Mary Eberstadt, author of “Adam and Eve After the Pill,” defines the sexual revolution as “the ongoing destigmatization of all varieties of nonmarital sexual activity, accompanied by a sharp rise in such sexual activity.” I ask if that revolution, so defined, is dying?
It seems that it’s not.
Behavior, legal changes, and attitudes all suggest a negative answer. In terms of behavior, we find that divorce, cohabitation, nonmarital birth, and single parenthood persist at historically high levels.
The legal boundaries continue to be pushed, with marriage officially redefined for the whole country as a genderless coupling registered by the state. Contracepted sex, in which the generative, biological purpose of sex is also defeated, is taken for granted. And abortion, even in the face of mounting opposition, has held firm and become almost a sacrament (a “sacred choice” in the words of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; a woman’s right to kill her own unborn baby) and a litmus test for the Democratic Party.
In the case of transgenderism, legal rights have advanced rapidly. Few imagined in the early years of the sexual revolution that those who are biologically one sex but identify with another would be legally entitled to use bathrooms and showers formerly reserved for those of the opposite biological sex. Participation, indeed domination in some areas, of women’s sports by biological males continues unabated despite protests by female athletes and their feminist supporters.
The rights, indeed the very designation of natural parents as mothers and fathers, are being subordinated to the judgments of bureaucrats and professionals. Same-sex marriage is universally established as a legal status across the United States and many other countries.
The confidence of its advocates in their victory is so great that they no longer talk of “live and let live,” but instead demand that everyone affirm and celebrate the newly defined institution and the sexuality on which it is based. Those who in conscience adhere to the view of previous generations and millennia must be driven from the public square, their jobs, careers, and businesses. “Punish the wicked!” (notably Christians) replaces “live and let live!”
In terms of attitudes, nontraditional family structures, such as those in which children grow up without one parent or either, are normal and not to be stigmatized. Sex acts that elicited widespread disgust prior to the sexual revolution are more widely accepted (while other acts, such as mistreating animals, are regarded with increased disgust).
The boundaries of behavior that we’re not only to tolerate but must also celebrate continue to expand, and the age group at which the normalization is aimed continues to decline—public libraries host drag queen story hours for young children, and children are transitioned to a gender discordant with their biological sex at younger ages.
Behavior once condemned as “grooming” young children who deserved to be protected from such things is now promoted in the name of teaching tolerance and celebrating diversity (with regard to sexual matters but not, of course, religious ones).
The sexual revolution has taken extreme forms—the sexualization and grooming of children has been a preoccupation of sexual revolutionaries from the beginning, as a shocking Der Spiegel article showed in the case of the 1960s, and the drag queen story hour indicates for our time.
Marriage has been reduced to a nonbinding, nonpermanent agreement. Transgenderism as an ideology erases women and their legal protection in the view of some lifelong feminists. (If a man who thinks he is a woman actually is a woman, what is a woman? What kind of a being does he identify as?) Polyamory is increasingly promoted as yet another diverse but acceptable form of sexual relationship.
In the face of these sudden and dramatic changes, some Christians have expected the collapse of such unconstrained secular craziness in the face of its own contradictions, of its defiance of reality, of who we are as humans and what it takes for us to flourish. No society can sustain indefinitely the collapse of marriage, family, and community—the institutions that give life meaning and purpose and make it worth living.
The careful empirical researcher Mark Regnerus compared the attitudes and practices of the unreligious with those of Catholics and evangelical Protestants with respect to sex and marriage from 2015 to 2018. He found rapid and substantial change, but little sign of the coming religious revival in response to the excesses of sexual revolutionaries. Instead, he suggests, Christians are accommodating the sexual revolution rather than resisting it:
“But one conclusion seems obvious: permissive sexual attitudes and practices have not stimulated the religious revival many Christians claim the Sexual Revolution will yet yield. I see no evidence of it. On the contrary: Christians seem to grow more complicit—or at least more quiet about their misgivings—by the year.”
But against that view, we nevertheless can see cracks in the ice that may lead to a break-up of the sexual revolution as sudden, revolutionary, and unexpected as the changes ushered in by its birth. The costs for women, children, and men are high and increasingly evident.
Many women are angry at the effects of the “magic pill” on their bodies, their sexuality, and their relationships. The pill, with abortion as its backup, is the technological base of the revolution that delinked sex from procreation and children, and so from marriage and family. But the utopian optimism of early sexual revolutionaries is long gone. At considerable cost to their health and well-being, women embraced the pill. It made life easier for men, in particular predatory men, who wanted the convenience of sex without the responsibilities of marriage and children.
As The Guardian recently noted, “The history of the contraceptive pill is fraught—fraught with a thousand examples of women who took charge of their reproductive destiny at the cost of their physical and mental wellbeing.” It quoted the self-described militant feminist Julie Burchill as saying: “The freedom that women were supposed to have found in the 1960s largely boiled down to easy contraception and abortion; things to make life easier for men, in fact.”
Similarly, social conservatives have noted that every time courts or legislatures undermine some norm of morality in the name of women’s equality or women’s rights, the big winners are men who want easy (or easier) access to women’s bodies.
As for abortion, the Supreme Court, far from settling the matter with Roe v. Wade, gave rise to a pro-life movement that became the largest civil rights struggle of our time, a movement primarily of younger women to protect the right of children to not be killed in the womb.
The euphemisms about “reproductive health” and “choice,” used to promote the right to kill the most innocent and vulnerable among us, appear increasingly bogus and self-serving in the face of undeniable scientific evidence about the beginning of human life at conception (on which the Supreme Court declared itself agnostic in the 1970s).
The near-hysterical efforts of liberal elites in the media and Democratic Party to suppress even discussion and debate about the reality of abortion has failed to stem the advance of the pro-life movement. The compelling film “Unplanned” (2019) showed the reality of abortion and of its biggest provider, Planned Parenthood, in a way that survived all attempts to discredit and suppress it. When Amazon made the film available as a DVD, it became its No. 1 bestselling film.
The sexual revolution had devastating effects on children. It made marriage an option for the affluent, but all but out of reach for many of the poor. Meanwhile unilateral (“no-fault”) divorce, nonmarital births, and single parenting became the norm among the poor, as Kay Hymowitz showed in her aptly titled book “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.”
The sexual revolution, Hymowitz shows, made marriage harder to achieve and easier to dissolve—increasing insecurity, poverty, and inequality. It reduced the life chances of low- and middle-income children—with lower educational achievement and higher delinquency rates.
Men appear to be the main beneficiaries of the sexual revolution. But even that “benefit” has not worked out well, except for the predatory cad. The threat of the “shotgun wedding” may have died along with the stigma against sex outside marriage. But the price has been the loss of the life script that men followed from adolescence to maturity as they exerted themselves to learn the skills and meet the responsibilities of a husband, father, protector, and provider.
Thus, political economist Nicholas Eberstadt, in his book “Men Without Work,” documents the “flight of some 10 million men in their prime ages … from the work force, and indeed from all the commitments and responsibilities of civilized society,” as George Gilder puts it in his review.
All societies regulate sex. Those that thrive do so with relatively strict mores, laws, and social and religious sanctions. When sexual morality is loosened up too much or for too long, the society gives way to internal and external forces such as religious awakening or foreign invasion—forces that sweep away lax and licentious ways and impose, once again, stricter moral standards.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.