Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Part I & Part 2

by Mary Eberstadt


Mary Eberstadt gave one of the papers at Hillsdale College’s conference “The Sixties” on January 30, 2018. It’s a striking enough argument, especially given the emerging attacks on Humanae Vitae in this fiftieth anniversary year, that the editors of The Catholic Thing decided to publish it in a slightly edited two-part series.

Publisher & Date

The Catholic Thing, February 10 & 17, 2018

Academics vary about their definitions of the sexual revolution, but here’s one straightforward, uncontroversial formula. The “revolution” refers to the changes in sexual behavior and mores following the widespread adoption and approval of reliable contraception over a half-century ago. The first accelerant here is the birth control pill, approved by the FDA in 1963, and widely dispersed in the population thereafter. The second accelerant is the legalization of abortion on demand in 1973 via Roe v. Wade – a development that approval of the Pill made all but inevitable. Modern contraception and legalized abortion changed not only behavior but also attitudes. Around the world, social tolerance of non-marital sex in all its forms has risen alongside these other changes, for logical reasons that I’ve talked about elsewhere, including in my book Adam and Eve after the Pill.

Except for the Internet, it’s hard to think of any other single phenomenon since the 1960s that has re-shaped humanity around the world as profoundly as this particular revolution. Some of the resulting record is very well known indeed: four years ago, on the 50thanniversary of approval of the birth control pill, there was an outpouring of commentary and reflection, most of it in a positive vein. The revolution, it was claimed – and acclaimed – by TIME magazine and most other secular sources, had leveled the playing field in the economic marketplace between women and men for the first time in history; it had conferred freedom on women such as they’d never known before.

All true, so far as it goes. But there’s another side of the record that’s been mostly ignored by a mainstream society saturated with the revolution’s pleasures. With every passing year, more evidence accumulates that must someday change that predominant, happy storyline. Towards that end, I would like to discuss five ways in which the revolution has re-configured human reality as we know it, five seeming paradoxes that point to the revolution’s power – in particular, to its awe-inspiring destructive power.

Let’s start with a little story that captures the scale of change. I grew up in a series of small towns scattered across beautiful and forbidding upstate New York – north of the Hudson River Valley, a planet away from New York City, in the area known as the Leatherstocking Region because author James Fenimore Cooper set his classic American stories there. This was, and still is, rural, blue-collar country. It was the kind of place where more local boys in the Sixties went to Vietnam than to college. In many ways, a lot about this area is still the same – with one massive exception, which we’ll call the family thing.

In the 1960s, most men in this area worked as manual laborers, mainly on farms or in local copper and silver mills. Many women, if married, stayed home. Most families were still intact – religious and non-religious alike. This was not a particularly observant area; the majority of residents were Mainline Protestants, less than 10 percent were Catholic, and the local churches weren’t noticeably overflowing on Sundays.

One of my enduring memories from those years: In 1972, just months before the legalization of abortion, a teenage girl down the street became pregnant. The baby’s father was a young soldier, newly returned from the war. The town gossips were up in arms – because he didn’t plan to marry the girl. In those days, that was considered shocking. Although pregnant brides were hardly unknown, even teenaged brides, men who didn’t marry pregnant girlfriends were objects of opprobrium. So tongues wagged, and not in a good way.

Eventually, this girl had the baby somewhere else, where adoption followed. She came back and finished high school – to my knowledge, without social stigma. But the stigma that does remain memorable was the other one: against her boyfriend. The idea that he should have taken responsibility, which the majority of adults in that era and place believed, is an idea that’s vanished into the wind of the revolution.

Now fast-forward some twenty years. In the early 1990s, I went back, and met with a former teacher. She estimated that among that year’s 200 high-school seniors, around one-third of the girls were pregnant. Not one was married. And doubtless there were other pregnancies besides the visible ones; various girls were also rumored to have gotten abortions.

Here’s the take-away. From one scandalous pregnancy in a rural public high school in the 1970s, to many non-scandalous pregnancies in that same school by the 1990s: that’s one snapshot showing how the sexual revolution has transformed the world.

Which leads us to the first of several paradoxes about that revolution:

Paradox One: If the foundation of the revolution was the availability of cheap, reliable birth control, why the unprecedented rise in both abortions and pregnancies outside of marriage?

This is a profoundly important question. After all, when contraception became commonplace, many people of good will defended it precisely because they thought it would render abortion obsolete. Margaret Sanger is one prominent example. She called abortion “barbaric” and argued that contraception would put abortion out of business. Planned Parenthood has gone on to claim her as its patron saint. She was making what might seem like a commonsense point: reliable contraception would prevent abortion. A great many people, both before and after the Sixties, have believed something similar.

