Frequent First Things contributor Mary Eberstadt examines the sexual revolution’s negative fallout in “Adam and Eve After the Pill.” She shows how the predictions of “Humanae Vitae” (On Human Life) have come true in full force. Even non-Catholic and anti-church thinkers such as researcher Lionel Tiger note again and again how the sexual revolution, at the center of which is the pill, has led to “unique problems.”
She notes the main points of that much-criticized 1968 encyclical, and their prescience for today. “Humanae Vitae” “warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessoning of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.” These trends have harmed men, women, young adults and children, the author shows, before she moves on to discussing the changed moral landscape wrought by the sexual turmoil.
This more intellectual side to the revolution’s poison offers the best reading, as we come away with a better understanding of mainstream thinking, and how to offer a Catholic counterargument.
Eberstadt clearly explains that, in step with the sexual revolution, Western society has flip-flopped its morals. Sexuality and food, for instance, have changed roles. Nowadays people have the same moral rigidity about food that 60 years ago they held about sex. This includes the belief that other people should also hold the same views. Yet, judging another’s sexuality or sexual practices nowadays is off-putting to most, considered puritanical and old-fashioned.
Smoking and pornography have also flip-flopped, where people are resigned to the bad habit of the day (smoking in the 1950s and pornography today) and don’t see a way out. Yet the author notes that decades of struggle against Big Tobacco, though highly irritating to some, was well worth it, as most people would agree. An identical fight could be undertaken now against Big Porn.
Eberstadt sees the same basic “harm-minimizing synergy” between producer and consumer in each battle: 1950s smokers didn’t want to hear that their habit was killing them, and the tobacco companies didn’t want to tell them. Similarly today, porn users might know they are hurting themselves and their loved ones, but they turn a deaf ear to such advice.
Eberstadt concludes that the research clearly shows how “private actions, notably post-revolution sexual habits,” have “massive public consequences”, contrary to mainstream claims that what happens in the bedroom is no one’s business.
The social science backing up the sexual revolution is as bad as the ethics. Tradition, particularly Catholic tradition, has much better things to teach about sexuality than Marxist university professors. Eberstadt quotes researcher Matthew Connelly: “The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception, was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they knew it themselves. … The essence of population control … was to make rules for other people without having to answer to them. It appealed to people with power because, with the spread of emancipatory movements, it began to appear easier and more profitable to control populations than to control territory.”
Cultural Marxism, in two words. The church finds itself battling the same people today as 30 years ago in Poland and Slovakia.
Unlike many current Christian writers concerned about marriage and sexuality, Eberstadt does not adopt a shaming stance toward men. She does nevertheless note the much-reduced engagement of men in family and the public arena. For instance, more and more marriages are sexless as men turn toward pornography. The author notes that as feminism and its close partner, the sexual revolution, have taken over more and more, women have become less and less happy and men more and more withdrawn.
Yet mainstream media and academia avoid blaming feminism and the pill. The author finds this curious, given the mountains of evidence to support the claims of “Humanae Vitae” about the toxic results of changed sexual mores. Just as she sees the switch in ethical thinking between food and sex, and between pornography and smoking, so she links reflections on the Cold War with judgments on the sexual revolution. Academics and other leading thinkers in the West, mostly Marxist, remained in denial until 1989 about the evils of communism, even when confronted with the evidence. People today are in denial about the sexual revolution even when faced with the facts.
Yet the author doesn’t give up, and encourages us to address society with the truth of “Humanae Vitae” and faithful Catholic social teaching, proven to have been right all along. “Adam and Eve After the Pill” thus calls Catholics to Blessed John Paul II’s countercultural new evangelization and its transformation of the culture of death.
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— By Brian Welter, who is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.