Following the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court last June, many women of fame decried the limits on abortion and went on a sex strike, furiously uttering the slogan, “If our choices are denied, so are yours.” Seeing this, I almost spit my coffee on the computer screen. Many “liberated” women—I was one of them a long time ago—joined the strike, demanding commitment from men. If there ever was an occasion to use the phrase “reinventing the wheel”, going on a sex strike until a commitment is made certainly is one. Yet no one dared to use the “m” word, for marriage has been the target of the women’s liberation movement from the beginning of the sexual revolution.
The impact of that revolution is far-reaching, and the deterioration of marriage as a social institution is one of its most detrimental consequences. We now live in a sex-saturated society in which hook-up culture is the norm on university campuses and staying chaste until marriage is about as common as a unicorn. After sixty years, we are standing where Chesterton’s proverbial fence once stood, staring the chaos unleashed by “free” sex.
Now, what do we do? Some argue for more freedom, to the extent that women must be completely freed from the burdens of pregnancy and motherhood. Some argue for more state intervention in the rearing of children, to compensate for absent fathers.
But, there are some who can step back far enough to see that the sexual revolution has not delivered the promised utopia.
The (Partial) Case Against the Sexual Revolution
English journalist and author Louise Perry takes such a view in her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. Perry’s book is not for the faint of the heart, as she is not reluctant to describe the gritty and unpalatable practices of the day, or quote the occasional F-bomb to drive her point.
The title of the first chapter—actually, of all the chapters—would be an obvious statement to all previous generations and men of common sense: “Sex must be taken seriously.” Perry describes the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Hefner, who represent the two extreme products of the sexual revolution. Monroe was seen as the epitome of women’s sexual liberation, despite being used, abused, and eventually dying an early death, despite being desired by men and envied by women. Hefner, on the other hand, lived a long and licentious life after becoming rich and famous on the backs of the women who were willing to pose for his Playboy magazine. Monroe and Hefner are buried next to each other, two symbols of consequence-free sex. Perry points out the disparity between these two lives, as symbols of the sexual revolution whose promise of freedom only mean more misery and loneliness for women, while men enjoyed “on demand” sex without the responsibilities of fatherhood.
The second chapter is also controversial at a time when sameness has become the only acceptable opinion: “Men and women are different.” The contents of this chapter are related to biological facts, most of which would not come as a surprise readers here, but are denied in the liberal circles. Perry’s main argument revolves around evolutionary biology, which inclines men to spread their seed as much as possible while women need to be more picky in their partner choice, both because of their vulnerability and their desire to protect their offspring. Perry notes that this difference is the reason why most perpetrators of rape are men and the victims are women. Denying this fact, Perry concludes, would only serve men and further victimize women.
After reiterating that some desires are bad and loveless sex is not empowering, Perry takes on the promotion of consent, which is today’s panacea to all sexual wrongdoing. Anyone who has ever been in a stressful situation, or felt under undue pressure, would attest that saying “Yes” sometimes provides a way out. Under the heading “consent is not enough”, Perry gives disturbing accounts of how pornography is made and what women in the porn industry encountered in the process. In the next chapter, she delves into how the ugliness of pornography and the consent culture seeps into the daily lives of ordinary people for whom pornography is an indicator of women’s sexual liberation. “People are not products,” declares Perry, since she has become aware that a different kind of slave walks the streets nowadays.
Her solution is simple: “Marriage is good.” Perry rightfully decries the introduction of no-fault divorce as catastrophic to the institution of marriage. Yet, marriage is the only solution to the ills brought on by the sexual revolution because monogamous marriage is the only way to “tame men”. If there is not sex before marriage, and women look for men who are potentially good fathers, men will leave their sexually-heightened state to assume their tamed role as husbands, fathers, and protectors. She concludes the book with a list of advice she would give to her daughter, such as “chivalry is actually a good thing” and “only have sex with a man if you think he would be a good father to your children.” Perry urges her readers to listen to their mother, but most of all asks her fellow feminists to rediscover motherhood.
