Not-so private lives

When my son was about seven, he came to me with one of the big questions. “Mum, you know when I was born?”


“Were my eyes open or closed?”

“Closed, darling.”

The fact that Mummy’s mysteries had remained mysterious was a great relief to him. “Thank goodness for that,” he said, and went back to his Lego pirates.

The joke is that I was only able to answer his question because I had watched his birth in a huge labor-ward mirror. Some people like to watch; some people are appalled at the thought. And some invite a high-tech audience of thousands to observe their most intimate moments.

On Tuesday, a 40-year-old American code-named “Elizabeth” gave birth to what was touted as the world’s first Internet baby (though this title was disputed by another mother, who claimed she had labored live on the Net in February to an audience of 150 or so). At least 50,000 people tried to log on to Elizabeth’s birth website, overwhelming a system that could only cater for 5000 at a time.

The performance itself, despite frenzied pre-publicity, was a tame affair. The cameras mostly filmed from over the mother’s shoulder; when they finally did swing around, nurses’ backs obscured the site of all the attention. And we already knew it was going to be a boy (Sean, 3.4 kilos, blue eyes and black hair).

But even for confessional, bare-all America, the live mass transmission was a first, triggering a new round of the “Is nothing sacred?” debate. On the Internet, apparently not.

Exhibitionism has become so rife in cyberspace that the last annual meeting of the American Psychological Association debated whether to stop regarding exhibitionists as having a pathological condition. It was argued that it becomes increasingly difficult to define as abnormal something that so many apparently normal people do.

Les Posen, a Melbourne psychologist who attended the conference, says, “One of the interesting things that came out is the number of couples who are putting their sex on the web for anyone to look at or selling it as amateur videos. What does this mean for couples and their families, and for their consumers, that this is real couples having real sex, as opposed to the usual pornography that we know is faked up?”
Another clinical psychologist, Dr Janet Hall, knows of couples who use the Net for long-distance orgies. “It’s more hygienic,” she explains. The couples call it “camming”: they attach a video camera to their computer and transmit images of themselves having sex live to other couples, who return the favor.

Hall says the Internet’s anonymity makes it a treasure trove for the voyeur, the person who becomes intensely sexually aroused by being able to observe others without becoming involved themselves. She says Elizabeth’s birth scene would have attracted some who hoped for explicit shots of female genitalia.

Filming childbirth is, in itself, nothing new. The manager of the family birthing centre at the Royal Women’s hospital, Julie Lawson, says the centre has filmed several births for educational purposes. The women are offered the chance to edit out any shots they feel uncomfortable about and may withdraw at any time.

The videos are shown to people involved in the process of birth – those about to experience it, or those who attend it – so there is a context for the viewing, and a chance to debrief anyone who has a strong emotional response to it. None of this was the case with the Internet transmission.

Personally, Lawson says, she dislikes watching videos because they capture so little of what birth is really like. “I have been there at the real thing and it’s just not the same. I think you miss the real emotion and the sense of being involved with the people on a personal basis.”

There are some couples who don’t understand that their powerful, exhilarating, subjective experience of birth cannot be captured for the complete outsider. The dreaded family slide night looks inviting compared with the dinner parties in which today’s radiant new parents insist that their appalled guests view the amateur birth video between main course and dessert.
Senior lecturer in anthropology at Melbourne University, Dr Roger Just, says many people hold a romantic delusion that in more “traditional” and “natural” cultures, people are much less inhibited about such things than hung-up Westerners have been.

“In fact, the majority of societies are probably a great deal more concerned with privacy and with taboos, and with hiding or obscuring many of the bodily functions and activities, than we are,” says Just. He says Western societies are the only ones in which men are allowed to be present at childbirth, for example.

He says that, personally, he doesn’t understand why people feel driven to parade the most intimate aspects of their lives in the mass media. “There are these American TV shows where people are invited on to tell you about all these really private things. You’d think it would be extremely embarrassing and yet they’re queueing up to exhibit themselves to an audience.

“Do we feel so insecure that the only way that we can make our lives real to ourselves is to make other people watch them? … People really seem to believe that their private experiences ought to be validated by public approval or admiration.”

Perhaps they are assuming that if something is natural and good, there is no need to “hide” it; privacy has become confused with shame and repression. But Just points out that in all cultures, even “natural” activities are elaborated in complex ways; eating food is natural, but it has become bound up with more general customs such as the business lunch or the courting couple’s romantic dinner. Sex and childbirth are natural and good, and it is “normal” to keep them private.

First published in The Age.