But the empirical record since the 1960s shows their logic to be wrong: rates of contraception, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births all exploded simultaneously.

Over twenty years ago, a group of economists spelled out the dynamicsof these simultaneous explosions with admirable clarity:

Before the sexual revolution, women had less freedom, but men were expected to assume responsibility for their welfare. Today women are more free to choose, but men have afforded themselves the comparable option. “If she is not willing to have an abortion or use contraception,” the man can reason, “why should I sacrifice myself to get married?” By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.

In other words, contraception led to more pregnancy and more abortion because it eroded the so-called shotgun wedding, or the idea that men had equal responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy.

Another interesting theory about why contraception failed to prevent abortion comes from Scott Lloyd, writing in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Using studies and statistics from the abortion industry itself, he (like others) argues that contraception leads to abortion – not inevitably in individual cases, of course, but repeatedly and reliably as twinned social phenomena:

The bottom line is this: contraceptives do not work as advertised, and their failure is at the heart of the demand for abortion. Contraception enables sexual encounters and relationships that would not have happened without it. In other words, when couples use contraception, they agree to sex when pregnancy would be a problem. This leads to a desire for abortion.

There are other efforts within social science, and elsewhere, to explain this same paradox; but the larger point stands: contrary to what a majority would likely have guessed in the Sixties, abortion and unplanned pregnancies have both proliferated, despite contraception.

Many people present at the creation of the revolution couldn’t have anticipated its paradoxical consequences. Many, operating in good faith, hoped that humanity would master these new technologies and that they’d prove to be social goods. But those of us alive today, by stark contrast, possess a wealth of empirical evidence accumulated for decades now. And we can see through perfectly secular social science that the revolution’s story took a darker turn.

Paradox Two: The sexual revolution was supposed to liberate women. Yet simultaneously, it has become harder to have what most women say they want: marriage and a family.

This is not a biased way of phrasing the point. Women from across the political spectrum agree that marrying and mating for life has become more difficult than it used to be. This is one reason why we have commercial surrogacy and egg-freezing now – in the case of egg freezing, with the enthusiastic endorsement of corporate America. The purpose of these innovations – besides corporate profit from uninterrupted careerism – is to extend the horizon of natural fertility, so that women are freer to stay in the workplace and have time to find husband and family. The purported idea – like the idea behind widespread contraception and abortion on demand – is to empower women, put them in control.

Yet paradoxically, many women find themselves less able than ever to get married, stay married, and have a family – all of which the vast majority of women still describe as their highest goals. This preoccupation echoes across media and social media, in headlines like “Eight Reasons Why New York Women Can’t Find a Husband” (New York Post); or “Why College-Educated Women Can’t Find Love” (The Daily Beast); or many other stories worrying about today’s women and the marriage question.

Economists have uncovered the reality behind these apprehensions, all further fallout from the revolution. In his book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, sociologist Mark Regnerus has used the tools of economics to explain the post-revolutionary sexual market, aided by a formidable supply of new data.

The essence of his argument is this:

To plenty of women, it appears that men have a fear of commitment. But men, on average, are not afraid of commitment. The story is that men are in the drivers’ seat in the marriage market and are optimally positioned to navigate it in a way that privileges their (sexual) interests and preferences.

In other words, the same force that eroded the shotgun wedding has gone on to empower men, not women.

One of the economists cited by Mark Regnerus, Timothy Reichert, wrote a similar analysis of the revolution, “Bitter Pill,” in First Things. Reichert argued using data from the 1960s onward that the “revolution has resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth and power from women and children to men.” He specifies further: “More technically, artificial contraception sets up what economists call a ‘prisoner’s-dilemma’ game, in which each woman is induced to make decisions rationally that ultimately make her, and all women, worse off.”

Obviously, we’re not speaking here of the deliberately countercultural movements and communities that have banded together to oppose the revolution since the Sixties. The focus instead is on the going cultural narrative in non-religious precincts – the kinds of places where the revolution isn’t regarded as problematic. (Yet.)

And in that world, which is now the cultural mainstream, the fact that a lot of men aren’t settling down, marrying, and starting families is a constant, fretful preoccupation. It’s why the phrase “Peter Pan syndrome” was coined in the Eighties. It’s why “failure to launch” is common shorthand today. It’s why “manolescent” became a noun in Urban Dictionary.

