Mary Eberstadt takes as her starting point a 1984 essay by the late Georgetown University professor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, castigating the widespread refusal of her contemporaries to believe that Communism was evil. Right up to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the professoriat and the mainstream media throughout the Western world were telling us — in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, including a Communist death toll at least 15 times greater than that of Hitler’s Holocaust — that Communism’s evils were no worse than those of Western capitalism. Western Marxists contended that capitalism was worse than Communism. And what was certainly worse, we were told throughout the Cold War, was anti-Communism, the last refuge of fools, scoundrels, and unenlightened bigots. In her 1984 essay, Kirkpatrick labeled this mindset “The Will to Disbelieve.”
Early in this short but powerful book, Eberstadt states clearly the double-pronged thesis for which she provides abundant evidence. The sexual revolution, stemming from the contraceptive Pill, which makes it possible to separate sex from procreation (or as Eberstadt puts it, “nature from nurture”), has proved a disaster. And its burdens have fallen on society’s weakest and smallest members, while strengthening the most predatory.
First, then, the damage to women. Surveys have shown repeatedly that monogamous married people score higher on a whole list of happiness indicators. Husbands work harder and are more dependable than boyfriends and lovers. Cohabiting and single women are at far greater risk of physical and sexual abuse. Their children are more likely to drop out of school, to become involved with drugs and alcohol, to become incarcerated. Popular magazines which cater to today’s liberated women celebrate the freedom women now enjoy to have as much sexual fun as men, while complaining without end about the difficulty of finding a steady and committed boyfriend or husband.
The sexual revolution’s damage to men is equally clear. It has prolonged adolescence, turning men into boys. It has led to an atrophying of the male protective instinct. By encouraging men to regard sex as pleasure without consequences, it leaves them with no one to protect. Men’s hunt for sexual novelty has killed the chances for long-term romance. Worst of all is today’s tsunami of pornography. Dismissed by the revolution’s cheerleaders as a purely private activity without harmful consequences, pornography has destroyed men’s ability to relate to real women, none of whom is as exciting or as totally available as those whom adolescent boys and men alike can summon at the touch of a computer mouse. Comparing the state of porn-addicted males to that of obese people gorging on unhealthy food and drink, Eberhardt wonders when, among today’s crusaders against obesity, one will arise to crusade against another epidemic no less damaging to human health and happiness.
In a chapter on “Toxic U, a world of experiential learning to which parents are never invited,” Eberhardt surveys the damage done by the sexual revolution to young adults. In the binge and hookup culture which thrives on many campuses today we see, once again, how sexual liberation has empowered the strong and penalized the weak. All the evidence, especially that from remorseful women themselves, shows that excessive drinking, and sex-without-consequences, are far more likely to damage girls than boys.
Eberhardt’s final chapter on “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae” is masterful. Scorned as a laughingstock by those on the cultural heights, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical has proved remarkably prescient. The Pope warned that the pursuit of sex without responsibility or consequences would bring about four disasters: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments. It is beyond denial that every one of those things has come about. And those providing the evidence for them have been not Catholics, Christians, or political or social conservatives, but honest social scientists, willing to follow the data wherever it may lead. Availability of the Pill and other means of artificial birth control has also led to an increase of illegitimacy and abortion.
Even secular feminists, today’s principal defenders of the sexual revolution, complain of its bitter fruits for women, Eberhardt writes: “The suburban home as concentration camp, men as rapists, children as intolerable burdens, fetuses as parasites… These are the signs of liberation? Even the vaunted right to abortion, both claimed and exercised at extraordinary rates, did not seem to mitigate the misery of millions of these women after the sexual revolution.”
Eberstadt gives two reasons for the widespread “will to disbelieve” the sexual revolution’s bitter fruits.
The first was identified long ago by Malcolm Muggeridge: “People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.” And from time’s beginning, people, men especially, have wanted to believe that they could enjoy sex without penalty.
A second reason is that there is today hardly a family untouched by one or more of the revolution’s consequences: divorce, single parenthood, abortion, cohabitation, widespread pornography, open homosexuality. Who wants to offend a divorced father, a homosexual brother, a struggling single mother?
Is there light at the end of this very long tunnel? Eberhardt does not tell us. She deserves credit for describing in vivid and clear detail the evils that have come upon us, lightened here and there by delightful flashes of humor. My favorite is an extended quotation from Caitlin Flanagan, an American woman unwilling to accept feminism’s demand that men should do the same household chores as women. They can be cajoled into doing this, Flanagan writes, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will do as men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential. And a lot of women feel cheated and angry and even — bless their hearts — surprised about this…
The sexual revolution is an example of what, for the Jewish Scriptures, is the supreme sin: idolatry — worshipping and looking for satisfaction from a god who can never answer our prayers, because he is deaf, dumb, and blind.
St. Augustine said it in words unmatched for clarity and simplicity: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.”
Or to put it in terms best understood by a generation raised on computers and the Internet: we are hard-wired for God.
He it is who gives us his beautiful gift of sexuality, thus enabling us to participate in the divine work of creation. Sexuality has inspired some of the world’s greatest art, in music, painting, sculpture, and literature. Difficult as it may be for a generation to accept which has abandoned the very notion of God as destructive of human happiness and flourishing, sexuality can bring us the deep joy intended by our Creator only when we exercise his gift in accordance with his laws.