Not Safe, Nor Private, Nor Free: Wendell Berry on
Sexual Love and Procreation
By Allan C. Carlson,
* Allan Carlson is Editor of The Family in America and author, most recently, of
Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling
Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies...And Why They Disappeared. It is
adapted from a lecture at the conference “The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry,”
held October 20, 2007, in Louisville, Kentucky, and co-sponsored by The
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The Philadelphia Society, and The McConnell
Center at the University of Kentucky.
A modest political-cultural tragedy occurred this past summer,
without attracting much attention among the usual pundits.
This was the announcement that Weekly World News
would cease print publication. This periodical, readers will
recall, was the tabloid faithfully found at the supermarket check-out line.
It courageously pursued the truth. For example, it
was the first publication to report that “Saddam Hussein Has Arsenal of Giant
Slingshots and Dinosaurs” and also the memorable “60 Members of U.S. Senate Are
Space Aliens.” (As an aside, for readers who might be
political scientists, I note that that second article does stand as an excellent
explanation for recent behavior in the U.S. Senate.)
Like all good tabloids, Weekly World News
also featured advice columns. A few years ago, one caught my
eye: “Improve Your Sex Life Tonight—The Amish Way.”
According to Dr. Milton Ayres of The Society for the Cross-Cultural Study of
Sexuality: “The best sex starts with getting down to the basics—and there are
few societies on Earth more basic than the Amish.” For
reasons of prudence, which is the supreme conservative virtue, I do not want to
dwell on many of the article’s details. However, I would
like to note some of Dr. Ayres’ more specific advice to couples.
• “Turn off all the
lights in your house. The Amish have no electricity, which
means every sexual encounter takes place by romantic candlelight.”
• “Wear plain, modest
clothing, which covers up most of your body. All the more to
intensify the feeling of discovery when....”
• “Purchase some farm
animals to keep around your yard. The Amish are constantly
around farm animals that are reproducing. This reinforces
the fact that sex is natural.”
• “Turn off all radios
and TVs...so there’s no comparison between the ‘perfect’ media fantasy people
and your own romantic partner.”
• And “[r]egularly read the Bible, a book which encourages a healthy sex
life between husband and wife.”
Now it is true that the sex-advice column is not a literary
genre commonly associated with the contemporary poet, novelist, and essayist
Wendell Berry. All the same, I suspect he would agree with
most of these recommendations, notably: turning off the electricity and lighting
candles; throwing out the radio and TV; viewing the procreative barnyard as the
best and most natural form of sex education, for all ages; understanding that
modesty is the surest prelude to sexual joy; and holding the Bible to be the
most reliable sex manual.
Still, these “basic” guides to agrarian reproductive behavior
are fairly superficial. Fortunately, Mr. Berry does discuss
sexual love and procreation with more depth and with some frequency in his
fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Recently, in fact, he has
addressed sexual questions in two essays that some might call quixotic.
The first of these possibly quixotic endeavors is entitled
“Rugged Individualism.” It initially appeared in Playboy.
Mr. Berry’s intent, it seems, was to reach out to that almost mythical
body of subscribers who actually do acquire the magazine to read the articles.
His essay contrasts the “rugged individualism” of the political right
with that of the left. On the right, the author says, the
focus is on private property and “the presumptive ‘right’ of individuals to do
[with it] as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no
community, no neighbors, and no posterity.” Mr. Berry adds
that this form of absolute individualism became worse as the great corporations
received the status of “persons,” also leaving them free “to do whatever they
please with their property.”
The rugged individualism of the left focuses on the human body.
As Mr. Berry elaborates, this approach holds that “the owners of bodies
may, by right, use them as they please, [also] as if there were no God, no
legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity.”
He finds this “supposed right...manifested in the democratizing of
begins,” Mr. Berry goes on, when these extreme forms of individualism meet.
The rugged individualism of the right celebrates “family values” and condemns
“lust,” but has nothing to say about the profits gained through advertising that
exploits lust and the other six deadly sins. The individualism of the
left, meanwhile, casts sin as a private matter and defends the environment.
However, Mr. Berry explains, the left’s notion of “environment” excludes “the
economic landscapes of agriculture and forestry” and their human communities,
their children and families. This environmentalism also excludes “the
privately owned bodies of other people,” all of which seem to have been turned
over “in fee simple to the corporate individualists.” The common agenda of
both “rugged individualisms,” he says, is a claim to be “free” to grab as much
as they can of whatever they want, while ignoring any acts of kindness,
caretaking, faithfulness, neighborliness, or peace.
