The Magazine

The Pill Perplex

‘Liberation’ and its consequences.

Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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‘Contraceptive sex,” writes Mary Eberstadt, is “the fundamental social fact of our time.” 

Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution by Mary Ebersta

Women march in London, 1971


Eberstadt argues that the invention of the pill and near-mastery of contraception in the West during the 1960s caused a cascade of epochal consequences. Just to tally a few of the big-ticket items: It uncoupled sex from reproduction, caused people to have sex earlier and marry later, increased divorce, cohabitation, and illegitimacy, revolutionized the economic role of women, imploded the fertility rate, and set the modern welfare state on the course to insolvency. The sexual revolution unleashed by contraceptive sex, says Eberstadt, rivals the Communist revolution in terms of its influence on the world of the 20th century.

She’s almost certainly right. And the comparison of the two revolutions stems not just from the magnitude of their consequences but also from the intellectual reactions to both. Most Western elites spent the Cold War denying the problems of the Communist state, despite all of the horrible evidence. They have taken much the same stance regarding the consequences of the sexual revolution. Which, on balance, have been quite negative.

For instance, the sexual revolution was a primary factor in the weakening of the marriage culture over the last half-century. The abandonment of marriage, either by cohabitation or through divorce, has by every measure stunted and harmed American children—and women, too (especially lower-class women and minorities, who have fewer avenues of recourse when a marriage either fails to materialize or is terminated). To pick just one of the many statistics: Divorced and unmarried women are twice as likely to suffer physical abuse as married women.

And not only has the sexual revolution made many women worse off, it’s made the average woman less happy as well. A 2009 survey conducted by two Wharton economists put data to what you might have intuited by reading a few decades’ worth of Marie Claire: Over the past 35 years, “women’s happiness has fallen both absolutely and relative to men’s in a pervasive way among groups, such that women no longer report being happier than men and, in many instances, now report happiness that is below that of men.” 

Eberstadt doesn’t belabor these points. The evidence is fairly overwhelming, and while she gives a good shorthand account of it, Adam and Eve After the Pill is not intended to relitigate the actual social science. Instead, Eberstadt is more concerned with a secondary question: If everyone knows that the sexual revolution has been such a bust, why hasn’t anyone done anything about it?

For example, the two groups most harmed by the sexual revolution are among the most powerless in our society: children and lower-class women. Yet conscientious liberals, who rend their garments over every injustice from the plight of unpopular gay high school students to the tragedy of starving refugees in Darfur, are indifferent to this fact. As Eberstadt writes, “People who in any other context would pride themselves on defending the underdog forget just who that underdog is when the subject is the sexual revolution.”

Part of the problem has to do with entrenched interests. The modern economy prefers the sexual revolution because it increases the labor supply and gooses consumption. (Before she became a progressive pin-up, Elizabeth Warren wrote wisely about this problem in The Two-Income Trap.) Many men prefer the sexual revolution because it increases their access to sex while decreasing their postsexual obligations. (That is, they prefer it up until the moment their daughter is born.) And feminists cling to the sexual revolution at all costs because, though it diminishes a latent good (happiness), it greatly increases an active good (freedom). Or, at least, it increases the freedom for women to act more like men. Which was the point of feminism all along.

But putting aside the partisans, the sexual revolution has been sustained among the general populace by cultural relativism. Over the last two generations, Western morality has been warped into a funhouse version of itself. Sex, as Eberstadt points out, has been stripped of moral stigmas and codes and reduced “to a kind of hygienic recreation.” The only sex of which you may safely disapprove these days is “unsafe” sex. But we aren’t a society free of strict cultural codes: These rules and strictures have just migrated to other realms. Such as food.