Sometimes I write to see what I think. I’m pretty sure I know what I think – or at least what my gut tells me – on the subject at hand (Has the Sexual Revolution been good for women?), but four pieces in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal provide a convenient way to revisit the issue. I apologize if there’s a paywall in front of the pieces I discuss, but it’s not to late to run off to Starbuck or Barnes & Noble (nice local businesses, eh?) to score a dead tree version.
Ann Patchett thinks the sexual revolution has been good for women. Or at least it’s irreversible, so we should smile and move on.
Here’s the thing about revolutions—there is no taking them back. You may review history and wish that it had gone the other way; perhaps you always longed to be a British colonist and regret the outcome of the American Revolution. Or maybe you liked the idea of a man behind a horse and plow and feel that the Industrial Revolution was all a big misstep.
But personal laments are only that: personal. They cannot change what has been done. If you feel that the sexual revolution destroyed the American family by giving women power over their reproductive choices, and that power turned daughters and wives, by and large, into a bunch of wanton hussies, well, stew over your feelings all you want, but you might as well give up thinking that it is possible to herd us up and drive us back into the kitchen—which, depending on how many revolutions have offended you, might be a kitchen with a washboard and cake of soap or a smoke house featuring a picture of King George.
I wish I could say that she transcends her introduction, but I can’t, despite a nonsequitur nod to the importance of reproduction:
The sexual revolution … was, after all … a matter of … having the ability to decide when you were going to have a child, and then deciding how many children you wanted to have. For me, it meant the freedom to choose not having children at all.
Reproduction is the very purpose of life on earth.
Well, maybe she’s being subversive. Maybe her game is to say that it’s good, and irreversible, but needs a few tweaks, like Chinese leaders continuing to insist they’re Communists while running a better capitalist system than our own:
Let us so empower the young women in our communities with the excellent education that is available to them, the love and support of their families, and the abundance of positive role models, that they are strong enough within themselves to wait until they feel fully ready to have sex with a person they trust, a person who values them. And let the young men of our communities benefit from that same education, that same love. To make things easier, let’s remove several million degrading images of women that can give a boy the wrong ideas about the value of other people.
Upon reading that, millions of Lotharios groan “what kind of sexual revolution is that?!”
If Patchett fails to persuade, Mary Eberstadt assures me that my gut reaction is right.
She begins attacking three myths, the gist of her argument being that the sexual revolution, for good or ill, is way too big a deal for a slacker’s shugged “whatever,” and that those who think it ill are not just a bunch of Catholics and crypto-Catholics.
Then she turns to Myth Four, The sexual revolution has made women happier, peppering it with “a few elementary questions:”
Why do the pages of our tonier magazines brim with mournful titles like “The Case for Settling” and “The End of Men”? Why do websites run by and for women focus so much on men who won’t grow up, and ooze such despair about relations between the sexes?
Why do so many accomplished women simply give up these days and decide to have children on their own, sometimes using anonymous sperm donors, thus creating the world’s first purposely fatherless children? What of the fact, widely reported earlier this week, that 26% of American women are on some kind of mental-health medication for anxiety and depression and related problems?
Or how about what is known in sociology as “the paradox of declining female happiness”? Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey, two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, made the case in 2009 that women’s happiness appeared to be declining over time despite their advances in the work force and education.
… [I]s it not reasonable to think that at least some of that discontent comes from the feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere—a feeling made plausible by the sexual revolution?
However one looks at the situation, it seems difficult to argue that the results of the revolution have been a slam-dunk for happiness.
It is always hard to disentangle the weeds from the plants in such a large field. But if the sexual revolution has made women so happy, we can at least ask what it would look like for them to be unhappy ….
The two other voices in the WSJ quartet are not singing the principal themes, but variations and counterpoint.
The always-interesting Kay Hymowitz explores “our Jersey Shorified culture” and its adversaries, who for the convenience of cultural amnesiacs we can call “Rick Santorum.” Got that picture?
She acknowledges the prior sexual double standard and its sudden disappearance:
But along comes the pill, and the logic against premarital sex disappears. Women no longer had to worry—well, not too much—about getting pregnant. Then the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion as a backup plan. For the optimists who made up the vanguard of the sexual revolution, the new arrangement seemed very promising, almost foolproof.