All of these additions to the vernacular have the same origin, which is a diminished incentive for men to marry, due to the flooded sexual marketplace of potential partners – “cheap sex,” as the title has it. This outcome, too, is not one that people who cheered the revolution on in the Sixties foresaw. And there were others.

A third paradox has become the dominant social media soap opera of our time, a story that goes like this: The revolution was supposed to empower women. Instead, it ushered in the secular sex scandals of 2017 etc., and the #MeToo movement. In addition to the fact that it made marriage harder for many women to achieve, it also licensed sexual predation on a scale not seen outside of conquering armies.

Take Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, who died last year. His commercial empire was founded, of course, on pornographic photos of a great many women. He made himself an exemplar of his own supposed philosophy – the Playboy philosophy of sophisticated drinks and music and, naturally, easy sex. It was an idea that caught on quickly, and it seems safe to guess that most people didn’t know the sordid truth, which would later emerge from the Playboy mansion and elsewhere, about the exploitation behind the slick advertising.

Nonetheless, when Hefner died, many progressives, including self-styled feminists, glowed with praise for the apostle of the revolution. Why? Because he cloaked his predatory designs in the language of sexual progressivism. As a Forbes writer summarized the record, “Playboy published its first article supporting the legalization of abortion in 1965, eight years before the Roe v. Wade decision that permitted the practice – and even before the feminist movement had latched onto the cause. It also published the numbers of hotlines that women could call and get safe abortions.”

In other words, Hefner’s support for these causes appears inextricably tied up with his desire to live in a way that exploited women. This same Siamese twinning joins many of the secular sex scandals that have been exploding in the news. The Weinstein etc. stories revealed the same strategic role occupied by abortion for numerous men who objectify women and disdain monogamy. Without the backup plan of fetal liquidation, where would such men be? In court, of course, and paying lots of child support.

More and more thinkers, even outside the religious sphere, have come to the same conclusion. The sexual revolution did not deliver on its promises to women; instead, it further enabled men – especially men without the best of intentions. Francis Fukuyama, a non-religious social scientist, wrote almost twenty years in his 1999 book The Great Disruption: “One of the greatest frauds perpetrated during the Great Disruption was the notion that the sexual revolution was gender-neutral, benefiting women and men equally. . . . In fact the sexual revolution served the interests of men, and in the end put sharp limits on the gains that women might otherwise have expected from their liberation from traditional roles.”

With that observation, Fukuyama joins a long and growing list of non-religious thinkers who can now grasp more clearly, in retrospect, what some religious leaders have been saying all along. The revolution effectively democratized sexual predation. No longer did one have to be a king, or a master of the universe in some other realm, to sexually abuse or harass women in unrelenting, serial fashion. One only needed a world in which many women would be assumed to use contraception, and would further be deprived of male protectors. In other words, all one needed was the world delivered by the revolution.

A fourth paradox has barely been studied, at least not systematically, and needs to be: the effect of the revolution on Christianity itself. To look back over the decades is to understand that the revolution has been, simultaneously, polarizing the churches within, and creating tighter ties among some different denominations than ever before.

For decades now, commentators have argued over what “the Sixties” meant for the churches. Some have welcomed the innovations of Vatican II, for example; others have hailed the radical theological transformations of Mainline Protestantism. Still others deplored these changes. Wherever they have stood, though, observers of Christianity today have come to find one central fact unavoidable. The sexual revolution is the single most divisive issue now afflicting faith itself.

And this is true whether one’s Catholic or Protestant. In 2004, A Church at War, by Stephen Bates, a book about the Anglican Communion, summarized the argument on its back cover: “Will the politics of sex tear Anglicans and Episcopalians apart?” A few years later, writing of the same subject in Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity, William Murchison concluded with this observations: “For Episcopalians, as for large numbers of other Christians, the paramount issues are sex and sexual expression, neither viewed by the culture as means to a larger end but as the end.”

In his 2015 book Onward, Russell Moore reflected on the tension between evangelical progressives and traditionalists thus: “when it comes to religion in America at the moment, progress always boils down to sex.”

As in our other examples, it seems safe to say that today’s divisiveness wasn’t anything that Christians of the 1960s wanted to embrace. Those voices within the churches decades ago who just wanted Christianity to “loosen up” didn’t know what they were starting, which is today’s figurative civil war, across denominations, within the faith itself.

A fifth, and for now, final paradox: The sexual revolution didn’t stop at sex. What many people thought would be a private transformation of relations between individuals has gone on to radically reconfigure not only family life, but life, period.

