Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No
Spring came early to most of the 50 states this year—and with it, at least in the political fields, the usual crop of mixed truths, untruths, and wildly growing falsehoods. Let's yank up one of those weeds for a little inspection: the idea that a national "war on women" is afoot.
It's an ideological whopper that demands more scrutiny than it has so far gotten, because underneath it are solid rocks of myth concerning what are called the "social issues." Let's turn over a few of these to see what facts they hide.
In the first place, womankind, bless her fickle heart, is not exactly united on…anything.
Public opinion polls show women to be roughly evenly divided on the question of abortion. This same diversity of opinion was also manifest in the arguments over the proposed new federal mandate forcing employers to pay for birth control, including abortifacients.
Over 20,000 women, from all walks of life, signed an open letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius objecting to the federal mandate. Co-written by lawyers Helen Alvare and Kim Daniels, that letter alone answered the taunting question of supporters of the measure, "Where are the women?" The answer: in impressive numbers on the opposite side of the dispute.
Other leaders hailing from the XX side of the chromosome gap also took public stands against the mandate, including politicians, pundits, professors, editors and authors who don't seem to have gotten the message that they are victims in all this. They considered the unexpected federal fiat a violation of religious liberty and individual conscience, but they didn't think these wrongs had anything to do with themselves qua women. Many men shared their view.
Myth No. 2: If it weren't for the Catholic Church, no one would be talking about contraception anyway.
It is not only a series of popes but also a number of prominent secular thinkers who believe that the birth-control pill has been one of the major milestones in human history—a diverse group that runs from public intellectuals of a previous generation like Walter Lippmann to such contemporary scholars as Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam. As many pundits had occasion to observe in 2010, the 50th anniversary of the pill, it is hard to think of anything else that has changed life so quickly and dramatically for so many.
In other words, this isn't just a Catholic thing. In severing sex from procreation, humankind set into motion forces that have by now shaped and reshaped almost every aspect of life in the Western world. Families are smaller, birthrates have dropped, divorce and out-of-wedlock births have soared.
Demography has now even started to work against the modern welfare state, which has become harder to sustain as fewer children have been produced to replace aging parents.
The sexual revolution has transformed economics, culture and law. Witness this week's Supreme Court case, in which the question at hand is whether an individual's Social Security survivor benefits belong to children conceived with his sperm months after he died.
Even on the religious playing field, this isn't just a Catholic thing. Christian teaching against artificial contraception dates back to the earliest Church fathers confronting pagan Rome. Christians remained united on that teaching until relatively recently—1930, to be exact, which is the year that the Anglican Communion made its first, carefully circumscribed exceptions to the rule. Orthodox Jews, Mormons and some traditionalist Protestants have also pondered the issue and ended up proscribing or limiting contraception in different circumstances.
Which brings us to Myth No. 3: The "social issues" are unwanted artifacts of a primitive religious past that will eventually just fade away.
To the contrary. What we know as the "social issues"—abortion, gay marriage and the rest—are here to stay, and we'll be dealing with them for generations to come. In fact, one might even predict that these vexing issues will outlast almost every other controversy burning today.
That's because they cannot be resolved until the legacy of the sexual revolution has been settled in the Western mind—and this certainly includes the question of whether it has been a good thing or a bad thing. Judging by the state of much current commentary, we've only just begun down that road.
This brings us to Myth No. 4, which is perhaps the most interesting one of all: The sexual revolution has made women happier.
Granted, happiness is a personal, imponderable thing. But if the sexual revolution has really made women as happy as feminists say, a few elementary questions beg to be answered.
Why do the pages of our tonier magazines brim with mournful titles like "The Case for Settling" and "The End of Men"? Why do websites run by and for women focus so much on men who won't grow up, and ooze such despair about relations between the sexes?
Why do so many accomplished women simply give up these days and decide to have children on their own, sometimes using anonymous sperm donors, thus creating the world's first purposely fatherless children? What of the fact, widely reported earlier this week, that 26% of American women are on some kind of mental-health medication for anxiety and depression and related problems?
Or how about what is known in sociology as "the paradox of declining female happiness"? Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey, two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, made the case in 2009 that women's happiness appeared to be declining over time despite their advances in the work force and education.
The authors noted that women (and men) showed declining happiness during the years studied. Though they were careful not to draw conclusions from their data, is it not reasonable to think that at least some of that discontent comes from the feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere—a feeling made plausible by the sexual revolution?
However one looks at the situation, it seems difficult to argue that the results of the revolution have been a slam-dunk for happiness.
It is always hard to disentangle the weeds from the plants in such a large field. But if the sexual revolution has made women so happy, we can at least ask what it would look like for them to be unhappy. A broader inquiry might yield some results worth thinking about, in contrast to the shortsighted political theatrics over a supposed "war on women."
—Mrs. Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a consulting editor to Policy Review, is the author of a new book, "Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution."