Note: This is a slightly edited version of the second half of a paper that our colleague Mary Eberstadt gave at Hillsdale College’s conference, “The Sixties,” on January 30. The first half, explaining the overall thesis and the first two paradoxes may be read here. – Robert Royal
A third paradox has become the dominant social media soap opera of our time, a story that goes like this: The revolution was supposed to empower women. Instead, it ushered in the secular sex scandals of 2017 etc., and the #MeToo movement. In addition to the fact that it made marriage harder for many women to achieve, it also licensed sexual predation on a scale not seen outside of conquering armies.
Take Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, who died last year. His commercial empire was founded, of course, on pornographic photos of a great many women. He made himself an exemplar of his own supposed philosophy – the Playboy philosophy of sophisticated drinks and music and, naturally, easy sex. It was an idea that caught on quickly, and it seems safe to guess that most people didn’t know the sordid truth, which would later emerge from the Playboy mansion and elsewhere, about the exploitation behind the slick advertising.
Nonetheless, when Hefner died, many progressives, including self-styled feminists, glowed with praise for the apostle of the revolution. Why? Because he cloaked his predatory designs in the language of sexual progressivism. As a Forbes writer summarized the record, “Playboy published its first article supporting the legalization of abortion in 1965, eight years before the Roe v. Wade decision that permitted the practice – and even before the feminist movement had latched onto the cause. It also published the numbers of hotlines that women could call and get safe abortions.”
In other words, Hefner’s support for these causes appears inextricably tied up with his desire to live in a way that exploited women. This same Siamese twinning joins many of the secular sex scandals that have been exploding in the news. The Weinstein etc. stories revealed the same strategic role occupied by abortion for numerous men who objectify women and disdain monogamy. Without the backup plan of fetal liquidation, where would such men be? In court, of course, and paying lots of child support.
More and more thinkers, even outside the religious sphere, have come to the same conclusion. The sexual revolution did not deliver on its promises to women; instead, it further enabled men – especially men without the best of intentions. Francis Fukuyama, a non-religious social scientist, wrote almost twenty years in his 1999 book The Great Disruption: “One of the greatest frauds perpetrated during the Great Disruption was the notion that the sexual revolution was gender-neutral, benefiting women and men equally. . . . In fact the sexual revolution served the interests of men, and in the end put sharp limits on the gains that women might otherwise have expected from their liberation from traditional roles.”
With that observation, Fukuyama joins a long and growing list of non-religious thinkers who can now grasp more clearly, in retrospect, what some religious leaders have been saying all along. The revolution effectively democratized sexual predation. No longer did one have to be a king, or a master of the universe in some other realm, to sexually abuse or harass women in unrelenting, serial fashion. One only needed a world in which many women would be assumed to use contraception, and would further be deprived of male protectors. In other words, all one needed was the world delivered by the revolution.
A fourth paradox has barely been studied, at least not systematically, and needs to be: the effect of the revolution on Christianity itself. To look back over the decades is to understand that the revolution has been, simultaneously, polarizing the churches within, and creating tighter ties among some different denominations than ever before.
For decades now, commentators have argued over what “the Sixties” meant for the churches. Some have welcomed the innovations of Vatican II, for example; others have hailed the radical theological transformations of Mainline Protestantism. Still others deplored these changes. Wherever they have stood, though, observers of Christianity today have come to find one central fact unavoidable. The sexual revolution is the single most divisive issue now afflicting faith itself.
And this is true whether one’s Catholic or Protestant. In 2004, A Church at War, by Stephen Bates, a book about the Anglican Communion, summarized the argument on its back cover: “Will the politics of sex tear Anglicans and Episcopalians apart?” A few years later, writing of the same subject in Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity, William Murchison concluded with this observations: “For Episcopalians, as for large numbers of other Christians, the paramount issues are sex and sexual expression, neither viewed by the culture as means to a larger end but as the end.”
In his 2015 book Onward, Russell Moore reflected on the tension between evangelical progressives and traditionalists thus: “when it comes to religion in America at the moment, progress always boils down to sex.”
As in our other examples, it seems safe to say that today’s divisiveness wasn’t anything that Christians of the 1960s wanted to embrace. Those voices within the churches decades ago who just wanted Christianity to “loosen up” didn’t know what they were starting, which is today’s figurative civil war, across denominations, within the faith itself.
A fifth, and for now, final paradox: The sexual revolution didn’t stop at sex. What many people thought would be a private transformation of relations between individuals has gone on to radically reconfigure not only family life, but life, period.
Perhaps the least understood of the revolution’s effects are what might be called the macrocosmic implications – the way in which it continues to transform and deform not only individuals, but society and politics as well.