I was surprised with how Perry ends her book. She is honest, open and insightful throughout her enjoyable prose, but she often returns to The Pill as the savior of women from unwanted pregnancies. Even though The Pill came with some unintended consequences, Perry argues that reliable artificial contraception have provided women with “defense”. There is, of course, abortion if contraceptives fail, which they often does. Yet, the author fails to see the most important effect of The Pill: it severs the woman from her motherhood. While Perry denounces the hook-up culture, she does not acknowledge that sex is primarily about reproduction. If that primary end is curtailed, then sex inevitably becomes a purposeless tool for pleasure. How can women discover motherhood after taking The Pill for decades to delay the arrival of their inner mother?
Although Perry manages to make a compelling argument against the sexual revolution, thus fulfilling her book’s premises, her solutions fall short. She only steps back far enough to see a part of the picture. Her gaze is focused on women as the victim; men are the culprits. From her perspective, she fails to see that there are no winners in the world of “free” sex. Woman and man are not set against each other as if they are trying to win a perpetual game of chess. On the contrary, they are trapped together in the inevitable rubble and destruction.
Adam and Eve After the Pill, Ten Years Later
Mary Eberstadt’s 2013 book was aptly titled with a reference to the complimentarily of man and woman: Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of Sexual Revolution. Very much like Perry, Eberstadt focuses on the impact of the sexual revolution on women. However, unlike Perry, Eberstadt is able to step back further and to see that the chaos following the arrival of artificial contraception has not been limited to the female realm. While Perry portrays men as the “winners” who need to be tamed, Eberstadt depicts how men and children, along with women, were wounded and scarred and betrayed by the sexual revolution. Any solution that excludes any of the victims is not a true and lasting solution.
As Eberstadt revisits the fate of Adam and Eve after the Pill a decade on, she sees the current state of society and politics at large resulting directly from the revolution that upended the centuries-old wisdom. The sexual revolution was rooted in deep “chronological snobbery”—a phrase C.S. Lewis coined to describe the disdain so many have for the traditional beliefs and practices of previous generations.
Perry recognizes the detrimental effects of this perspective, while contradicting herself by arguing that contraception and abortion are positive developments for women, albeit with some unwanted side effects. Eberstadt, on the other hand, looks at the same data and trends, and goes deeper. She finds that the perennial wisdom of the Church was not, as is so often asserted, offered to suppress women and exalt men in the unbreakable chains of patriarchy. On the contrary, by protecting the organic and spiritual connection between sex and procreation, the family—not the individual—once formed the foundation of society.
Eberstadt’s new book begins with a summary of the first, outlining how the sexual revolution increased divorce, fatherlessness, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births. She takes these micro outcomes, which impacted the family and the individual, and examines their macro effects within and throughout society. She addresses “the new intolerance” and “the cancel culture” that ostracize those who dare to reject and speak against the liberal narrative. The defenders of the cancel culture push faithful Christians, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, to the margins, while acting more and more like zealous believers of “the Faith of Secularism”. This movement is becoming a substitute for Christianity, with a new moral code, sacraments, and dogma. In this new religion, Adam and Eve have no place. Instead, a paradigm of transgenderism and gender fluidity is pushed forward into every aspect of society and culture.
Fatherhood is one of the notable victims of this secular religion. Anyone paying attention can observe the detrimental effects fatherlessness has on the individual: increased rates of incarcerations, gang membership, and teenage pregnancies, to name a few. Eberstadt observes the overall catastrophic impact of this phenomena, which pushed men to the margins, in reference to riots across the US during 2020:
The explosive events of 2020 were but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives. That eruption exposes the threefold crisis of filial attachment that has best the western world more than half a century. Deprived of father, Father and patria, a critical mass of mankind has become dysfunctional on a scale unseen before.
Eberstadt explores why the loss of religion, family, and community has created men who are victims and perpetrators at the same time. Contrary to Perry’s emphasis that men need to be tamed within the boundaries of monogamous marriage and fatherhood, Eberstadt reveals that men are an irreplaceable part of a functioning society as protectors and fathers. No amount of state programs or growth in the welfare system can change that fact.
