The Sexual Revolution and its Victims

What strikes me most powerfully about the defenders of the sexual revolution is their immovable abstraction.  Always the matter is couched in terms of rights, or individual desires—what I want, what I may pursue.  That this sexual laissez-faire destroys the common good, by undermining families and rotting whole neighborhoods from within, seems not to matter.  Honest sociologists can give us the numbers, of children growing up without fathers or mothers, of the incidence of venereal diseases, of births out of wedlock, of delinquency and crime.  I think instead of the people I have known.

I am thinking now of a cousin, whom I’ll call Danny.  We were about the same age, but already, when he was a little boy, Danny was something of a bully.  I’d see him pretty often, because we lived in the same town, and because the aunts and uncles used to visit our grandparents every Sunday afternoon.  My main memory of Danny from those days is that he pushed me around, I didn’t like being with him, and, somehow, my father wished his son was more like Danny and less like me.  I was bookish—not that we had any books in our house—and he was the typical boy, energetic and strong.  One day my father and his father were roughhousing with us, throwing us up in the air, and I didn’t like it.  Maybe I started crying, I don’t know.  My father grouched about it, at which point my mother, not given to such outbursts, told him to stop it and to leave me alone.  Looking back on it, I wish she hadn’t, but she meant well.

My father shied away from me during those years, or maybe he was just exhausted when he came home every night from his high-pressure work.  He was a salesman on commission, working in the countryside.  He had to be better than his colleagues who worked in the towns, because he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford all the extra time on the road.  It was our only source of income, and there were already three children in the family.  I grew shy, and had a hard time making friends, though that problem was palliated by all our relatives who lived very near, and a neighborhood full of children whom you’d see every day in the summer.

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Danny had a hard time of it too, as I see now.  His father was a very nice man, but weak, and that whole family had too strong a taste for beer.  He drank, and his wife—my aunt, whom I saw no more than two or three times in my whole life, despite the fact that she grew up next door to my mother, across the street from where we lived, and was my mother’s best friend then—my aunt was a hard and unforgiving woman.  She harbored a grudge against Grandma, which was rather like harboring a grudge against Bambi’s mother, and refused to go to her house again, or to any of our houses.  She tried her hardest to keep Danny from going, too, but my uncle in a rare show of determination insisted.  That household must have been a regular boiler.  Danny’s behavior was in part a frustrated reaction to all this—and I began to understand it that way, even when I was young, because nobody, nobody could imagine a woman as bitter as his mother.

Here is where people will say, “But this is exactly why we needed to remove the stigma from divorce, so that your uncle could escape the trap.”  I’m not buying.  We are talking about human beings here, not machines.  If a machine doesn’t work, you fix it, or you take it to the dump.  But men and women are bent double with sin: incurvatus, as Augustine puts it so memorably.  If the problem is sin—my uncle’s touch of sloth, his drinking too much, his weak will, my aunt’s perfervid wrath, her hardheartedness—then what you need is not a change of sexual scenery.  You need repentance and reformation.  To open the door to easy divorce is, first, to lower the cost of bad behavior while discouraging people from setting out on the really difficult path, and, second, to free the same people, unreformed, to marry others in turn.

If this had been the 1950’s, my aunt and uncle would not have gotten a divorce.  Indeed, they might have had another child—Danny was an only child, and that too caused him much heartache—and they might have thrown the crockery at each other, but, Catholics both (and my uncle never missed Mass on Sunday), they would not have gotten a divorce.  Would they have spent the next forty years seething and snarling?  I don’t know.  I do know several couples in my close acquaintance who now enjoy very happy marriages precisely because, during times of extraordinary difficulty, divorce was not an option.  It’s surprising how practical people can become when they are in one life-raft together.

But this was the 1960’s, so they did divorce.  Both of them married again.  For my uncle, that decision wasn’t all sweet.  It meant that he was ipso facto excommunicated from the Church.  He continued to attend Mass, but he did not receive Communion.

From that time on, almost all the aggressiveness in Danny turned inside.  I say almost, because about once a year or so Danny would get into a fight.  He wasn’t tall, and he didn’t lift weights, and there were probably a lot of boys who were stronger than he was, but nobody wanted to be in his way when he lost his temper.  It was pure rage.  You couldn’t beat him in a fight unless you knocked him unconscious, and nobody did.  He kept coming at you, no matter the blood.  All his anger at the father he loved and the mother he loved and hated with a cold passion, all that came out in a flurry of punches.  It was the same way when he played tackle football on the playground.  Nobody wanted to be in his way, because he’d lower his head and churn his feet, reckless of what happened.

