The Sexual Revolution’s Predictable Results
Mary Eberstadt, author of Adam and Eve After the Pill, discusses sex, women’s happiness and cultural paradoxes.
This spring, Mary Eberstadt published her latest book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, a book that features her incisive cultural criticism, including essays published in First Things and other journals. She is also the author of Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes and a fictional work of apologetics, The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.
She discussed Adam and Eve After the Pill with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.
Adam and Eve After the Pill argues, among other things, that Humanae Vitae was right. The book was published just as the bishops launched their crusade against a federal law mandating the inclusion of contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization as “preventive services for women.”
There’s an entire chapter in my book about Humanae Vitae because I believe that document may be the single most misunderstood global statement in the world today. In one sense, of course, Humanae Vitae was nothing new. It reiterated what had been consistent Christian teaching from the very early days of the Church, including teaching by Protestants up until the year 1930: Artificial contraception was forbidden.
In another sense, though, Humanae Vitae was revolutionary. It predicted that the sexual revolution would lead to several negative results, including the coercive use of reproductive technology by oppressive governments; more trouble between the sexes; a lessening of respect for women by men. Both secular social science and more popular sources like literature, I argue, give evidence that these predictions were right.
Yet this document remains perhaps the most reviled public religious statement of modern history — despite the fact that it has been vindicated in its particulars. There is a great paradox here. It’s the central paradox of this book, and from it all the others radiate outward.
The Obama administration defended the new federal law, noting that the “independent” Institute of Medicine determined that contraception services were essential to women’s health. If Humanae Vitae is right, why does the medical establishment endorse contraception?
Because the teaching against contraception amounts to a head-on collision with a world where sexual enticements scream from every billboard and web page. Because an age in which pornography is ubiquitous, as it is now, is one where many people grow up with an idea of sex that is antithetical to the moral code of Judeo-Christianity.
Physicians aren’t theologians, they aren’t therapists, and they aren’t there to pick up the pieces when the emotional and other victims of the revolution need it most. They’re going with the social secular flow, and what many people in the flow want are short-term fixes. In reality, and nevertheless, the world after the sexual revolution is rife with long-term problems, as perfectly secular research goes to show.
In your research, what were the most compelling studies that explained the negative impact of contraception?
Perhaps most interesting is the evidence suggesting that women as a whole are unhappier now than they used to be. After all, if having control over their fertility is so important to their well-being, as the Obama administration and plenty of other people insist, wouldn’t you expect them to be happier now?
Yet a variety of evidence suggests otherwise. For those who like social science, there’s a fascinating study from a couple of years back by two Wharton economists called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” Using data collected over 35 years, not only in America, but across the Western world, the researchers found to their surprise that female happiness had actually declined during these years, despite gains in the workforce, education, living standards, artificial contraception, etc. They could not explain this; hence, the “paradox” in their title.
But there isn’t really a paradox here if we entertain this contrary idea: Maybe the sexual revolution isn’t making women happier after all. Maybe flooding the sexual marketplace with more competition, in effect, has made it harder to find reliable men and reliable relationships. Maybe the increase in divorce and family breakup has also hurt them. Maybe, in short, a contrarian view of the sexual revolution is in order.
Beyond social science, it is also striking that, if you read contemporary secular journalism written by and for women — a number of telling articles and essays are cited in the book — you hear a great deal of misery booming between the lines.
The authors write about giving up on men, about giving up on ever having families with men, about striking out alone to have children, about how feminism promised them everything and it turns out they can’t have it, and related sad subjects.
This is not the sound of victory for combined forces of feminism and the sexual revolution, it seems to me. It is the sound of defeat, of desperation even, and it demands attention and explanation.
Thinking about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent decision to ban the sale of large soda drinks, it’s worth noting that elites often want to reform behavior, but when the issue of premarital sex comes up, they throw up their hands and say it can’t be changed.
This is exactly what I mean about the unique intellectual denial that surrounds the sexual revolution. Everyone can now agree, thanks to many years of research, that smoking is bad for people; that too much food is bad for people; that alcohol in excess is bad for people; and that other behaviors need to be disciplined because science has convinced us they cause harm.
Yet the harms of the sexual revolution are also measurable — and prodigious. Fatherless homes, for example, are expensive; government often ends up picking up the pieces of the absent parent via welfare, subsidized day care, food stamps and other substitutes.
This increases the tax burden on everyone, as well as increasing the numbers of people who need charity. Broken homes are also expensive in an even more important sense. They raise the risks for kids of emotional trouble, behavioral trouble, truancy, criminality and other outcomes that are statistically better avoided by the two-parent biological home. All this is well established by many years of sociological research.
Those are just two examples of the downside of the revolution — and everyone could agree that these and other kinds of fallout were unfortunate, if the cause were anything other than something involving sex.
But because so many people are so invested in the dominant laissez-faire view, which is that the revolution is off-limits for criticism, there is a fierce desire to avoid connecting those dots.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that much of the ideological battle had shifted from geopolitical and military deterrence concerns to social issues dealing with the family and human sexuality. Would you agree with his assessment?
Absolutely. It isn’t foreign policy that drives the itinerant public protests against the Pope or the public animosity across the Western world now directed at the Catholic Church: rather, it is the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Those are the ones that today’s anti-Christians really love to hate.
And that raises this important question: why sex? Why are the Church’s adversaries so obsessed with that one subject? Well, at least one possibility — and, of course, this is speculative — is that, deep down, those same adversaries have an uneasy sense that they are wrong about this subject and the Church is right.
That is, they apprehend, however dimly and unwillingly, that maybe, just maybe, sex is not something casual and unimportant, such that decisions about it are inconsequential, as the current consensus of polite society has it. Instead, just maybe, it is — as the Church says — a subject of overwhelming importance to human beings and their dignity, such that decisions about it are of enormous consequence.
That, I think, is what really powers contemporary vituperation about Catholic moral teaching: the profoundly unwanted suspicion that there may be truth in it.
If women are increasingly unhappy in our “post-Christian” culture, does that sense of dissatisfaction — despite new social and professional opportunities — provide an opening for the New Evangelization?
I’m not crazy about that word “post-Christian,” because “post” implies a view of history according to which Christianity is finished in certain places. I think it makes more sense to describe the times as increasingly pagan.
And what’s interesting about that is that these teachings about abortion and infanticide and artificial contraception and the rest — i.e., the teachings to which modern pagans so object — were themselves first hammered out in a pagan time and place: ancient Rome. So we’re left with the conclusion that the logic of these unpopular teachings can indeed continue to resonate, including in a pagan age. After all, they’ve done it before.