The Sexual Revolution and the Will to Disbelieve
Mary Eberstadt’s slim new essay collection, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, may at first be more notable for what it doesn’t contain than for what it does. Unlike most books on contemporary sexual culture and its crises, Adam and Eve doesn’t have a plan to save the world. It’s not really a big-picture book, despite a chapter in which contraception is revealed as the major villain. Instead, Adam and Eve reads like a travel guide for an unpleasant safari somewhere east of Eden, hitting a few major areas quickly and even somewhat randomly.
This book started as separate essays in places like Policy Review and First Things, and it shows. Chapter titles seem to come from a totally different book, one with a more programmatic approach. So, for example, the chapter titled “What Is the Sexual Revolution Doing to Men? Peter Pan and the Weight of Smut” is in fact primarily about pornography in general: not men in general, and not porn as it affects men. “What Is the Sexual Revolution Doing to Young Adults? What to Do About Toxic U” is not really about young adults—many of whom don’t go to college, let alone the elite schools more prone to the “hookup culture” Eberstadt is criticizing—and more about the connection between heavy drinking and joyless sex. The referents in the essays range freely from peer-reviewed journals to TV ephemera. They portray a sexually dysfunctional, culturally homogenous America (religious differences sometimes peek out, but other cultural divides are invisible) in which the only class is upper.
The biggest flaws in Eberstadt’s book are a lack of focus and a total absence of economic realities. I’m no Marxist, but economic pressures do affect our culture of unmarriage, and our sexual dysfunctions widen the class divide; neither of these causal arrows gets discussed in Adam and Eve. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” Everybody, apparently.
That said, the book makes a few strong contributions. Eberstadt spends a lot of time discussing the damage done by pornography: body-image problems, greater tolerance for risky sex, earlier sexual initiation, and more sexual partners. The result is an overall jadedness, an inability to be satisfied with a single spouse or potential spouse. Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker described the hidden effects of porn on young adults’ sexual culture in their forthright, careful 2010 Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, and Eberstadt backs them up while providing further citations and avenues for exploration. She overreaches here, as elsewhere—it’s odd to blame Anthony Weiner’s public troubles on porn when powerful men have been making stupid choices about sex since time immemorial—but it’s clear that porn is affecting heterosexual culture more than most of us realize.
Eberstadt also points out what one major study called the “Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness”: Over the past several decades, while women’s life choices have expanded, their self-reported happiness has decreased. Women used to report that they were happier than men; now they’re less happy than they used to be, and less happy than men. Eberstadt’s explanations for this decline aren’t particularly plausible—too much of her evidence is drawn from essays in places like The Atlantic, by women troubled by their sexless marriages to insufficiently butch men. But the decline itself is a powerful piece of evidence for any narrative seeking to reassess and potentially overturn the conventional view of the sexual revolution.
Eberstadt begins the book with an analogy comparing the sexual revolution to the Russian Revolution. The current state of mainstream discourse on sexuality, she says, seems much like the “anti-anti-communism” of the Cold War, in which a “will to disbelieve” suppressed acknowledgment, on the American Left, of the brutalities and body counts of the communist regimes. Her basic point here is that social science has done a great deal to undermine the belief that sexual liberation will produce personal happiness and societal well-being, and yet this message meets intense resistance and disbelief.
But she also notes that some of the most prominent American anticommunists thought that they were on the losing side of the “twilight struggle,” and few people could imagine a post-Soviet world. This sense of grinding inevitability is perhaps the biggest problem in our sexual culture today: Even once we’ve admitted that “porn damage” is real, cohabiting relationships aren’t as good for kids as marriage, et cetera, we don’t know how to imagine a better future. We know that we can’t simply return to the pre-sexual revolution world. (Even if we could . . . wasn’t that the same world which produced the revolution in the first place? It had its own simmering sexual discontents and festering dysfunctions.)
So we don’t have much of a sense of the way forward. The Orthodox Christian writer Frederica Mathewes-Green put the problem starkly in a 1997 essay on abortion, a subject notable by its absence from Eberstadt’s book: “Tomorrow morning, 4100 women will wake up and think, ‘My abortion is today.’ An amendment to the Constitution is not going to suddenly appear and halt them; in fact, if we miraculously padlocked all the abortion clinics tomorrow, without making any changes in our support system, all we’d have is women banging on the locked doors and crying.”
She’s right, and she points out that the pro-life movement has in fact begun to create an alternative vision through the crisis pregnancy center movement. But part of the point of Eberstadt’s Cold War analogy is that you don’t need to be able to imagine a fully-healed culture in order to expose the false promises of the sexual revolution. If sexual liberation is based on falsehoods, fighting the falsehoods is good and useful in itself even if you can’t figure out how we can live without them. This is a bracing reminder, and perhaps more grounded and realistic than the ten-point plans for cultural renewal which often close books like Adam and Eve. Where Eberstadt does indicate possible paths forward, they tend to be small countercultural movements, such as the Love and Fidelity Network’s promotion of sexual wholeness on college campuses.
The book’s final chapter does implicitly propose a counternarrative to the narrative of better living through sexual liberation: History has proven that Humanae Vitae was right. Contraception has not only failed to make women happier and families more stable, it has produced precisely the negative consequences predicted by the 1968 papal encyclical restating the Catholic prohibition on its use. The fact that it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine widespread cultural rejection of contraception doesn’t, per Eberstadt’s Cold War analogy, absolve us from the need to make the case.
And this case is in fact being made, here and there: Earlier this year the New York Times published a story, “More Protestants Oppose Birth Control,” and there are hints that the Catholic bishops’ campaign against the contraception mandate has prompted more priests to give homilies on a topic most of them had considered radioactive for decades. Contraception, it turns out, is not a closed question in American life.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com
Posted: April 15, 2012
A Philosopher of Ordinary Language
Volume 30, Number 4 (Summer 1990)