Danny won some respect for that, but no real friends.  He was intensely lonely.  He had developed a habit of speaking very softly, hardly moving his lips, so that you’d have to ask him a couple of times what he was saying; it was the speech equivalent of micrography.  Only his cousins could put up with it, and, lucky for him, he had a few boy-cousins nearby, and my father.  We were what pulled him through, sort of.

The woman his father married was the same sort as the first wife.  She was a bitter and hard and cynical.  She had a son from a previous marriage whom she doted on, so she couldn’t give Danny the time of day.  Danny resented her, and couldn’t stand the stepbrother, who was a martial arts expert, which he never tired of reminding people of, and a snob.  The man his mother married was cold and distant.  Danny never got any love from him, either.  Meanwhile, my uncle suffered a heart attack.  That ran in our family; bad genes, beer, and cigarettes.  He was supposed to take it easy.  One day—Danny was a teenager by then—we got the bad news.  My uncle had come home tired and feeling sick.  His wife told him he probably had eaten something that didn’t agree with him.  She ignored it.  He died later that afternoon.  We all believed that he might have lived if she had taken him to the hospital right away, but she didn’t want to be bothered.  She held the obligatory meal for the relatives after the funeral.  I never saw her again.  I don’t know that Danny ever saw her again, either.

Danny’s mother was growing unnaturally jealous of her son’s friends.  He was sixteen, and she imposed a curfew on him—he had to be in by eight o’clock.  He had no money to spend.  He could not bring anybody to the house.  She did allow him to go to my house, and to visit some of the other cousins.  I saw her exactly once during all of these years.

Danny worked at a summer job, and all of his money went to his mother.  She also kept a lid on the inheritance that his father had bequeathed to him.  Many years later, when Danny was in his twenties, he discovered that she had in fact rifled both the bequest and the money that he had brought home from all his jobs.  At that point—his chances of leading a normal life virtually nil—he broke with her completely.  He never spoke to her again.

But during those rough teenage years something else was going on.  I hadn’t had an easy time of it, and was still very shy, but by then my father and I had grown much closer, and I even had a girl friend from my high school.  In the summer, Danny would come over sometimes, and then my heart would sink.  I liked him, but he was hard to talk to—he was hard to hear.  He always wanted to talk about his father, whom he missed and whose many faults he glossed over, because he knew that his father loved him, which was true enough.

The excuse for coming over was our pool.  We’d go downstairs and undress and put on our bathing suits, and then swim for an hour, or play a kind of baseball game in the pool, and then go back downstairs and strip and put our clothes back on.  This was important to Danny in a way that I only half suspected at the time.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable.  That wasn’t his fault, though.  I was skinny and broad shouldered and fairly muscular from swimming a lot, but I also had a deformity which made undressing, even in front of a cousin, embarrassing.

But he had to be there.  If I had snuck downstairs to put on my bathing suit before he did, he was visibly disappointed, and asked why I hadn’t waited for him.

He longed so much to be affirmed as a boy, and had no father who could do that for him.  I am absolutely certain that if he had grown up now, he would have been counseled or enticed into a life of seeking by sexual means the masculine confidence he had been denied naturally.  Whether this would have taken a homosexual or a heterosexual form, I don’t know; I do know that the times were already going bad.  When Danny left his mother, he took up living with a woman many years his senior.  They never married.  He never had a child of his own.  Then she died.  The last I heard of him, he was an inveterate gambler, running through paychecks at the casino.

At every step of his life, though, the sexual revolution wrought its harm.  It perversely rewarded the irresponsible behavior of his parents and his stepparents.  It had, even by then, made sexual activity among young people something to be expected, so that a lonely kid like Danny would constantly have to wonder about himself.  It had corrupted the popular culture, so that well-chaperoned and innocent CYO dances were a distant memory.  It set him up for a short-circuited sexual relationship with a mother-substitute, depriving him of the children that might have sweetened his advancing years.  It swept away all the institutions that used to bring boys together, as boys, to train them to be decent and well-adjusted men.  It raised him up in an anti-culture of faithlessness, as he would witness one sexual “relationship” after another dissolve by ill-will or boredom.

It has brought us a world wherein people sweat themselves to death in the pursuit of unhappiness.  Some of those people, by the grace of God, miss their aim.

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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