Fathers as Specimens

Either fatherhood has something to do with biology and sex or it has something to do with choice: there’s no middle ground.

(photo: CDD20/Pixabay/CC0)

“Appalling,” “stunningly depraved,” and “twisted” were among the social media comments on a new “reality” TV show, Labor of Love. The program, according to press reports, is modeled on series like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette but takes the notion one step further. A woman is looking to become a mother. Fifteen men compete to impregnate her. The woman will not only choose the “winner,” but whether the victor will “have a relationship” with her in conjunction with impregnation (AKA in person sex) or just be a “sperm donor.”

I don’t disagree with the social media characterizations. My question is: why? Why do we think the premise of this show is “appalling,” “stunningly depraved,” and “twisted?”

How, after all, is the idea of this program so different from a “hookup?” A man wants a “hookup” for sex. “Equality” for women entails her being able to do the same. A “hookup” by definition excludes any expectations of anything more permanent or lasting. Should the “hookup” lead to a “relationship,” then that further dimension of commitment is something to be negotiated and only on the agreement of both parties. Neither side, however, should think that an act of sexual intercourse entails anything else beyond it.

So, if a “hookup” is justified by mutual consent and a hope of pleasurable sex, then what is so “appalling” about doing it for some further goal, as long as both parties agree?

He wants sex, especially with the provocatively attractive guest star. “Scoring” counts even more when one’s virility is on the line with that beauty.

She wants his gametes and selects him because she finds something attractive about him. His mannerisms? His build? His eye color? His IQ? His pedigree? And she “scores” when his virility stops her biological clock from running down to empty.

Men have abandoned their offspring since time immemorial. It’s a lot easier to walk away from being a father than from being a mother. Those 15 guys are doing nothing different from millions of men who took Paul Simon’s advice and “slip out the back, Jack.”

So what is so “stunningly depraved” about all this? Each side gets what he or she wants. Each side consents to what he or she “gives.”

The average person will say instinctively that it’s still “twisted” — and they’re right. But I come back to my question: “why?”

Because if the only “reason” we disapprove of something is some gut feeling well, de gustibus non disputandum. Some people like Brie, others like Swiss. The cheese counter offers lots of selections.

People instinctively recognize that the act of fatherhood should involve relationship. And while the typical “hookup” may not consciously advert to potential paternity (which we once called irresponsible and now call a reason for abortion), the very premise of Labor of Love is to obtain that paternity without the relationship. For him, it is the rush of being able to “score” with the possibility he might be more than a specimen. For her, it is the result of paternity without the relationship.

Yes, that’s twisted. Stunningly depraved. Appalling.

But what is really amazing — and really twisted — is that we have built a general sexual ethic on the assumptions that justify this for more than 50 years.

For more than half a century, we have pretended that sexual intercourse does not necessarily have anything to do with procreation. The teaching of the Catholic Church, which is really nothing more than the reality of sex, is that procreation and unity go together. Sex is connected to procreation and sex is connected to love and those connections are inseparable.

But we have spent half a century trying to justify an ethic that claims they are separable.

That ethic has been built on the worst of male sexual promiscuity, i.e., that one’s act of sexual intercourse does not necessarily have anything to do with one’s potential parenthood. Although sex, by its very nature, creates relationships — including the primordial relationship of parenthood — we have spent 50 years trying to say it ain’t so.

We have spent 50 years pretending that the connection of sex to parenthood is just an unfortunate and often inconvenient biological nexus, a “technical” problem that can be “solved” chemically (drugs), surgically (sterilization), or physically (barriers). The cost of that pretense, however, is that many think of fertility, which is a normal and healthy aspect of any normal and healthy post-pubescent man or woman, as a disease, a pathology to be “managed.” What inevitably follows is the reduction of relationship — in the man’s case, paternity — to something alien to him unless he wants it.

Well, if we think that this view is true and perfectly normal, then it follows that this achievement of modernity is one from which the Church would lead us into some sexual Dark Ages. So I renew my question: so what is so “appalling” or “twisted” about these 15 men and one woman?

Either fatherhood has something to do with biology and sex or it has something to do with choice: there’s no middle ground. Pick the shore you’re on. And if you pick the “choice” shore, then there’s nothing “stunningly depraved” about this at all.

Indeed, it’s quite sensible. The best father may not be the best “companion” (for however long that lasts) or vice versa. And if fatherhood is not a relationship, then it’s a technical problem, a parts requirement, a question of supply and demand. Furthermore, if all parenthood is primarily a matter of “choice” (a posture toward which our social consensus is becoming increasingly accommodating, whether we talk about “single-sex parenting,” surrogacy, and/or gamete donation) then why can’t our starlet “chose” motherhood without fatherhood (at least in anything more than a genetic sense)?

Is this what we take contemporary “fatherhood” to mean?

Is this what men think of themselves — and what society thinks of men?

Is sperm just another commodity? Last year, the bioethics community give 15 minutes of fame to the parents of a young man that died accidentally, who harvested his sperm post-mortem so that they could have a grandchild and “fulfill their son’s wish to be a father.” Is “fatherhood” now just a state of mind and a few ounces of semen, even if dad is dead? Should we then treat sperm donation after death as no bigger deal than harvesting a kidney for anybody who “needs it?”

At least the men on Labor of Love are still alive.

Over 60 years ago, Cahal Daly presciently wrote that what one does with sperm, one would do with a man. If all the above is justifiable — and as I read our contemporary sexual ethics, it is — then please tell me what to write in the Father’s Day card that pays tribute to such paternity.

By the way: I’ve written almost 1,100 words already, and not one about the rights of the child who is conceived from all this.

Yes, it’s “appalling.” But, as contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski aptly puts it, it’s the work of “sleek barbarians” who might even get residuals or other “benefits.”