The Party’s Over

Mary Eberstadt on men, women, and what the sexual revolution has wrought

“No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception,” writes Mary Eberstadt in the introduction to her new book Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius). A research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review, Eberstadt’s writings have appeared in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online journals, including First Things, the Weekly Standard, National Review, National Review Online, the Claremont Review of Books, and the Wall Street Journal. Her previous books include The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (Ignatius). She recently spoke with CWR about her latest book, the far-reaching consequences of the sexual revolution, and what the Catholic Church has to offer in today’s debates over birth control and in the still-raging battle of the sexes.

Catholic World Report: In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, retired law professor Louise G. Trubek wrote, “Can we still be arguing about a woman’s ability to control her own fertility?” How is your book a response to that sort of attitude? Do we really need to being arguing over contraceptives? Isn’t that a matter of private choice and personal preference?

Mary Eberstadt: It is indeed fascinating that America is arguing over contraceptives. But pace certain retired law professors, the deeper meaning of that argument is not what the fear-mongers say it is. Torquemada 2.0 is not about to go slinking into college dormitories, filching pills and condoms from cowering college students. That’s not what this argument is about.

The argument is instead over something much larger. In the short term, as many have pointed out, and in the specific matter of the HHS mandate, it is indeed an argument over religious freedom. Many capable people, starting with certain other law professors and including the US bishops, have explained the dispute over the HHS mandate clearly and well.

Beyond that, though, there is an even wider meaning to the manifest unease over these issues that everyone thought settled. That is the legacy of the sexual revolution, whose consequences in one realm after another are only beginning to be understood. As the founder of Harvard’s sociology department, Pitirim Sorokin, once observed, it is a revolution that in the long run may have more influence on the world than any other—and we’re only beginning to understand it.

In that sense—and in a way that the sexual liberationists and their allies really don’t get—it doesn’t matter where you stand on the matter of religion. You could be a Wiccan. You could be a Carmelite. You could be Lady Gaga’s biggest fan. No matter what, you are still affected by the sexual revolution in more ways than can be counted—economically, politically, personally, and otherwise, for reasons I try to explain in the book.

I’m just pointing out that to say the sexual revolution amounts to a “woman thing” is absurd. And this is true leaving aside the question of morality altogether. One way or another, regardless of where individuals stand, the Western world and the rest of the world will have to grapple with the legacy of the revolution—and not just now, but centuries from now. Reducing this enormous phenomenon to something personal, a mere matter of women’s prerogatives, is just that: indefensibly reductionist.

CWR: Why do so many people—especially (but not only) those secular elites who dress themselves in the cloaks of science and reason—either ignore or deny outright both the statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating the serious personal and social damage wrought by the sexual revolution?

Mary Eberstadt: The first thing we need in order to get some clarity on this issue is compassion—including for the fact that many people of good intentions initially thought that the sexual revolution would be a good thing. They couldn’t have foreseen all the consequences that would flow from it.

The revolution is like a big party that a lot of people initially looked forward to, but that’s now gotten way out of control. So the people who had high hopes for the party, who have defended it against those who said it would go wrong sooner or later, are now in a difficult spot. Nobody wants to be the first to leave, and nobody wants to tattle on anyone else—but everybody knows that what’s happening isn’t good. The word we commonly use for that kind of resistance is denial. It’s a good word, and everyone’s susceptible to it—intellectuals as well as everybody else.

CWR: How can the Catholic Church point the way through the current spiritual desert and social wasteland that so many people inhabit today?

Mary Eberstadt: It’s so hard to see the Church constantly take the rap for being “bad on women,” when the moral and empirical truth is completely the reverse. It’s also hard because the Church has so much wisdom, developed over many centuries, about relations between the sexes.

Which way of looking at the world holds men and women in higher esteem: one that assigns them the sort of human dignity that the Church does, or one that says—as the secular world seems to say—that we’re all just animals with iPads and opposable thumbs, nothing more? Which way of explaining human beings do you think resonates better with young people—or would, assuming they were exposed to it? Well, which would anybody rather be—elevated and cared-for and cherished, someone whose choices actually matter in the world, or the opposite?

People, especially young people, often don’t understand what Judeo-Christian teaching actually is—because many years of attacks have successfully misrepresented that teaching in the public square. I know I didn’t, until I made it my business to read up. But that doesn’t mean the misunderstanding is inevitable. Compassion and clarity are the keys.

CWR: The final chapter of your book is on Humanae Vitae. What is most striking to you when you consider Pope Paul VI’s arguments and explanations?

Mary Eberstadt: I didn’t read Humanae Vitae itself until a few years ago, and when I did, I was amazed for the reasons described below. I wish every party to the debate over HHS would read that document too. There would be a lot more clarity in this discussion if people were even just a little more informed about what they think they know.

The single most striking thing about that document is this: its predictions about what the future would bring have been thoroughly vindicated—and I’m not talking about theology here, but about secular social science.

Humanae Vitae said that men would lose respect for women in a world where contraception was ubiquitous. At a time when illegitimacy rates approach the 50 percent mark around the Western world, and have passed it in some places (most recently, Great Britain), it’s hard to argue that Humanae Vitae got it wrong. After all, what’s a better measure of respect than sticking with the mother of your child—even if not for the child’s sake, but simply for hers?

But you don’t always need social science to get the point. If you read, say, contemporary women’s literature, fiction and non-fiction, you get a long litany of complaints about men—how hard it is to find a good one, how women need to strike out on their own, how they even need to have children on their own because men can’t be counted on, etc., etc., etc. I go through a lot of that kind of literature in the book, because it represents evidence of a different sort that something has really run amok between the sexes.

So if the Pill (metaphorically) has liberated everybody once and for all from the chains of human nature, as liberationists have always said it did, then why aren’t people happier? Why, to the contrary, does it seem as if modern Western women are less content than they used to be—as is also strongly suggested by a fascinating recent sociological study on “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” also discussed in the book?

Whether you look at popular culture or social science, the predictions of Humanae Vitae hold up better than almost anyone gives it credit for. And the fact that Humanae Vitae is nevertheless and simultaneously the most globally reviled document of our time means that we are looking at an enormous paradox here. That’s the central paradox of the book, and from it many others radiate outward.