The legacy of the sexual revolution is more subversive than its champions admit.
The death of the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich (pictured) this week has brought many accolades on account of her literary gifts and contribution to the feminist movement over the past 50 years. In her transformation from conventionally married mother of three sons in the 1950s, to lesbian partner and apologist in the 1970s, she became not only the voice but a living example of the revolutionary character of second wave feminism.
The chief legacy of that movement has been brought into sharp focus in recent months by the battle royal between Catholic authorities (mainly) and the Obama administration over the latter’s mandate forcing employers to pay for birth control, including abortifacients and sterilisation.
Old-guard feminists -- including Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius -- are nervous and casting the conflict as a “war on women”, an attempt to wind back the “reproductive rights” won in the 1960s and 1970s with the arrival of the contraceptive pill and the Supreme Court decision decriminalising abortion.
On the other hand, those who regard such methods of birth control as objectionable or morally wrong -- including those who hold that view as a matter of religious faith -- are outraged that the principle of freedom of conscience could be trashed for the sake of a symbolic enshrining of contraception in the pantheon of free health services.
Yes, the mandate is both an overblown tribute to the value of contraception in women’s lives -- in particular for their “health” -- and an act of intolerance towards those who do not value it at all. But at least we can be grateful that it has stirred up a debate that really needs to happen - a debate about whether the sexual revolution that contraception and abortion let loose on society has been a good thing or a bad thing.
As Mary Eberstadt wrote in her contribution to a forum on the issue in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, the legacy of the sexual revolution has yet to be “settled in the Western mind” -- despite claims that “women” (minus, at the very least, the 25,000+ who have signed a letter objecting to it) are solidly behind the HHS mandate, and the sexual revolution to boot.
In her recently published collection of essays, Adam and Eve after the Pill, Eberstadt covers all kinds of fallout from the “sex without consequences” culture that has grown up over the past four decades, including the growing chorus of unhappiness from women writing on such mournful themes as “The Case for Settling” and “The End of Men”, complaining about men who won’t grow up and lamenting the general state of relations between the sexes. If the sexual revolution was such a boon, how come women are not happier? She asks.
Hanna Rosin, who also contributed to the WSJ’s sexual revolution forum, has an answer to that. She says happiness doesn't matter. Rosin argues that young women (those in their 20s and early 30s) are generally better off than young men. “They are better educated and earn more money on average,” she points out. In other words, they don’t need men -- except for “temporary, intimate relationships that don’t derail a career.” She is working on a book called -- guess what? -- “The End of Men”, due out in September.
Rosin does make some frank admissions. She concedes that there is a rumble of complaint from young women about men who won’t commit; that this is because the post-pill market has made sex “very cheap” and turned men into “free agents” who sleep with as many women as possible; which in turn causes women “a lot of frustrating little dating battles” and “heartache”. But that is a small price to pay, Rosin argues, for a woman’s future success in a career.
(Funny how arguments in favour of post-pill sexual culture always seem to hang on college educated women with careers, who generally do find a mate, rather than working class women who increasingly “settle” for the insecurity of serial cohabitation, and bringing up children, much of the time, on their own. But that is another story.)
The odd thing about Rosin’s theory is that it really describes “the end of women” rather than the end of men. The great gift of the sexual revolution to women is not that it has taken them out of men’s power but that it has made them over as the new men. They can pursue their careers just like men. They can have sex without getting pregnant and having to get married, just like men. They can ignore the emotional consequences of uncommitted sex (“And how bad are heartaches, anyway?” asks Rosin) as men tend to do.
When the ache for a baby gets too strong, today’s macho woman can go get herself impregnated with donor sperm at a fertility clinic. And since there’s really no difference between men and women any more she could just settle down with a lesbian partner and save herself any further trouble from the officially male of the species.
The truth is that, if men have become redundant, so have women. One makes no sense without the other. What we have instead is humanoids who come in a range of genders and can make use of their sexual endowment (or someone else’s) in a variety of ways. They can generate or acquire children as the case may be; they can saddle the kids with two “moms” or two “dads” or with other combinations of “parents” if it suits them. What that means for the children simply doesn’t matter. Nothing that comes from the sexual revolution can really be bad for anyone. Get used to it.
Isn’t this the insane world we see taking shape before our eyes? There may have been a lot wrong with marriage and the status of women in the America of young Mrs Adrienne Conrad (Rich’s married name), but cutting sex adrift from babies and marriage was patently not the solution. It has made nonsense of the body and made men and women strangers to themselves.
To refuse to become an active party to such madness is a right no just society should deny to any member.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.