Some of these changes are demographic: across much of the developed world, families are smaller and more splintered from within than ever before in history.
Some effects are political: Smaller and more fractured families have put unprecedented pressure on the welfare states of the West, by reducing the tax base required to sustain it.
There are also social effects that are only beginning to be mapped, like the sharp rise in people living alone, or reporting greatly reduced human contact, or in other measures that make up the burgeoning field of “loneliness studies” – and this too takes place across the countries of the West.
Then there’s the spiritual fallout, which also couldn’t have been foreseen in the Sixties – especially by those arguing that something about a changed moral paradigm for Christians would somehow help them to be better Christians.
I have argued elsewhere that the revolution has also given rise to a new secularist, quasi-religious faith – the most potent such body of rival beliefs since Marxism-Leninism. According to this new faith, sexual pleasure is the highest good, and there is no clear moral standard beyond consenting adults and whatever they choose to do with one another. Whether they are conscious of it or not, many modern people treat the sexual revolution as religious bedrock – off-limits for revision, no matter what consequences it has wrought.
These are just some examples of the new world that needs mapping, and that will absorb intellectual attention for a long time to come. We should be hopeful about those future efforts. After all, it’s taken over fifty years for opinion to re-align about just some of the revolution’s negative legacy. It may take fifty more, or a hundred, for a full and honest empirical and intellectual accounting. Revisionist thinking about the revolution’s effects in the world has only just begun.
In summary, one parting thought. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was once sent out by a journal to report back on what happened in a local slaughterhouse. What he saw there moved him deeply. His subsequent description included an immortal line that I think applies widely to us today. After relaying the facts, Tolstoy observed with devastating simplicity, “We cannot pretend we don’t know these things.”
That is exactly where humanity is in 2018 with respect to the sexual revolution. We can no longer pretend we don’t know these things – these things that the revolution has done.
In the heady 1960s, many could plead ignorance, in good faith, about the fallout to come. Few could have suspected how many millions of children in coming generations would grow up without fathers in the home, say; or how many more millions would be aborted; or how many men and women alike from fractured homes would go on to suffer in diverse ways, such as turning to drugs – surely there’s more going on in the opioid epidemic than mere marketing – and other self-destructive behaviors.
Many people, just half a century ago, hoped that the revolution would incur no collateral human damage. And in fairness to them: who, back then, could have foreseen the library of social science created over the fifty years since, demonstrating just some of the human damage out there among men, women, and children of the revolution?
Some people fifty years ago even hoped that the new freedoms, and technological controls, would stabilize marriage itself. The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which also reaches its 50th anniversary this year, went on to become widely despised across the decades precisely for predicting otherwise – precisely for insisting that the revolution would hurt romance and family, and end up licensing predatory men and malignant governments.
It is a paradox within a paradox right now that a great many people, including inside the Catholic Church itself, have ferociously resisted Humanae Vitae’s rejection of the revolution – or for that matter, any rejection of the revolution – despite all this evidence, even in some pretty high places.
By 2018, can any of us really, in good faith, pretend we don’t know these things that empiricism itself has documented? The answer has to be no.
In 1953, when the first issue of Playboy arrived on newsstands, many people might have wanted to believe its hype about enhancing the sophistication and urbanity of American men. By 2018, we can’t pretend that the mainstreaming of pornography has been anything but a disaster for romance, and a prime mover of today’s divorces and other breakups.
In 1973, even supporters of Roe vs. Wade could not have imagined the evidence to come: some 58 million never-born micro-humans in the United States; and gender-cide, or the selective killing of micro-girls for being girls, in various nations around the world, also numbering in the millions. Nor could supporters back then have imagined the technological leap that would unveil the truth about abortion once and for all: the sonogram.
Can today’s advocates for Roe possibly claim the same unknowing?
To face facts squarely, and use them to tell a truthful story, is not merely to deliver a jeremiad: it is to empower. To reject living under the falsehoods about the revolution, even if they have become the dominant narrative of the age, is to embrace the freedom to write a new narrative – and a truer one.
Just one step is needed toward revising the revolution’s legacy in the direction of truth: ceasing to pretend that we don’t know the empirical and historical record, when every year just reveals it both to science and human reason, more and more.
Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Some of her previous The Catholic Thing columns (and columns by others in which her work is discussed) can be found here. She is the author of several books including It’s Dangerous to Believe and How the West Really Lost God.
EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of Sharon Tate (murdered by Charles Manson’s “family”), Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton, and Roman Polanski (accused of statuary rape of a 13-year old girl). in 1968. © 2018 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.