What is natalism, really?

So I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the quiverfull folks and the quiverfull ideology at No Longer Quivering. I think I’ve finally figured out what this natalism thing is all about. But first, let me make an analogy with atheism.

I was not raised religious, so I had no experience of that mindset. I started on this whole subject by realizing I was part of this whole ideology called atheism. When you first become an atheist explicitly, the first thing you tend to grapple with are the formal arguments. Arguments are very accessible: they are basically self-contained units, universal in language, and they can be directly analyzed using the tools of logic and reason. So there’s a lot of interest in debunking Christian arguments. It’s very substantial; there’s a lot to talk about and, of course, there’s the whole area of theology to deal with as well.

But once you get familiar with the whole religious system well enough, you realize that the arguments are a big red herring and that theology is a system of rationalizations. They are ad hoc, fictional attempts to provide a bridge between beliefs and actual observed facts. You come to realize that people are religious for a whole other set of reasons.

That’s a much harder issue because it’s not self-contained. It’s part of people’s life experiences, from their first memories onwards. To really understand it, you have to understand people’s progression in life and how our beliefs are formed and change. That’s not something that’s easily accessible, even if you’ve been religious yourself.

But beyond that, we can still identify some basic principles which underlie a person’s present beliefs. For example, the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. Or the belief in some kind of original sin, that we are born evil in some mysterious way. Things like that. And you can address these points and try to undermine them, for those who are curious enough to consider opposite viewpoints.

I think natalism follows this same structure. At first, I thought I should address Bryan Caplan’s arguments. I thought, he must be the real deal, this is what natalism is all about, these idiotic arguments must be refuted. Obviously I still think they must be refuted.

But I’ve also come to realize that they are ad hoc rationalizations, that they are ultimately red herrings. When you look at what actual people who have as many children as they can really believe, the quiverfull (QF), you find that all these arguments have really nothing to do with it. What you do find, however, is that there seems to be a single principle which underlies these actions: the objectification of women.

(slightly modified from this For a Lack of a Better Comic comic)

The QF ideology is predicated on the male being the head of the household and giving the orders, the female obeying the male in all things (basically, engaging in the same relationship as a worshipper to God), and the children obeying both parents in all things. The female is to have no values apart from those of her husband. In that way, she is very much objectified at a fundamental level.

She is also objectified through the ideal and pseudo-worship of motherhood. I say pseudo-worship because while QF people claim to glorify QF mothers, who are said to be “worth far more than rubies”, they have a very strange way of showing it in practice. Mothers in QF families basically have no freedom of their own, and are virtually possessions of their husbands, which the rubies quote ironically illustrates very well. The ideal of motherhood is an integral part of that, since no living person can live up to an ideal of perfection, and therefore all QF mothers must be alienated from their own role as mothers.

Finally, she is quite literally objectified as basically a walking uterus through the QF policy of constant procreation. Pregnancy is a physically demanding and medically dangerous biological state. A woman who is constantly pregnant cannot operate as a normal human being; she has been reduced to the state of being centered around her uterus.

These means of objectification are, I think, the basis of QF natalism. The children seem very unimportant except as a means to an end, that is to say, as the way the mother can express her motherhood and the way the father can extend himself (because the children, like the mother, are his possessions). What I mean by this is that QF people really don’t care about the kind of arguments Caplan and others present as to why having children is good for society (they hate “the world” anyway) or why having children is good for you (as their ideology is one of self-sacrifice, at least for the mother). Rather, they only care about children because they represent the product of motherhood. They see children as “a quiver of arrows,” tools used to attack “the world.”

Some may argue that, while objectification may be at the core of quiverfull, it is not at the core of natalism. Surely natalist men like Bryan Caplan do not deliberately objectify their wives. Surely they care about their wives very much.

I would say, first of all, that I don’t believe any man who has children cares about his wife very much, if at all. Any husband who would inflict a physically demanding and potentially lethal condition on his wife for his own selfish sexual desires (for PIV) is hardly worthy of the title of husband. And yes, I know some of you will say that the wife often (but not always) agrees to have children as well, but that has nothing to do with the responsibility and vow of the husband to protect his wife. Besides, to blame the victim’s indoctrinated agreement is despicable and vile.