Perhaps the least understood of the revolution’s effects are what might be called the macrocosmic implications – the way in which it continues to transform and deform not only individuals, but society and politics as well.

Some of these changes are demographic: across much of the developed world, families are smaller and more splintered from within than ever before in history.

Some effects are political: Smaller and more fractured families have put unprecedented pressure on the welfare states of the West, by reducing the tax base required to sustain it.

There are also social effects that are only beginning to be mapped, like the sharp rise in people living alone, or reporting greatly reduced human contact, or in other measures that make up the burgeoning field of “loneliness studies” – and this too takes place across the countries of the West.

Then there’s the spiritual fallout, which also couldn’t have been foreseen in the Sixties – especially by those arguing that something about a changed moral paradigm for Christians would somehow help them to be better Christians.

I have argued elsewhere that the revolution has also given rise to a new secularist, quasi-religious faith – the most potent such body of rival beliefs since Marxism-Leninism. According to this new faith, sexual pleasure is the highest good, and there is no clear moral standard beyond consenting adults and whatever they choose to do with one another. Whether they are conscious of it or not, many modern people treat the sexual revolution as religious bedrock – off-limits for revision, no matter what consequences it has wrought.

These are just some examples of the new world that needs mapping, and that will absorb intellectual attention for a long time to come. We should be hopeful about those future efforts. After all, it’s taken over fifty years for opinion to re-align about just some of the revolution’s negative legacy. It may take fifty more, or a hundred, for a full and honest empirical and intellectual accounting. Revisionist thinking about the revolution’s effects in the world has only just begun.

In summary, one parting thought. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was once sent out by a journal to report back on what happened in a local slaughterhouse. What he saw there moved him deeply. His subsequent description included an immortal line that I think applies widely to us today. After relaying the facts, Tolstoy observed with devastating simplicity, “We cannot pretend we don’t know these things.”

That is exactly where humanity is in 2018 with respect to the sexual revolution. We can no longer pretend we don’t know these things – these things that the revolution has done.

In the heady 1960s, many could plead ignorance, in good faith, about the fallout to come. Few could have suspected how many millions of children in coming generations would grow up without fathers in the home, say; or how many more millions would be aborted; or how many men and women alike from fractured homes would go on to suffer in diverse ways, such as turning to drugs – surely there’s more going on in the opioid epidemic than mere marketing – and other self-destructive behaviors.

Many people, just half a century ago, hoped that the revolution would incur no collateral human damage. And in fairness to them: who, back then, could have foreseen the library of social science created over the fifty years since, demonstrating just some of the human damage out there among men, women, and children of the revolution?

Some people fifty years ago even hoped that the new freedoms, and technological controls, would stabilize marriage itself. The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which also reaches its 50th anniversary this year, went on to become widely despised across the decades precisely for predicting otherwise – precisely for insisting that the revolution would hurt romance and family, and end up licensing predatory men and malignant governments.

It is a paradox within a paradox right now that a great many people, including inside the Catholic Church itself, have ferociously resisted Humanae Vitae’s rejection of the revolution – or for that matter, any rejection of the revolution – despite all this evidence, even in some pretty high places.

By 2018, can any of us really, in good faith, pretend we don’t know these things that empiricism itself has documented? The answer has to be no.

In 1953, when the first issue of Playboy arrived on newsstands, many people might have wanted to believe its hype about enhancing the sophistication and urbanity of American men. By 2018, we can’t pretend that the mainstreaming of pornography has been anything but a disaster for romance, and a prime mover of today’s divorces and other breakups.

In 1973, even supporters of Roe vs. Wade could not have imagined the evidence to come: some 58 million never-born micro-humans in the United States; and gender-cide, or the selective killing of micro-girls for being girls, in various nations around the world, also numbering in the millions. Nor could supporters back then have imagined the technological leap that would unveil the truth about abortion once and for all: the sonogram.

Can today’s advocates for Roe possibly claim the same unknowing?

To face facts squarely, and use them to tell a truthful story, is not merely to deliver a jeremiad: it is to empower. To reject living under the falsehoods about the revolution, even if they have become the dominant narrative of the age, is to embrace the freedom to write a new narrative – and a truer one.

Just one step is needed toward revising the revolution’s legacy in the direction of truth: ceasing to pretend that we don’t know the empirical and historical record, when every year just reveals it both to science and human reason, more and more.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Some of her previous The Catholic Thing columns (and columns by others in which her work is discussed) can be found here. She is the author of several books including It’s Dangerous to Believe and How the West Really Lost God.

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