In a world where free tampons are placed in men’s bathrooms in the name of “menstrual equality,” perhaps it is hardly surprising that a group of academics would conclude that telling women not to drink while pregnant is sexist.
At a conference last week, according to the Daily Telegraph, Dr. Ellie Lee, Director of the Centre of Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, said the “exclusion of women from an ordinary activity on the basis of a precaution” was “sexist.” She noted that “Public discourse has become very hostile and there is now an assumption that a pregnant woman holding a glass of wine is doing something absolutely wrong… Women are being accosted, spoken to and started at in public. People assume that just because you have had one drink you’ve had a bottle of vodka for breakfast.”
Dr. Lee is not wrong that pregnant women are subjected to public shame if they are spotted with a glass of wine. She is also right that there is little to no evidence that an occasional glass of wine will harm a developing fetus. All the evidence regarding the effects of drinking on prenatal health come from studies in which women were regularly consuming multiple drinks (sometimes upward of five) per night.
But we do live in a society that is deeply risk averse when it comes to children. This is true whether they are inside the womb or outside of it. Just like moms who leave their children in the car for five minutes while they run into the supermarket find that they are reported to child services, so a pregnant woman eating sushi is subjected to all sorts of public scrutiny. Indeed, it is in part our aversion to risk that makes it impossible to know for sure what foods and even what medicines harm developing babies because we consider it unethical to do the kinds of tests that would allow us to find out. In principle, our instinct to protect the most vulnerable members of our society is admirable, but we can only avoid so much risk.
Still, the notion that people are shaming mothers who drink out of a sexist impulse is bizarre. If that’s the case, then human biology is sexist because pregnancy has what sociologists might call a disproportionate impact on women. But it has become increasingly popular to claim that if the things that happened to women also happened to men, they wouldn’t happen at all.
In her new book, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, Jill Filipovic argues that the fact that we accept that women experience pain after childbirth is a sign that the medical profession is sexist. “It seems that when a woman has a baby, even many in the medical profession believe she signs herself up for years of pain and discomfort. What is being a mother, after all, if not giving until it hurts—even if it keeps hurting?”
The problem is that there is no evidence that doctors are purposefully trying to keep women in pain after childbirth. Nor is there any evidence that the men and women who tell women not to drink while pregnant are trying to insult women or keep them from socializing. The reality is that women are the ones who get pregnant and bear children. For better or worse, we haven’t figured out a way for men to do so. Accepting that fact would seem to be common sense, unless you’re an angry feminist intent on seeing sexism everywhere, that is.