Beyond this, I would answer that whether they know it or not, their ideology is still predicated on some objectification. All support of procreation is partially a support of the objectification of women as well (in the same way that Christians support a homophobic ideology, even if they are not themselves homophobic). Insofar as the woman is seen as a baby-making machine and her values or needs are not taken into account, she is objectified to that extent.

Indeed, if you look at the natalist arguments, health considerations or value considerations don’t even enter the picture. A woman is an abstraction that produces children for the good of society, for the good of “the economy,” or for the good of the State. It really does not matter at all how many women’s lives are ruined or ended in this process. And like the QF, natalists still see children as a means to an end.

This is really, really important. When we talk about the draft (which was, until very recently, a purely male issue), moral issues immediately come up: the draft is a form of slave labor, the draft is justified by utilitarian rhetoric and that’s wrong, and so on. When we talk about the war on drugs, again we talk about moral issues such as civil rights, the harm it causes, and so on. But when we talk about a topic that has to do with women… the moral arguments are completely evacuated. Men are very, very, utilitarianism-minded when they think about social policies concerning women, but not about social policies which do not have a gender or sexual component. The same is true of any issue that has to do with the Other, such as “immigration,” neo-liberalism, war.

So there seems to be a pretty strong link between antinatalism, where the opposition relies on the objectification of women to take hold, and radical feminism, which fights against the objectification of women in our societies. It seems to me that antinatalism cannot be a really effective force in society if we keep ignoring the objectification of women and PIV-worship. To do so would condemn us to keep attacking rationalizations forever without addressing the real causes of natalist belief, like an atheist who only talks about theological arguments.

All heterosexual men objectify women, so there will always be antinatalists who objectify women. That’s a fact we have to live with. That one cannot be a natalist without objectifying women in some way doesn’t mean that antinatalists cannot objectify women as well. But we must be aware of the fact that this objectification is our opponents’ fundamental premise, and we must proclaim that women are not to be made slaves to the species, that they should be equally unyoked to this slavery as men are.

I realize this is problematic because many antinatalists support pornography and prostitution as ways to distract men from procreating. It is true that pornography has been linked with decreasing libidos. Of course this, in itself, is a great thing. But keep in mind that this is a problem only for people at the extreme of pornographic consumption, and that pornography is not a main cause of libido decrease. Promoting safe alcohol or antidepressant use in men would actually be a lot more effective, if that was the goal.

The fact that pornography and prostitution gets men to treat women like shit is rather more relevant to natalism. Only a man who is either completely ignorant of pretty basic medical facts, or accepts that he should treat women like shit, would subject his wife to regular PIV and pregnancies.

The distraction tactic only works when you can implement it on a society-wide scale, a la Brave New World or a cult environment, where there’s basically no escape. Some have theorized that an all-consuming virtual reality might do the trick (imagine Second Life, but experienced in as real a way as we experience reality itself). That’s fine, but we’re not there yet. Until then, we need to hack at the root of the problem and not fantasize about easy solutions or fantasy omnicidal buttons.

19 thoughts on “What is natalism, really?

  1. bob jones September 17, 2012 at 18:56

    I just discovered your blog tonight.Love it so far! Your viewpoints are so refreshing! I am currently ‘debating’ a religous nutjob on yahoo comments who keeps saying that abortion and men who want sex are the ONLY agents in society that objectify women. And that all women really, truly want is to have babies.

    Oh, and that babies are good for the economy!!

  2. bob jones September 18, 2012 at 01:04

    I read it, and I plan to read the entirety of your blog. I want to respond to one of Caplans comments, can I do it here, or should I do it on that post? Asking b/c that one is old and all.

    I see that you get your fair share of yahoo commenter style dumbshits!

    I am still learning to ‘debate’ these people. They can be intimidating. I tend not to handle arrogant, pushy, self-righteous people very well.

    And they lie! they lie about everything!

    • Francois Tremblay September 18, 2012 at 01:16

      Yes, the commentators on my blog tend to be of the trolling or angry variety. Such is the trouble when you write about controversial topics.

