G. K. Chesterton wrote in his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, “The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people.” The outer crust of Christian reality is a moral sternness that seems ugly, but makes possible “pagan freedom.” Neo-pagans wishing to excise those outer morals have brought on themselves “despair within.”
This is one of the central paradoxes of Mary Eberstadt’s new book Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. The sexual revolution made possible by modern, more reliable contraception came with promises of a world that was emancipated, free-spirited, and happy. Instead, everywhere embraced, the revolution has brought a shrinking, aging general population, scores of abused, abandoned, and aborted children, and unhappiness for men and—most strikingly—for women. The despair is within, but its ugly fruits are everywhere to be seen in anecdotal form and even in the hard data of thoroughly secular social scientists.
What does the data say? In contrast to scholars who argued in the 1960s that contraception would reduce abortion and child abuse, stabilize marriages and be a barrier to poverty, Eberstadt cites the work of Lionel Tiger, which linked contraception to “the breakdown of families, female impoverishment, trouble in the relationship between the sexes, and single motherhood.” Tiger, who views all religion as “toxic,” also explicitly argues that “contraception causes abortion.”
Even Pope Paul VI did not make that last argument in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating Catholic teaching on contraception. But he did make four specific predictions: lower moral standards in society, more infidelity, less respect by men for women, and coercion by governments to get people to use reproductive technologies. In all four cases, the Church was right.
Some argue that while bad things may have happened, women are still happier overall. But the question of happiness has been addressed for many years by the United States General Social Survey and by scholars mining this data and other research. While women before the sexual revolution generally answered that they were happier at a higher level than men, the sexual revolution has brought decades of declining female happiness. Women today are less likely to say they are happy than are men. It has been said that while the revolution was fought in the name of women, its main benefactors have been men.
In fact, men are not doing well either. Women may be more unhappy comparatively, but men’s happiness levels have dropped, too. Look at the category of divorced men and you will find higher rates of alcoholism and drug use than married men, while their incomes are lower and their lifespans are shorter.
Men have been particularly affected by the scourge of pornography. In her chapter “Peter Pan and the Weight of Smut,” Eberstadt cites data showing porn is not a “victimless crime.” For instance, The Journal of Adolescent Health’s study of first-year college students demonstrated that porn-viewers were more likely to display “increased tolerance, resulting in a turn toward more bizarre and esoteric material; increased risk of body-image problems, especially among girls; and erroneous and exaggerated conceptions of how prevalent certain sexual behaviors, including risky-to-dangerous behaviors, actually are.” Among adults, a 2003 survey of top divorce lawyers indicated 62% of them had divorce cases in the past year in which porn played a role. Most devastating is a line from Pamela Paul’s 2005 book Pornified: “Countless men have described to me how, while using pornography, they have lost the ability to relate to or be close to women. They have trouble being turned on by ‘real’ women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse.”
But it isn’t just Chesterton’s paradox of resulting despair that interests Eberstadt. Her first chapter is called “The Will to Disbelieve,” taken from the late Jeane Kirkpatrick’s assessment of Western intellectuals denying the murderous, inhuman nature of Soviet Communism. How is it that, in the face of mountains of evidence from which Eberstadt has merely culled the most representative, that a respected modern historian can tell us the sexual revolution “improved the quality of life for most Americans”?
One answer is that for many, questions of morality have now been attached to other issues, especially food. Eberstadt is not against the new attention paid to issues of the healthiness of food, but she finds it both amusing and sad that whether you eat fish is now a moral issue, while whether you view porn or sleep around are issues of taste.
Is there hope for our culture post-revolution? Eberstadt seems to think that eventually people will come out of denial. In one chapter she notes that because sexual liberationists chose to damn the Catholic Church for the sex-abuse scandals, it was also logically necessary for them to put the brakes on the movement to legitimize pedophilia from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Other good things abound, showing that a dismal end for our culture is not inevitable. Eberstadt cites examples such as the rise of the Elizabeth Anscombe societies on college campuses, as well as other movements for chastity among young people, and a willingness on the part of some Evangelical Protestants to re-think their embrace of contraception. In comparison to the broader culture, however, the movements pushing back on sexual liberation and its inner despair are small. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, but this biblical promise was not necessarily given to America or the West.
Eberstadt brings to this book not only a comprehensive knowledge of social scientific research and a discerning eye for popular culture, but a wicked sense of humor that helps one laugh a bit at the data that would otherwise brings tears. She also brings an eye of sanity that is surely connected to her experience as a wife and mother of four (her husband, demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, is also a serious Catholic scholar). This book is a must-have for those who want arguments to use against people who think the sexual revolution a grand thing. It is also useful to give to Catholics and other Christians who want to reject the more outlandish aspects of the revolution but keep contraception. Eberstadt shows it is, after all, a bitter pill. And she has the data of social scientists—who don’t necessarily like the Church that teaches this truth—to back her up.
This review first appeared September 25, 2012 on the Why Marriage Matters (Minnesota Catholic Conference) website and is reprinted with permission.