The second seemingly quixotic essay is a “Letter to Daniel
Kemmis.” Mr. Kemmis is a former Minority Leader and Speaker
of Montana’s House of Representatives, and a Democrat. Mr.
Berry’s goal here is to salvage a Democratic Party held hostage to sexual
radicalism, among other recent obsessions. “Why not just
give up on the Democratic Party?” he asks himself, and answers: “Well, because
of its name.” On social matters, the author blasts “the
moral timidity or incompetence of the Democrats” in allowing Republicans to
confine the “values” issues to evolution, abortion, and homosexuality.
All the same, regarding the second of these issues—abortion—Mr.
Berry is forthright in asserting “that I am opposed to abortion except as a last
resort to save a pregnant woman’s life.” He continues:
“[t]he crucial question raised by this practice is: What is killed?
The answer can only be: A human being.” He wrestles
with the language of a “woman’s right to choose,” and concludes that if this is
a right, it is a very problematic and peculiar one. In
contrast, Mr. Berry finds the “right to life” embedded in the U.S. Declaration
of Independence and in “a ‘reverence for life’ to which we are called by much
instruction.” This means that his opposition to abortion is
parallel to, or consistent with, his opposition to capital punishment and to
war, “especially the killing of innocent women, children, and old people.”
third “values” issue, Mr. Berry concludes that the Democrats have been “further
weakened by mishandling the issue of homosexuality.” He blasts the
knee-jerk liberalism that gives “categorical approval” to any group which once
faced broad disapproval. “[T]his is nonsense,” he declares, for some
people in minority groups—just as some people in majority groups—behave in ways
that should always face disapproval. Regarding cries for same-sex
marriage, he becomes something of a libertarian, arguing that state “approval of
anybody’s sexual behavior is as inappropriate and as offensive to freedom as
governmental disapproval.” After endorsing equal “domestic partnership”
benefits for all adults living in households—be they heterosexual, homosexual,
widowed sisters, bachelor brothers, or friends—Mr. Berry adds: “Let sacraments
such as marriage be the business of religion and communities.”
readers to social and sexual responsibility and calling on the 21st-century
Democratic Party to reclaim the mantle of family protector, which it once
proudly held: these are most worthy—if arguably futile—endeavors.
Beyond them, though, Mr. Berry’s work carries rich insights into the
nature and meaning of sexual love and procreation.
Importantly, he rejects three assertions common to our era: sex can be safe; sex
is a private matter; and sex should be free. Mr. Berry
First, sex is not safe.
As he writes in the splendid
essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”: “Sex was
never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been.” Community customs,
arrangements, and controls had existed “in part, to reduce the volatility and
the danger of sex.” These controls would “preserve its
energy, its beauty, and its pleasure” so that the sexual act would in turn bond
husbands to wives, “parents to children, families to the community, [and] the
community to nature.”
Whenever sex becomes “autonomous,” freed from communal restraints, and valued
solely for its own sake, it also becomes “frivolous” and “destructive—even of
Mr. Berry considers modern sex education in the schools and
concludes: “What we are actually teaching the young is an illusion
of...purchasable safety, which encourages them to tamper prematurely,
disrespectfully, and dangerously with a great power.”
Similar delusions, he contends, are found among adults. Men eagerly flock
to the vasectomy clinics, convinced that the procedure is “simple” and
“harmless.” For their part, infertile women desperately submit their
bodies to doses of chemicals and other intrusions, oblivious to the risks
involved while accepting their dangerous new status as “productive machines.”
Second, sex is not private.
Mr. Berry rejects the U.S.
Supreme Court’s concept of a “right to sexual privacy.” He
writes: “It is wrong to assume that sex carries us into a personal privacy that
separates us from everything else. On the contrary, sex
joins us to the world.”
As the foundation of the household, as the source of children, and as the primal
social unit, the sexual bond of man and woman bears powerful and necessary
communal obligations. The conjugal vows, for example, are said “to the
community as much as to one another,” and the community comes to listen and wish
the couple well “on their behalf and on its own.” In return, the
community’s task is to see that these lovers “die” into their union with one
another, becoming one flesh through a “momentous giving.” Mr. Berry adds:
“If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing—and our
time is proving that this is so.” The consequence is the squandering of
“moral capital built up by centuries of community life.”
The unacknowledged victims of “sexual privacy” are children.
