Columnist Ross Douthat at the New York Times has posted some interesting information and reflections on the sexual revolution. I want to present excerpts from both his column and blog. The bold black italics are his remarks, the red normal face type are my reflections.
My column todaymakes what I hope is a non-utopian argument for why social conservatives are right to welcome the recent evidence that American teens and twenty-somethings are waiting somewhat longer to have sex…. [I]t makes a huge difference not only whether people have premarital sex, but how early and how often and how casually, and that this is what social conservatives think changed for the worse starting in the 1960s…. It is a helpful distinction to indicate the trifold: whether, how early and how often. It would be preferable if there were no-premarital sex at all, for it would refelct God’s clear teaching on this. But even if we can’t fully roll back the fact that some do have pre-marital sex, at least its impact can also be minimized by chipping away at how early and how often young people engage in sexually sinful behaviors.
But I think it’s worth saying something about [another] question, because it’s crucial to the debate over how we should think about the sexual revolution and its consequences: Did the social trends of the last 50 years bring about “unprecedented gender equality”? Absolutely. Did they bring about “unprecedented personal fulfillment”? Well … for some people they did. But it’s very easy to find indicators that paint a more complicated picture. Female happiness has dropped since the 1970s, despite enormous female economic gains. Marital happiness has dipped as well, even though fewer people get married and it’s easier to leave an unhappy union. And then of course there’s the impact of higher divorce rates on children’s psychological well-being, the impact of rising single parenthood on child poverty, and so forth.All this is a way of saying that the only obvious gains women have made are economic and career related. Big whoop….It seems clearer, in other areas, that women are generally the big losers in the sexual revolution. Mr. Douthat has detailed a few of them here. I might add that women are far more likely to contract STDs, be used and cast aside, be left to largely raise children alone, and have far less social leverage over men. Men pretty much come and go as they please and for some reason women seem to tolerate it. Most of the social structures, that in the past, insisted that men do right by women have been stripped away. Pregnancy places few obligations on a man. He may have to pay some child support, but even here, many men get away with underpaying, paying late, or not paying at all.
In many cases women have fewer options, if you ask me. Many, if not most HAVE to work. Many feel strong pressure to have sex casually in our promiscuous culture. Many feel strong pressures, economic and social to (sinfully) take strong medicine that radically alters their hormonal balance and suppresses the perfectly normal and healthy process of ovulation. Many are pressured to have abortions when “inconvenient” pregnancies occur. Women, perhaps as never before, because of our strongly visual and media driven culture, feel enormous pressure to look perfect and have bodies that are unnaturally thin and yet also curvaceous. This has always been the case to some extent but it has gone into high gear due to the widespread celebration of lust that has come from the sexual revolution. In so many ways, women have been the losers in the sexual revolution IMHO. Some will say, as a man, I cannot really have an opinion here. But perhaps some of the women who read will want to express their view.
The crucial question, to my mind, is whether all of the social changes that swept America in the 1960s and the 1970s are a package deal. [Some feminists and progressives] seem convinced that everything goes together — that the cultural shifts that have made our personal lives more unstable and (possibly) less fulfilling are inextricably bound to the shifts that made female equality a possibility, and then more or less a fact. Hence their reflexive hostility to the idea that anything could have changed for the worse in American sexual culture: To suggest that the general welfare might be enhanced if teenage sexual activity were a little more stigmatized or divorce a little harder to get, in their eyes, is to implicitly suggest that women belong in kitchens and finishing schools, rather than boardrooms and the Senate. It’s the slippery slope in reverse: Many progressives and feminists have committed themselves to an absolute defense of everything that changed during the sexual revolution, out of a fear that one concession will cost women every gain…..[T]he fact that smart feminists… feel compelled to act all blasé about the pornography industry, lest they give an inch to the forces of reaction, seems like one of the more regrettable aspects of the contemporary cultural debate. This is very well said. There is a kind of all-or-nothing thinking that seems to dominate the feminists and other progressives. It leads them to a strange sort fo silence about things that actually harm and degrade women. They make this deal with the devil for their economic gains and seem almost to fear common-sense traditional morality.
I don’t think this is the right way to look at it. The connection between feminism and sexual permissiveness strikes me as historically contingent rather than strictly necessary, and the economic and social gains that women have made since the 1960s seem robust enough to endure — or, more likely, continue apace — even amid a reconsideration of some of the social changes that accompanied them. Yes, an ethic of sexual restraint can be turned to patriarchal ends, but so can an ethic of sexual permissiveness, as anyone who’s hung out in a frat house for any length of time can attest. Exactly.
Mr Douthat then turns his attention to the relationship between traditional morality and happiness.
Two sociologists, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, in their recent book, “Premarital Sex in America.”….look at sexual behavior among contemporary young adults, [and] find a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression. This correlation is much stronger for women than for men. Female emotional well-being seems to be tightly bound to sexual stability — which may help explain why overall female happiness has actually drifted downward since the sexual revolution. Imagine that! Following the norms that God and Natural Law prescribe actually might make us happier! How can this be? We were all taught by the social revolutionaries of the 1960s that free love and a casting off of the restraints would be liberating, and bring for contentment without guilt, and happiness. Now after all that, some forty years later, we come to find that God’s had it right after all.
When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind…..The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard. And I would add, wait till marriage. Because the bottom line is that promiscuity is destructive of marriage. Most men figure, “Why get married?” After all they get what they want, or what they think they want, without it. Why commit? So I would just go a little further than Mr. Douthat here and encourage women to insist that men wait until the wedding night. Of course, until a significant number of women start insisting on this, it is likely men will continue to stray and shun commitment. Now, some will comment that I am putting the onus on the women here. Perhaps I am. Men should behave and, Lord knows, I’ve surely preached this to them. But I’m also being realisitic here. Women hold the cards in this matter and need to set the limits. I’m not excusing men, I’m just saying that women have most of the power and that men will, and are able, to follow their lead here.
Liberals argue, not unreasonably, that Planned Parenthood’s approach… — in which teen sexual activity is taken for granted, and the most important judgment to be made about a sexual encounter is whether it’s clinically “safe” —…. is tailored to the gritty realities of teenage sexuality. But realism can blur into cynicism, and a jaded attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, the Christian view is rooted ultimately in hope and the vision that chastity is possible. Realism can be a virtue but, as Mr Douthat rightly points out, there is a false “realism” which is actually not realism at all but is cynicism in disguise. The theological virtue of Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help. Showing young people the way and having high expectations of them is rooted in a confidence that comes from Hope .
Social conservatives look at the contemporary sexual landscape and remember that it wasn’t always thus, and they look at current trends and hope that it doesn’t have to be this way forever. In this sense, despite their instinctive gloominess, they’re actually the optimists in the debate. Amen!
Russ Douthat’s full New York times article is here:
His full blog post on the article is here: