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Natural Bodies For Natural Societies

I tend to be suspicious of lines of thinking that traffic in the idea of "naturalness" -- even when the word "natural" isn't used. Visions of a pure social-environmental harmony, especially when positioned in a past that oppressive modern systems have twisted us away from, often encode problematic assumptions about human diversity. Consider, for example, the following short passage by indigenous leader Saul Paau Maaz, describing his people's traditional approach to family planning:

The Maya Q'eqchi' also practiced a traditional form of family planning, based on the phases of the moon. The seven-day period which starts on the first day of a woman's menstruation was understood as a time when sexual relations are permitted. After those seven days, there is a fertile period which lasts from the eighth day until the 19th day. From 19th day until the next menstruation, partners can have sexual relations with little risk of becoming pregnant. Because of this traditional wisdom, there are elders today who have only had three or four children during their entire reproductive life, though they have never used any Western contraception.

Though Maaz doesn't use the term "natural," we have here all of the usual elements of a naturalness discourse -- the idea that modern innovations were unnecessary in an ideal past state, when respect for the world's cycles enabled the maintenance of a harmonious balance.

What struck me, though, was the assumption about the sorts of bodies that are necessary within this traditional form of family planning. Menstruation is assumed to operate on a very regular, predictable cycle, such that by counting days one can easily determine when pregnancy is possible. But of course many people's menstrual cycles are not so predictable and regular (nor are they necessarily coordinated with the cycles of the moon). Maaz's vision of an ideal harmonious society is built on an assumption of ideal harmonious bodies.

Someone might reply that such irregular menstruation is itself a product of the social and ecological dislocations that have unraveled the practice of traditional family planning and created the Maya population explosion that Maaz is concerned to address. But this response has an air of assuming one's own conclusion*. It resembles Evo Morales's claim that homosexuality is a result of eating factory-farmed chicken, or radical feminist claims that after the revolution nobody will need to be trans. It's an attempt to deal with uncomfortable or inconvenient forms of diversity by saying they were caused by the oppressive system at issue (colonialism for Maaz and Morales, patriarchy for the radical feminists).

Maaz's next paragraph invokes the idea of sacredness -- another common component of naturalness discourse -- while further establishing a narrow norm of sexuality:

Sex is sacred to indigenous people; sexual activity should not be had every day. The right nawal, or the right day for fertilization, has to be considered carefully by both the mother and father. If the series of fertile days are not in harmony with the energies for fertilization, birth, and destiny of a new life, sexual relations should not take place.

Here, "sex" clearly refers only to PIV intercourse. Oral sex, for example, hardly needs to be planned around periods of fertility. So couples who can't or won't engage in PIV disappear from Maaz's conception of sex, while couples who can and will engage in PIV find their sexuality defined by its relationship to procreation. Saying "sex is sacred" sounds profound and full of ancient wisdom, but I think one could just as easily make the argument that de-sacralizing sex is a good way to reduce population growth. By seeing sex as something that's about having fun and connecting with another person, we open the door to a greater diversity of people, practices, and pairings, most of which come with a low risk of pregnancy. The world this creates is a lot messier than Maaz's vision of traditional Maya society, but it's also a world doesn't require its people to be normalized in order to maintain the harmony of the system.

*The logical fallacy formerly known as "begging the question"


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