The Pill Perplex
‘Liberation’ and its consequences.
Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
‘Contraceptive sex,” writes Mary Eberstadt, is “the fundamental social fact of our time.”
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.
Eberstadt imagines two women—Betty, a 30-year-old housewife in 1958, and her granddaughter, Jennifer, who is 30 today—and considers their attitudes toward sex and food. When it came to food, Betty and her contemporaries had few strong opinions. Betty had her own personal preferences—perhaps she liked beets and hated pot roast—but she recognized these preferences as such, and she didn’t spend much time thinking about food as anything but food. Betty did, however, have reasonably strong opinions about the rights and wrongs of sex. She thought that there were things nice girls wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) do, and that there were rules about how people should behave. While she might not have proselytized, she had what Kant called Categorical Imperatives when it came to sexual mores: She followed rules that she believed should be universally acknowledged.
For Jennifer and many of her friends today, these two clusters of views have likely flipped. She has her own preferences when it comes to sex—things she likes to do and things she does not—but she would never imagine that these personal tastes were part of a universal code. So long as sex is between two consenting adults, Jennifer views nearly every other aspect of it pretty much the way Betty viewed beets and pot roasts.
But Jennifer does have some pretty strongly held beliefs about food. She thinks it’s important to eat healthy foods: no trans fats, no artificial ingredients, organic when possible. She thinks there’s a moral case to be made for vegetarianism and buying local, sustainable produce. She believes that there is a mindful, elevated manner in which to approach food—it’s her own Categorical Imperative. As Eberstadt concludes, “Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.”
Ultimately it’s been these little transvaluations, performed millions of times over, which have made contraceptive sex and the sexual revolution so unquestionable. The trick, of course, is that contraceptive sex isn’t just about sex. The chain reaction it set off has affected pornography and divorce and gender roles. It has shaped the modern college experience. It has altered ideas about child-rearing:
The scope of her work is depressingly grand, yet Eberstadt retains a winsome equanimity. She believes that the tide might yet recede, so long as we’re willing to face facts. And she believes—in another parallel she draws with the Cold War—that the right side need not be the losing side. As evidence, Eberstadt offers the amazing case of America’s double-reverse on pedophilia. It’s difficult to remember, but from the 1970s until the 1990s there was a sustained effort to legitimize pedophilia as merely another lifestyle choice. (Eberstadt coined the term “Pedophilia Chic” in these pages.) It nearly succeeded. But during the last 10 years something remarkable happened: As the near-universal condemnation of Roman Polanski showed in 2009, pedophilia was restigmatized.
Eberstadt suggests that this reversal was largely the byproduct of another scandal—the Roman Catholic church’s legacy of priestly abuse. The crimes committed within the church were irresistible to the church’s critics, many of whom were part of the sexual avant-garde and disliked the church specifically because of its teachings on sex. Empowering these critics, Eberstadt wryly notes, “logically created a whole new class of antipederasts.”
This willingness to reconsider already-reconsidered norms leaves Eberstadt hopeful. So hopeful, in fact, that she believes other aspects of the sexual revolution might be rolled back, too. She suggests, for instance, that pornography might be the new tobacco: Where the long march against tobacco began in 1964 with the first surgeon general’s warning, Eberstadt believes that the evidence of porn’s unpleasant societal effects may eventually restore its disreputation.
In the case of pornography, Eberstadt may be overly optimistic. For one thing, the decades-long campaign against tobacco was aided by the fact that it was a physical product: Tobacco had points of sale and a distribution chain and an entire corporate industry behind it. You could tax Big Tobacco, and sue it, and ultimately use its own revenues to fund the campaign against it.
Pornography, by contrast, is essentially ether. It is disseminated mostly online, largely for free. There is no Big Porn, but a handful of large-scale corporations, largely disintermediated by the Internet. Modern pornography has been so thoroughly democratized that, today, the bulk of it is produced by thousands of small, professional (and judgment-proof) outfits. And this archipelago of “professional” stuff leaves aside the ocean of porn created and disseminated by amateurs who do it as a hobby. Even if society were to change its mind about pornography, it is hard to see how a campaign against porn would work.
Mary Eberstadt is a happy warrior, and Adam and Eve After the Pill refuses to trade in despair. Yet my own sense is that we may be in more trouble than she allows. In her final chapter, Eberstadt examines how fully Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae has been vindicated. For years, the Catholic church was ridiculed for suggesting that contraceptive sex would cause trouble. Humanae Vitae predicted that, as a result of this revolution, men would treat women with less respect and care, infidelity would flourish, general moral standards would fall, and governments would insert themselves into people’s reproductive lives. Check, check, check, and check.
Yet this vindication is problematic. Eberstadt is most likely correct that pedophilia was restigmatized because the left was goaded into doing so as part of its larger war against religion. And any reconsidering of the sexual revolution requires the participation of both conservatives and liberals. But the prescience of Humanae Vitae, and the degree to which orthodox religion was right to be skeptical of contraception and amoral sex, may well be part of why the left has doubled-down on the sexual revolution every time it’s been confronted with its problems.
And of all the ways in which the sexual revolution mirrors the fight over communism, this is the most depressing: that, to paraphrase Malcolm Muggeridge, at the end of the day, people believe lies not because they have to, but because they want to.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.