And it has worked well for many women, particularly in the professional class. They have premarital sex and use contraception fairly reliably. Aside from a small (but growing) population of Murphy Browns, they have children only after they marry. The sexual revolution has given them the ability to delay marriage until they are old enough to choose their husbands wisely, which helps to explain why their divorce rates have been declining.
The revolution has not been all sweetness and light for the upper and middle class, of course. On college campuses, the hookup scene often doesn’t look very different from “Jersey Shore.” Many women feel that the social pressure to avoid premarital sex has been replaced with pressure to just do it. Others complain about the disappearance of the gentlemanly arts. Still, if you look at what social scientists would call the most significant social indicators, you’d have to conclude that they have adapted to the sexual revolution with aplomb.
For lower-income women, however, the revolution has been a near disaster.
If you can’t begin to imagine what she means by that last sentence, find a good proctologist and get your head examined. If you want to know why wage and wealth disparities are growing, you can add to “crony capitalism” (a real contributor, to be sure) “the ravages of the sexual revolution on the poor.”
Finally, Hanna Rosin makes some superficially plausible arguments that, on closer look, merely assume that “good for women” is reducible to economic and sexual autonomy:
In the 1970s the sexual revolution was really mostly about sex. But now the sexual revolution has deepened into a more permanent kind of power for women. Young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s—are generally better off than young men. They are better educated and earn more money on average. What made this possible is the sexual revolution—the ability to have temporary, intimate relationships that don’t derail a career. Or to put it more simply, to have sex without getting married.
These days the problem in the dating market is caused not by women’s eternal frailty but by their new dominance. In a world where women in their 20s are, on average, more successful than men, dating becomes complicated. Women no longer need men for financial security and social influence. They can achieve those things by themselves. No one is in a hurry to get married, and sex is, by the terms of sexual economics, very cheap. When sex is cheap, more men turn into what the sociologist Mark Regnerus calls “free agents.” They sleep with as many women as possible basically, because they can.
Beyond college, women are much less vulnerable to assault than they have ever been, according to a 2011 White House report, largely because they have more power to leave bad relationships.
I congratulate Rosin for recognizing that the sexual revolution is not just about copulation and contraception. The case that the sexual revolution for college-educated, middle- and upper-class women has worked economic hardship is hard – maybe impossible – to make, and a good debater (if that’s all Rosin were) would do well to focus there in advancing the affirmative.
But I’m reminded of how my father-in-law 40+ years ago, early in the sexual revolution, was unhappy that my wife majored in journalism, as he saw an education major as a surer way for her to support herself when Yours Truly dumped her, as he seemed to think inevitable.
How much of the wildly successful drive for female careers is a defense against economic privation in an era of marital breakdown? Reading Rosin, I see no reason to think that a defensive economic posture is not part and parcel of her assumption that a woman who is economically and sexually autonomous has a perfectly fulfilling life. I think that’s false for both women and men. And Ann Patchett, in her call for loving, supportive families, seems at least at this point to agree.
I applaud the WSJ for hosting this interesting discussion, and do sincerely commend critical reading of all four articles. I started with an ax to grind and I’m still grinding the same ax, so don’t count on me to read the pieces as you would (and, of course, I haven’t exactly labored over this analysis for days, having encountered the articles only a few hours ago).
I continue to think that defenders of the sexual revolution are making a virtue of necessity. Seeing no way out, and having taken the myth of progress hook, line, and sinker, they put their Panglossian imprimatur on reality, insisting that we’ve built the best of all possible worlds. Such optimism is not, even for a curmudgeon like Yours Truly, entirely odious. Kvetching gets old even if there’s a lot to kvetch about.
But like free kittens and free ponies (and free infrastructure by suburban developers – but that’s a whole ‘nuther topic), free love passes on some serious long-term maintenance cost to the recipient. One needs to look beyond the immediate future to the longer term. Curmudgeons serve the social ecology by reminding everyone of that (if they’ll listen).
I don’t think the sexual revolution in its sexual (not economic) aspects must be taken as “a given.” As several of the authors note, onset of sexual activity seems to be getting delayed at least. And I don’t think that the sexual revolution in its economic aspects is an unmitigated social good, as I do not reduce the common good to economic prosperity.