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Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.









Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.


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