“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
. 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
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 otherand we’re only
beginning to understand it.
In that senseand
in a way that the sexual liberationists and their allies really don’t getit 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 countedeconomically,
politically, personally, and otherwise, for reasons I try to explain in the
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 revolutionand
not just now, but centuries from now. Reducing this enormous phenomenon to
something personal, a mere matter of women’s prerogatives, is just that:
CWR: Why do so many
peopleespecially (but not only) those secular elites who dress themselves in
the cloaks of science and reasoneither 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 compassionincluding 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 elsebut 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 itintellectuals 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
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 saysas the secular world
seems to saythat 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 peopleor would, assuming they were
exposed to it? Well, which would anybody
rather beelevated and cared-for
and cherished, someone whose choices actually matter in the world, or the
People, especially young people, often don’t understand what
Judeo-Christian teaching actually isbecause
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 vindicatedand 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 childeven 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 menhow 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 beas 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.