The Wall Street Journal recently ran a mini-symposium on whether or not the sexual revolution was good for women, a massive topic to be addressed in relatively brief op-eds. I think Hanna Rosin did a pretty good job with “yes” side, and was hoping for a thought-provoking view from someone more skeptical. I’ve never heard ofMary Eberstadt before this, but it’s difficult to imagine a “no” response that better evades the central question at play in the debate.

I’ll skip the first three myths Eberstadt lays out, even though I have plenty to argue with about those. (Her contentions, all of which are directed toward demonstrating that the “war on women” is a myth: All women aren’t liberals, lots of Christians besides the Catholic Church care about contraception, and social issues aren’t going away.) The real evasion comes in Myth #4: “The sexual revolution has made women happier.”

It’s possible that this is actually a myth propagated by people on the other side of the question from Eberstadt, but I’ve never heard it from any of the liberal women I read regularly on these issues. They would argue, as Rosin does in her piece, that women are on balance better off than they were before the sexual revolution. But Hanna explicitly wrestles with the fact that women do not seem to be happier now than they were before, and I’ve never heard a prominent feminist defend the sexual revolution on the shallow grounds that it made women happier. It gave them more of a say over their bodies and lives, and freed them to become, as they are now in certain demographics, more educated and higher earners than men. By making the question about “happiness,” Eberstadt has avoided the much more substantive, much more difficult question: overall, are women more free to lead lives they choose and find meaningful than they were before? Are they more able to do so without facing cultural disdain and male harassment? If the answer to those is yes, and it obviously is, I’m much less concerned about whether they are significantly more “happy.”

I don’t believe the happiness question is irrelevant, even if it is thorny. (What is happiness? Are conservative religious women more likely to delude themselves about their choices making them happy? Who says the most satisfying life is necessarily the most traditionally “happy?” Etc, etc.) But there is a reason anti-feminists, conservatives and other traditionalists always jump right away to happiness. Partly because the studies are in their favor, and partly because they don’t want to face the more telling question. Because it’s pretty self-evident that women are better off than they were in 1950. You’re free to think it’s better to have a society where women have less choice about what to do with their lives, less ability to support themselves without a man, and less ability to pursue the education and career opportunities they clearly excel at, but you’d be in a fractional minority of even conservative women.

The reason conservatives don’t want to admit this obvious reality in public is what is behind the profound change, the profound improvement, in women’s standing in such a short period of time: the breaking away from traditional ideas about gender roles and sexual morality. This is in large part thanks to the pill, but it’s much more than that. As Hanna puts it, it is all thanks to “the ability to have temporary, intimate relationships that don’t derail a career. Or to put it more simply, to have sex without getting married.” You cannot have one without the other: if you continue to protest women’s ability to have sex with who they want without getting married or to limit the size of their family so that they are able to do other things with their lives, you have to reject the relational, education, professional and economic benefits as well.

Obviously, the subject of marriage and childbearing is complicated, and there are many factors beyond mores that impact it. But the central question at play here, outside of the complex economic questions involved in the current state of marriage, is whether the gains that came from the decline of traditional gender roles were worth it. And what traditionalists must be pressed to admit is that the positive changes the sexual revolution wrought would not be possible in a world where women must marry the first man they want to have sex with or are at constant risk of becoming pregnant. In that sense, the people who want to keep the gains of the sexual revolution but roll back their conditions of possibility are rightly said to be waging a “war on women.”

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to You Don’t Get to Keep the Sexual Revolution and Give Back the Sex

  1. Sex Mahoney says:

    The recent attacks on reporductive rights are more a ‘War FOR Men’. They are circling the wagons.

  2. Matthew says:

    I’d really love to see this issue fleshed out more along social/class lines. I can easily see the argument made that women above a certain income level are better off in many ways. However, my experience working with a great number of women in lower socioeconomic classes (in urban, suburban, and rural settings) has been that the sexual revolution has not particularly empowered or encouraged them. Perhaps the problem is that the sexual revolution has not yet reached far enough and they simply don’t utilize birth control as often (my colleagues & I prescribe enough of it to doubt it.) In general, it seems, while for many women the disconnection between sex and responsibility it was liberating, for many more it is only disheartening.

    I will also challenge your assertion about “if you continue to protest women’s ability to have sex with who they want without getting married or to limit the size of their family so that they are able to do other things with their lives, you have to reject the relational, education, professional and economic benefits as well.” The latter, for sure. Like I said, I hand out a lot of birth control and I’m happy to empower women to control their own fertility (though, sadly, few women actually see it that way.) However, the idea that anyone ought to be able to have sex with whomever they wish is so ludicrous that it could only be socially acceptable because it happens. I think that part of the conversation has to include that sharing your genitalia with another human being is a special thing and you should only do it with someone that you have a special connection with. I don’t even particularly care if it involves marriage, just that some sort of responsible use of one’s sexuality has been forethought. Without it, I’m afraid, we’re going nowhere fast.