He writes in Another Turn of the Crank:
I know of nothing that so strongly calls into question our ability
to care for the world as our present abuse of our own reproductivity.
How can we take care of other creatures, all born like ourselves from the
world’s miraculous fecundity, if we have forsaken the qualities of culture and
character that inform the nurture of children?
Mr. Berry muses that this indifference toward human children
might be a by-product of the modern regard for productivity, since children are
not very productive. Or it might be the fault of an economy
that now commonly requires both parents to work outside the home.
Or it might be a consequence of the broad commodification of family bonds.
“Whatever the reason,” he continues, “it is a fact that we are now conducting a
sort of general warfare against children, who are being aborted or abandoned,
abused, drugged, bombed, neglected, poorly raised, poorly taught, and poorly
Mr. Berry also
qualifies the claims of privacy relative to the body. While acknowledging
the obvious “right of any person to control his or her own body,” he focuses on
the limits of this right. Referring specifically to abortion, he states:
“if you can control your own body only by destroying another person’s body, then
control has come much too late.” On the same issue, he acknowledges the
argument that the fetus is not a child until it can live outside the womb, yet
responds: “every creature is surrounded by such questions of dependence and
viability all its life. If we are unworthy to live as long as we are
dependent on life-supporting conditions, then none of us has any rights.”
Mr. Berry concludes: “In dealing with our own fertility and its consequences, we
are not just carrying on personal or private ‘relationships.’ We are
establishing one of the fundamental terms of our humanity and our connection to
And third, sex is never free.
“Sexual liberation is as much a
fraud and as great a failure as the ‘peaceful atom,’” Mr. Berry declares.
He is equally dismissive of the idea of sex as “recreation,” or more
properly “re-creation”; he writes: “thinking to claim for [sex] ‘a new place,’”
advocates “only acknowledge its displacement from Creation.”
Free and recreational sex actually feed into the matrix of the industrial
economy, where the result is superficiality. As Mr. Berry
notes in a recent essay: “This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the
one-night stand. ‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial
[just as the recreational] lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.”
freedom, the disintegration of the household through “sexual liberation” has
produced a novel form of bondage. The new overlords, Mr. Berry says, are
the sexual specialists—sex clinicians and pornographers—“[b]oth of whom subsist
on the increasing possibility of sex between people who neither know nor care
about each other” and who also “subsist on our failure to see any purpose or
virtue in sexual discipline.” American culture grants to these
“technologists of fertility” the “powers of gods and the social function of
priests,” despite their scorn for community ties and cultural responsibilities.
Mr. Berry’s work highlights other themes that explore sexual
love and procreation. Notably, he stresses the close bond
between human and agricultural fertility. An early poem,
“The Broken Ground,” tells of the fertility initiated by the plow in the soil:
The opening out and out,
Body yielding body:
through which the new
above its shadow....
bud opening to flower
opening to fruit
to the sweet marrow
of the seed.
Mr. Berry underscores that physical love is not enough to
sustain an intimate relationship. In order to last, human
sexual life “must enflesh itself in the materiality of the world—produce food,
shelter, warmth or shade, surround itself with careful acts, well made things.”
True sexual love also binds these lovers into “the cycles of fertility
and the seasons,” into “life and death,” where they find the “deepest solemnity”
and the “highest joy.” More broadly, just as “agricultural
fertility is...the survival of natural process in human order,” natural human
procreativity finds its ordered setting on the small, function-rich farm.
Mr. Berry adds, also expresses the wild side of human nature. Sex is “part
of the world’s wilderness; it is part of our wildness. To say that we must
be careful of it is not to say that we must make it tame, but rather that we
must not damage it or ourselves by ignorance or foolishness.” Put another
way, this physical wildness of humans needs to be recognized, channeled, and
cherished as part of our being.
Another remarkable aspect of Mr. Berry’s work is the critical
attention he gives to birth control, rare among non-Catholic writers.
He calls modern contraceptive practices “horrifying” not only because “we
are relying so exclusively on a technology of birth control that is still
experimental,” but also because “we are using it casually, in utter cultural
nakedness, unceremoniously, without sufficient understanding, and as a
substitute for cultural solutions.” In this culture of
contraception, women must submit to “a technology of chemicals” found in “the
pill.” Meanwhile, men turn to sterilization, which he calls
the most troubling form of birth control, for “to give up fertility is a major
change, as important as birth, puberty, marriage, or death.”
Mr. Berry denies any affection for the “self-hating,
self-congratulatory Victorian self-restraint” of decades or centuries past.
