The Magazine

The Pill Perplex

‘Liberation’ and its consequences.

Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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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:

[T]he sexual revolution has profoundly affected the most fundamental aspects of human relationships, including the way women view and treat men; the way men view and treat women; and it has even undermined one of the deepest shared tasks of men and women, which is the protection of children from forces that would harm them.

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.