      What is it that you want to respond to? I might post it on the blog, if your response is interesting or novel. Do it on here if you want.

  3. Aprelle Neal September 18, 2012 at 03:40

    You write about an extremely tragic phenomenon in certain religions and cultures, particularly conservative ones. The Quiverfulls. I am reminded of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz. Malcolm X kept Betty Shabazz perpetually pregnant so she wouldn’t cheat or leave. He also kept her “in jail financially” (his words) but made her pay off her school debt so she wouldn’t feel like she had gotten a sweet deal. The guy was an asshole. Anyway that’s the perfect example of the Quiverfull lifestyle. Why women buy into that lifestyle, I don’t know. I guess they are conditioned to believe that motherhood is the epitome of femininity and their ultimate calling, that nothing is more important than being a mother. I will think more about these issues later. :)

  4. luna920 September 18, 2012 at 19:44

    “All heterosexual men objectify women, so there will always be antinatalists who objectify women”

    Well guess what all women objectify men and they are worse than most men. Women simply objectify men on the basis of men being success objects with a small minority of men being desirable and the rest just as throwaways, they want the alpha males. Also, a lot more women than men want to have children so there is a further problem. I agree with your anti-natalist perspective btw.

    • Francois Tremblay September 18, 2012 at 22:09

      That’s great, but this is not about men. I’m sure there are plenty of MRA blogs you can go comment on.

  5. vivienne September 19, 2012 at 10:33

    Are you a male or a female?

    • Francois Tremblay September 19, 2012 at 12:26


      • vivienne September 20, 2012 at 13:20

        So, you don’t think women have children because they want to? Your post, while it seems to insult men actually insults women. Some of us love our husbands and our children, and some of us have husbands that love our children. We are perfectly capable of making our own decicions and living with them, thus we are not objectified. We don’t need someone like you standing up for us, thank you very much.

        • Francois Tremblay September 20, 2012 at 13:23

          You seem to be confused, so let me clarify: I am not “standing up” for women who have children. I actually think breeders are evil, so I have no intention of standing up for you. My goal in this entry was to deconstruct natalism and explain what I think it’s really all about. So I don’t know where you got the idea that I was defending breeders (or anyone else, for that matter). Either way, I am an antinatalist, I am against breeders, I really don’t speak for you and have no intention of doing so.

          Obvious, but you don’t seem to get the picture, so I hope that clears up the misunderstanding.

        • Francois Tremblay September 20, 2012 at 13:32

          Also, boo for your arrogance in trying to get me to shut up, especially since you are not my target audience. Who the fuck cares? Go to one of the millions of blogs that support breeding, I’m sure they’ll love whatever you have to say. Why come here? How do you people even find me?

          • vivienne September 20, 2012 at 14:16

            I never said you support breeders. You said women are objectified by giving birth, I say they aren’t. Boo for YOUR arrogance.

        • Francois Tremblay September 20, 2012 at 14:23

          So… can you quote me saying that in the entry above? Because what I said was that the QF policy of keeping women pregnant is objectifying, not that “giving birth” is objectifying. Boo to you for having terrible reading comprehension in addition to being arrogant.

  6. bob jones September 20, 2012 at 18:22

    You weren’t kidding about the trolls.

    Great post by Amanda Marcotte from RH reality check on women as breeders:

    “For anti-choicers, the fact that someone can make a baby means that making babies is what she is for. People mistake the term “objectification” to mean “looking at with lust,” but what it actually means is “reducing someone to an object to be used.” Sexual objectification is assuming that because women turn you on, they are for sex, instead of a person whose sexuality should be an expression of their agency. What anti-choicers engage in is reproductive objectification. Women are among an array of objects to be used. The refrigerator is for storing food. The bookshelf is for holding books. The woman is for making babies. You no more give her a choice in the matter than you would give your refrigerator veto power over what food it hold because it didn’t like your method of shopping.”

    • Francois Tremblay September 21, 2012 at 00:07

      Yea, at least this entry has only one. :)

      What’s RH?

  7. bob jones September 21, 2012 at 05:30
  8. […] discussed before why I think natalism ultimately equates to woman-hating, both in its lower-class extreme version (the Quiverfull cults) and in its higher-class […]

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