend (let’s call her L.), who says, "I’m a lesbian. I’m not interested in men."
She’s wishing her partner (let’s call her T) would just embrace being butch. "Why does she have to want to be a man?" By the same token, one might wonder, why does it matter so much to L? Why not just keep loving T even as her gender identity evolves?
If we had a better society where gender categories were less rigidly enforced, would people be freed up from the gender assigned to them by biology? Would fluid androgyny make terms like heterosexual and lesbian obsolete because the categories male and female play less of a role in determining who you are attracted to? Would we, in fact, discourage the use of strong labels, which in turn give rise to pairings based on gender identity? Would there be a sort of falling-away of gender all together? My fifteen-year-old daughter says that she and her peers are embracing the idea of being pan-sexual, which apparently means loving the person for whomever s/he is, unrelated to gender.
But what is a person? For some, like my friend L, gender identity is part of what makes her who she is. She is a woman who loves women. She insists that she is only attracted to the female body and to what she considers female qualities. But clearly it is possible for others (like the pan-sexuals) to experience sexual attraction in ways that are not rooted to gender. Furthermore, in a better society, lesbians would not be an oppressed group attempting to survive on the margins of society and often forced into defensive positions – in order to protect the degree of freedom won through decades of organizing, building alternative institutions, and fighting in the political realm. The way we address many questions about sexuality and identity will be informed by the society we live in. If we live in a homophobic society, a person is less free to claim a lesbian identity and also less free to be non-defensive about possibly giving up aspects of that identity if something (like what happened to L and T) transpires.
Furthermore, in the context of a society where men have more power, is it to possible to embrace a male identity as if it is unrelated to relationships of power that clearly exist between men and women?
The "private" evolution of my friend’s relationship, in other words, is not so private after all. While elements certainly are individual, the political, social, and cultural context that they are trying to love each other in, plays a big role in their options. How could society support them in the art of loving?
How could society support all of us—parents, families, lovers in all our various arrangements to create kinship as the loving, nurturing sphere it should be?
My friends L and T, anyone who’s ever cared for a child, every person who’s worked to sustain friendships and humane relations with others, all those who dare to explore sexuality and live sexually fulfilled lives—all of us, in other words—would benefit from a society that took seriously a mission to develop the personal "arts."
First of all, in a better society, the art of kinship will not be relegated to dark and private recesses of the family. As we work to ensure that all spheres (economics, community, and politics) enhance liberty, justice, solidarity, participation, and diversity, we should also ask if they enhance our ability to love and nurture each other. Family and personal relationships will of course be more or less private, but they will happen in a context that honors and supports the importance of the human work of social reproduction and that actively combats the systemic oppression that cause distress in personal relationships. Imagine a world where racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism don’t divide us and where we see each other for who we are rather than through the toxic filter of stereotypes and defenses against stereotypes. Absent these negative aspects of others spheres, the kinship sphere will automatically improve.
But no matter how positive the other spheres are, the kinship sphere will need a second key ingredient, and that is, ongoing sustained attention by every future generation. This essay provides a cursory look at what that attention should include: the role of the family in creating lifelong attachments and intimacy; the fact that children are vulnerable to parents who exercise tremendous power and authority over many aspects of their lives; the need for people to have sex and express sexuality; and the importance of social ties in the caretaking of children, those with more needs, and the elderly. In all of these areas, it will be the public’s task to encourage participation, balance privacy with transparency, and focus on what must be proscribed (rather than prescribing certain behaviors). As we grow and change in what will be a constantly improved environment, our minds will be more and more freed to meet these admittedly difficult challenges, so we should be prepared to constantly revisit the challenges of the kinship sphere, allowing our responses to evolve over time.
Cynthia Peters is the editor of a social justice magazine for adult learners and adult educators, The Change Agent. She is a long-time activist, contributor to Z, and mother of two. She can be reached at cyn.peters [at] gmail.com.
See Justin Podur on polyculturalism , the next chapter, 4 ,of this section.
From a song by Bernice Reagon, whose lyrics were drawn from Khalil Gibran.