Instead, he praises inherited cultural mechanisms of sexual self-control.
In one essay, Mr. Berry points specifically to the Hunza people of northern
Pakistan, where the women left their husbands’ beds until each new child was
weaned, so spacing their children about four years apart. He directly
praises breastfeeding as a natural method of child spacing (while speculating
that this durable form of home production became unfashionable in America
precisely because the corporations could find “no way...to persuade a woman to
purchase her own milk”).
On the broad
question of human fecundity, Mr. Berry rejects the charge that “there are too
many people.” Contemplating the “unsettled,” depopulated American
countryside, he is sure that this is not true of the United States.
Moreover, he fears the implication of the term “over-population,” for it
implicitly summons a dangerous calculation of “who are the surplus.” The
real environmental problems, he asserts, are those “technological multipliers”
that artificially increase the negative footprints of some peoples on the world.
The obvious response for them is to live simpler lives.
Finally, Mr. Berry does provide positive visions of procreative
sexual love. For the man, it means recovering the tasks of
husbandry, “the work of a domestic man, a man who has accepted a bondage to the
household.” This husbanding man is “both careful and
humble.” He is ready “to keep, to save, to make last, to
conserve,” and to suborn his personality to his home, to his wife, and to his
children. He must become in this way a home-maker.
In the novel Hannah Coulter, Mr.
Berry gives expression to this natural urge:
that among the worlds wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a
long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that
would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of
loving their place.
Mr. Berry raises up several of the farm women in his fiction as
models of sexual fulfillment. For example, he describes
young Hannah Coulter on a walk: “She feels good. She feels
full of the goodness, the competency, of her body that can love a man and bear
his children, that can raise and prepare food, keep the house, work in the
field.” Mr. Berry also offers as example Minnie Branch: “a
large, muscular, humorous” woman who could butcher hogs, shoot a fox, split
firewood, and wring a hen’s neck and who “conceived and birthed as faithfully as
a good brood cow, welcomed each newcomer without fuss, prepared without
complaint for the next.” And, in my favorite of Mr.
Berry’s short stories, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn,” he provides the example of
Mary and Elton Penn:
That she was
his half, she had no doubt at all. He needed her. At times she knew
with a joyous ache that she completed him, just as she knew with the same joy
that she needed him and he completed her. How beautiful a thing it was,
she thought, to be a half, to be completed by such another half! When had
there even been such a yearning of halves toward each other, such a longing,
even in quarrels, to be whole? And sometimes they would be whole.
Their wholeness came upon them as a rush of light, around them and within them,
so that she felt they must be shining in the dark.
Or, as Weekly World News
would have phrased the same point: “You really haven’t lived ’til you’ve tried
sex [agrarian style].”
1 Angus Fenwick, “Improve Your Sex Life Tonight—The Amish Way,” at
2 Wendell Berry, “Rugged Individualism;” republished in Wendell Berry,
The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays
(Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005): 9-11.
3 Wendell Berry, “Letter to Daniel Kemmis,” in Berry, The Way of
Ignorance, pp. 141-44.
4 Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1992, 1993): 142.
5 Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community,
6 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
(New York: Avon, 1978): 117, 131.
7 Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community,
8 Berry, The Unsettling of America,
9 Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank
(Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1997): 82.
Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community,
pp. 138, 143.
Berry, Another Turn of the Crank,
pp. 78-79. Emphasis added.
Ibid., pp. 80-81.
Ibid., p. 82.
Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community,
Berry, The Unsettling of America,
Wendell Berry, “The Whole Horse,” in Eric T. Freyfogle, ed., The New
Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life
(Washington, DC: Island Press-Shearwater Books, 2001): 64.
Berry, The Unsettling of America,
pp. 132, 135.
Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982
(San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1984): 25.
Berry, The Unsettling of America,
pp. 117, 130, 132.
Ibid., pp. 117, 130; Berry,
Another Turn of the Crank, pp.
Berry, The Unsettling of America,
pp. 115, 132-135.
Wendell Berry, Home Economics
(San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1987): 149-50.
Berry, The Way of Ignorance, pp.
Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
(Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004): 67.
Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack
(San Diego and New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974): 103.
Wendell Berry, A World Lost
(Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996): 55.
Wendell Berry, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn,” in Fidelity: Five Stories
(New York and San Francisco: Pantheon, 1992): 79.
Fenwick, “Improve Your Sex Life Tonight—The Amish Way,” p. 1.
In this article, the last two words of the sentence are “Amish style.”