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In Praise of Female Sexuality
Published on Sunday, August 14, 2005 by the Sydney Morning Herald
In Praise of Female Sexuality
By Paul Sheehan
 

It's time someone praised and defended reckless teenage girls and young women who behave badly, dress provocatively, engage in risky sex, and get pregnant. They are the normal ones. The rest of us are the deviants. They are behaving in the most natural way. The rest of us are mutants.

There is nothing wrong with pelvic display, push-up bras, Gosford miniskirts, spray-on jeans, low-cut tops, bare legs, bare arms, bare ankles, G-strings or even buttock cleavage, providing the displayer is young enough to get away with it. A woman's body is at its fertility peak between the ages of 17 and 23. So when young women advertise or flaunt their sexuality they are being driven by a force far stronger than the Judeo-Christian ethic. They are driven by the power of peak fertility and a million years of evolutionary biology. Nature has programmed them for pregnancy, genetic diversity and keeping the species going. A big job.

Sexually active teenage girls, and sexually promiscuous women of any age, carry the greatest social burden of judgements, punishments, restrictions and risks because we haven't got the child-care equation right. These women are just doing their job. They are real, while the rest of the equation is artificial. Society is the collective weight of traditions, conventions, laws, habits, fears, tribes, taboos and technologies, permeated by a Judeo-Christian ethic dominated by men and designed to curb female sexual power. Our norms are also dominated by the ideology of materialism that is moving women further and further towards unnatural behaviour, pressuring them to have babies later rather than sooner.

This is society's real problem. Teenage pregnancy is trivial by comparison to suppressed pregnancy.

A healthier society would allow women to have children earlier than they do now. At 32, no matter what people want to believe, the reproductive system is far less robust than it was 10 years earlier. Our aim should be to have children born into a culture where there is plenty of support for child care in addition to the mother, thus liberating mothers to more fully exploit the possibilities that advanced society can offer them.

Children are the most important asset in our culture, so society should be structured around this central reality. Instead, we are structuring society around consumerism - a treadmill of bigger homes, more possessions, more holidays, more glamour - for which we run the risk of becoming impoverished. When the pattern of peak reproduction at peak fertility is broken, as it is now, women are forced by economic circumstances or social pressure to postpone pregnancy. Collective fertility inevitably falls, usually below replacement level. Societies such as Australia's and most in Western Europe now depend on imported fertility. Immigrants.

This brings us to the big political story, the significant expansion of the right to parental leave granted by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission last Monday. In the week since that decision was handed down, its importance has been drowned out by meaningless speculative clamour over the balance of power in the new Senate.

The new industrial award is exponentially more important. It gives an employee a right to request a maximum of two years of unpaid parental leave, up from one year. They can request to work part-time after returning from parental leave, until the child reaches school age. And they can request up to eight weeks of paternal leave (as distinct from parental leave), up from a maximum of one.

Such requests can be refused. However, the commission has placed a higher burden on employers, who are required to show reasonable grounds for refusal, rather than simply deny the request outright. This is a shift in the balance towards nurture. Will it hurt the job prospects of women? A good litmus test is the opinion of the super-dry economist Dr Des Moore, a former senior Treasury official and director of the Institute for Private Enterprise.

"There is no reason why parental leave cannot be negotiated between employers and employees," he told me. "If some employers cannot provide it, as would be the case with most small businesses, the job seeker who wants it can try elsewhere. If it is regarded as so socially important that it ought to be provided, which seems highly doubtful to me, then the Government should legislate, rather than allow half-baked judges to decide our social policy." (The "half-baked judges" would be the industrial relations commissioners.)

The Howard Government has responded tepidly to the full-bench decision. It can thank the Blair Government in Britain for these provisions. The new federal award is based in large part on amendments made in 2002 to its Employment Rights Act. The British experience suggests that most employers will seek to accommodate requests for flexible working conditions by the parents of young children.

A survey conducted last year of employees in Britain found that 77 per cent of requests for flexible work arrangements were fully met by employers, and another 9 per cent of requests were partially met. Thirteen per cent of all employees requested flexible working conditions for child care. Of employees with children under the age of six, 37 per cent of women requested flexible conditions, and only 10 per cent of men.

"In Britain, the great majority of requests, 86 per cent, for greater flexibility to care for young children have been agreed to by employers, and there has not been a single court case as a result of the changes," said Pru Goward, one of the supporters of the new provisions. Goward, John Howard's personal choice as federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has proved to be more of a handful than he might have expected. "In light of the industrial relations reforms being discussed by the Federal Government," Goward told me, "I hope this test case highlights the need for workplace flexibility in any proposed reforms."

Especially when it comes to child care. Back to you, Prime Minister. The tension between fertility and materialism is one of the great unresolved dilemmas of our time, not just for women, but for society.

© 2005 Sydney Morning Herald

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