  3. Matthew, after realizing how long it would take to address this part of the story, I decided to leave it alone. You’re absolutely right about the class divide, and it’s very difficult to say exactly why this is the case. I think the Ross Douthat (and maybe Charles Murray) position is at least partly right to say that the pill’s undermining of marriage may have had negative consequences for lower-class women by eliminating the only thing that provided them with some economic security.

    But I also think you’re right that the sexual revolution didn’t go far enough, and that the solution is more liberation, not less. Many of these women live in places where there is little adequate sex education, and the cultural norms still gravitate toward women being man-serving baby factories. Part of this remains irreducibly economic (ie, that women’s liberation painfully coincides with the wipeout of entire categories of jobs that helped middle- and lower-class men be more stable and engaged). The utter chaos we have now is what I mean when I say capitalism does far more to destroy community values than anything “radical left-wingers” could ever imagine. In this system, all the goods flow to the top. I suspect if it were more fair and more humane, the gap between the sexual habits of the classes would not be nearly as wide.

  4. Matthew says:

    What areas do you have in mind when you say that “the cultural norms still gravitate toward women being man-serving baby factories”? Perhaps this is just because I’ve only worked on the East Coast, but quite frankly a lot of the families I see are so fragmented that the men are barely around to be served. You are very right to point out the effects that economic devastation have had (I work primarily in a blue-collar area that lost a lot of jobs when port traffic decreased.)

    I might have shared this here before, but we had a clinician come talk to us about fertility awareness methods of birth control (which, despite the hype, actually have some decent medical data behind them comparable to hormonal methods.) She emphasized that one of the reasons she was passionate about teaching these methods was that it actually empowered women to know what was happening in their bodies and to know when they were fertile, as well as the idea that they could say “no” at certain times of the month to prevent pregnancy. Like I said before, if sexual liberation doesn’t include that sort of empowerment, then it’s no good for women.

  5. Matthew says:

    Of note, not even the sexual revolutionists can seem to agree on what’s going on, it seems (although it doesn’t seem to strongly affect your take on the matter): http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/03/27/debate_on_the_sexual_revolution.html

  6. Brian Gulino says:

    “I’ve never heard a prominent feminist defend the sexual revolution on the shallow grounds that it made women happier.”

    Why do you consider happiness shallow?

    I’m 62, grew up in Santa Monica, California, middle class. When I was 12, I knew only one kid whose parents were divorced. Everybody else had a mom who stayed home. Family life was a lot easier.

    Downsides? More race prejudice. Smaller houses.

    Oh yeah, we all had good, cheap, medical care.

  7. […] Sessions thinks social conservatives love to talk about happiness but miss the larger […]

  8. Randy says:

    Overall, are women more free to lead lives they choose and find meaningful than they were before? Are they more able to do so without facing cultural disdain and male harassment?

    You seem to feel the answer to this question is “obviously yes”. I think you beg the question here. Women are expected to have sex more quickly with less commitment then they were before the sexual revolution. That means their power to say No sex has diminished. Men are now more free to push women into sex and dump them if they put up much of a fight.

    Women have more intuition then men. They know causal sex is degrading. They just don’t know why. They didn’t have to explain it before. They just had to say “baby” and the man would understand. Now they either have to

    1. embrace religion
    2. admit they have no rational basis for their choices 3. make a choice they really don’t like.

    A lot of women have taken door number 3 way too often. That is why they end up unhappy. You say unhappiness does not matter. Explain objectively why you are unhappy or your unhappiness does not count. It is the same deal. Intuitive knowledge is disrespected.

  9. jow says:

    Dave, let’s talk straight here…

    When feminists speak of “society” or “cultural disdain” with regards to how men feel about promiscuous women, we all know what they really mean. Thhese are women who want the advantages and benefits of being both a man and a woman without the drawbacks either sex. Forget all the academic theory and rheteroric. This is about power! Women have a sexual power that men simply do not possess, save for a few rock stars, professional athletes and extroadonarily accomplished and talented men. Come on man, bottom line here is that some women want to be able to wield that sexual power without any of the drawbacks. They want to use their most attractive years to have sex with the most sexually desirable men while building their careers or whatever the case may be, and at the end, when they are ready, they don’t want that behavior to diminish their chances of attracting a quality-desirable man to have a relationship with. I. Believe this is is blatantly obvious because look at the women complaining….is it a coincidence that they are all educated career driven promiscuous women? Top be honest I have no idea why men are averse to forming emotional relationships with promiscuous women. I don’t know why I get sad when someone dies, or why I’m happy when I get a promotion. I assume iot has to do with milllions of years of evolution that took place long before humans cared about anything but survival. I don’t see why male mountain goats would smash their skulls together over and over for the right to mate with a female is is currently sleeping with 5 other mountain goats. Why would he risk his life for the chance to procreate with a female that he can’t even be certain is carrying his offspring?

    Point being, its time for feminists to re-evaluate the idea that men are conditioned to feel the way they do about promiscuous women and relationships. We simply won’t make any progress until they acknowledge that they are up against biological differences that have been created over milllions of years of evolution and they are not going to re-train men to think like women. Its just not going to happen anytime soon.

Leave a Reply

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.