Later, Eberstadt ties the disintegration and disappearance of family to the secularization of the society at large. Intact families with children look for like-minded people and grounded religious communities to help ease the hardships of childrearing and give their kids a better environment in which to grow up. However, when so many reject or are cut off from their earthly father because of no-fault divorce and other fallout from the sexual revolution, they will also reject or be distanced from their heavenly Father. Eberstadt points out that the relationship between the family and the Church is mutual and vital. While religion emphasizes the importance of family, fatherhood, and motherhood, families encourage more religious affiliation. A whole generation composed of children of divorce, on the other hand, is filled with anger and hatred toward things of the past.
The concluding chapter in this book presents how the prophetic truths of Humanae Vitae came to be, despite being the most opposed and encyclical of the last century. Eberdestadt reminds readers that artificial contraception and consequence-free sex has and will result in not only the degradation of women, but also dissolution of the family, increase in state intervention, pornography, drug use, depression and despair.
Eberstadt emphasizes that Catholics need to stand their ground, especially in the universities: “In the struggle to hold fast to the Cross amid today’s Chaos, countercultural scholars are the first line of defense.” Anyone familiar with the state of higher education can attest to how far and fast secular academia and scholarship have fallen. This is why authentic and committed Catholic colleges are crucial in all fields, including theology, philosophy, arts, political science, and medicine. An overarching philosophy, rooted in sound Catholic theology, should guide every Catholic institution of higher education if we are to regain solid footing and prevail against the secular maelstrom.
The tale of these two books reveals the fallout and the chaos left in the wake of sexual revolution. They even offer some similar solutions. However, in one there is a certain shallowness behind the cure, not only because it lacks an appreciation for transcendence and spiritual wholeness, but it also continues to promote forms division and injustice.
The other recognizes that man and woman form a unity, and from that unity flows a functioning society. We can only rise above the animalistic behavior decried in Perry’s book with the aid of grace and truth revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and offered by and through His Church. Eberstadt recognizes the importance of the transcendent when it comes to moral goodness and social stability, as summarized by Pope Benedict XVI:
Each one of us needs fertile ground in which to sink our own roots, a ground rich with nutritious substances that make a person grow: these are values, but above all they are love and faith, the knowledge of God’s true face, the awareness that he loves us infinitely, faithfully, patiently, to the point of giving his life for us.
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
By Louise Perry
Polity Books, 2022
Hardcover/Paperback, 200 pages
Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited
By Mary Eberstadt; Foreword by Cardinal George Pell
Ignatius Press, 2023
Hardcover, 199 pages
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Thank you for this article. It is so well written and fascinating.
I admire the efforts of both Perry and Eberstadt. While the latter offers a wider perspective I think the former comes from a more modern though not correct perspective. I have often commented on this site commending the balance and even handedness of it and I think this has some connection to the two books reviewed. Some Catholic sites take a hostile view to anything even tinged with feminism inviting an unpleasant correspondence of extremes. There has to be in my opinion an admission that the church in the past was not even handed. I would no more want my daughters to marry a man who has been around than I would want my sons to marry a similar kind of woman and yet in some Catholic circles these aspirations are viewed as chalk and cheese. With this in mind Eberstadt points the way forward as being fundamentally stronger when people of a similar past unite.
I see the sexual revolution being analogous to the test drive of a new vehicle. One can be fooled by the hidden mannerisms of a new potential spouse. Not revealing a former divorce, bipolar disorder, hidden mental abnormality, lying or misdirecting under pressure, discovering, after marriage, that a spouse does not want children, etc.
God help those in turmoil over the sexual revolution.
I continue to believe that feminists like Perry cannot or refuse to see that contraception and abortion reinforce the very roots of the chauvinism and sexism they allegedly desire to eradicate. These make possible objectification and de-personalization of women by the likes of sexually attenuated males like Harvey Wienstein. Teaching young women to learn, love and steward their fertility in partnership with their husbands is a better, though at times challenging path to health, holiness and fulfillment. The collateral damage of the sexual revolution may not be avoided in any other way. Pope Paul VI was prescient in this regard.