This book could hardly be more timely. The Obama Administration’s birth control mandate may be a matter of religious liberty and the First Amendment, but it has also opened up the questions about contraception and the sexual revolution that have hardly been discussed in sophisticated society–or even in Catholic parishes–in anything but celebratory terms.
The sexual revolution, which is unimaginable without the pill, has had a profound effect, still barely understood, on relations between the sexes, human happiness, and a host of intractable social problems. Yet it is so much taken for granted and assumed to be such a great good for women and for society that has become impossible to discuss it seriously.
Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, offers a collection of essays, most of them originally published in First Things orPolicy Review, that deploy a mass of empirical findings from the social sciences as well anecdotal and confessional testimony to examine the dark side of the sexual revolution.
If it was so liberating, she asks, why are its supposed beneficiaries, especially women, unhappier than before? Why did the very effects that Pope Paul VI* predicted in his much despised but (in her eyes, prophetic) 1968 encyclical,Humanae Vitae, come to pass—an increase in infidelity and divorce, the objectification and degradation of women, abandonment of women and children, cohabitation, sexual promiscuity and increased abortion rates?
Eberstadt aims to connect the dots in order to show how the sexual revolution has harmed women and children, undermined marriage (especially for the lower social strata, so widening the class gap in poverty and education across generations), led to a massive increase in pornography, and left enormous numbers of children to grow up without one or both of their biological parents (with negative impacts in terms of poverty, health, mental health, school success, and other measures of child well-being).
There is an insightful discussion of “pedophilia chic,” of how children were being sexualized and sexual relations between men and boys were being normalized in smart circles — until the priest scandal broke and the same people who had promoted or condoned this kind of sexual license became outraged by it. It was the one and only case where the “advances” of the sexual revolution have been reversed.
Equally interesting are the essays arguing that food has become the new sex–the locus of moral puritanism — because sex between consenting adults has become a matter of moral indifference. Pornography has become the new tobacco, excused and defended with the same arguments used a few decades ago in favor of smoking.
One of the rotten fruits of the sexual revolution is the culture of Toxic U, the shadow college culture into which young women like Charlotte Simmons are recruited in their freshman and sophomore years. It is a time of binge drinking and hooking up (sex divorced not only from marriage and children, but from any kind of emotional commitment, sex on male terms leading to depression and other mental and physical health problems for young women).
Eberstadt links this toxic world to the pill and sexual revolution in the following way. Contraception enables a climate of apparently consequence-free sex. Marriage is delayed so young people do not invest in sexual partners as they did when having sex implied the man’s commitment to marriage if pregnancy resulted. Young men lost their traditional path to settling down and adult responsibility and became the child-men or slackers described by Kay Hymowitz. Shotgun weddings became a thing of the past. Abortion rates and single parenthood skyrocketed.
A major part of Eberstadt’s argument deals with the profound denial of the growing weight of evidence. But I wish that she had presented the evidence more clearly. She tends relegate this to the footnotes and focus on the blindness of academic and feminist elites. Her views would be more persuasive if a chapter on denial concluded the book. By then we would have been thoroughly convinced of the existence of a powerful ‘will to disbelieve’.
My other criticism relates to the difference between the sexes in matters of introspection and aptitude for the confessional mode of writing. The chapter on women is full of women’s own voices. The men, by contrast, are silent and tend to appear as perpetrators whose motivations lie unexamined. Kay Hymowitz does a better in her book Manning Up, although her men do not appear more admirable or, well, manly.
Finally, the book suffers from being a collection, albeit brilliant, of essays. I wish that Eberstadt had integrated them better. Notwithstanding these criticisms,Adam and Eve after the Pill offers a compelling argument and is a much needed contribution to a shamefully neglected topic.
Paul Adams is a recently retired professor of social policy. He now lives in Ave Maria, Florida, and blogs at Ethics, Culture, and Policy.