Politics & Policy

Pill Buzz Kill

A much healthier conversation about contraception

The controversy over the Department of Health and Human Services contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-pill mandate has been dismissed as one having to do with access to contraception, part of a John Boehner– or Catholic Church–orchestrated “war on women.” In truth, it has to do with religious liberty and the federal government’s forcing religious institutions and individuals to get with its sexual-ideological program, despite conscience objections. It has also been presented as a “preventative services” women’s-health measure – meaning that the government has officially made fertility a disease, and pregnancy something to be prevented. How did we get to this point? Is there a healthier and saner way to look at contraception? There is, and Mary Eberstadt outlines it in her new book, Adam and Eve after the Pill. The HHS-mandate debate may not be primarily about contraception, but it gives us a much-needed opportunity to have a better public conversation about the issue. Eberstadt talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about Adam and Eve and moving forward five decades after the introduction of the contraceptive pill.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “Modern contraception” may be “the central fact” of “our time.” That revolutionary?

MARY EBERSTADT: Yes, the sexual revolution really is all that. Name one other single social force that has changed so much about life for so many people everywhere on the planet. Besides National Review Online, of course.

LOPEZ: You note that there are things that could be said in the 1940s and 1950s by sociologists that we now cannot say — unless we seek “to be written off as religious zealots or as the blogosphere’s laughingstock du jour” — on account of “our changed moral code.” Have you been reading my inbox again?

EBERSTADT: I don’t have to, Kathryn — I can already guess what’s in it! Nothing brings out the gibbering hysteria quite like countercultural talk about sex. So let’s put some of it into historical and intellectual perspective.

Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard’s department of sociology and a towering figure in his time, wrote a book almost 60 years ago, intended for a general audience, called The American Sex Revolution. He argued back then that the revolution would have negative effects across society via an increase in broken homes and general dissolution. He went so far as to argue that the sexual revolution would be the most consequential modern revolution for all humanity, excepting only the totalitarian political experiments.

Just imagine any Harvard sociologist publishing a book like that today — or any sociologist, period. It would be academic suicide. The few hardy souls who do venture into Sorokin’s territory constantly risk becoming pariahs. Witness the unhinged ferocity of some of the attacks on recent work by social scientist Mark Regnerus.

There’s more censorship and self-censorship about the legacy of the sexual revolution than about any other current issue out there. The fact is that people today are less free to talk candidly about this legacy than people were half a century ago. That tells us a lot. A mind can be a terrible thing to change.

LOPEZ: Seriously, why are we so obsessed with sex?

EBERSTADT: The revolution is like a big party that a lot of people really looked forward to, but that’s now gotten way out of control. Nobody wants to be the first to leave, and nobody wants to tattle on anyone else — but everybody knows things have run seriously amok. At this point in the evening, we’re like a bunch of drunks reassuring ourselves that everything’s going to be fine tomorrow, even as most people know deep down that it isn’t.

The word commonly used for that kind of willful resistance to the facts is denial. It’s a good word, and everyone’s susceptible to it — intellectuals as well as everybody else.

LOPEZ: Why are so many memorable Atlantic Monthly pieces about sex?

EBERSTADT: Because they’re written of, by, and for women — and a lot of women out there are apparently really miserable.

You could read a fascinating sociological study called “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” cited in the book, to prove the point. Or you could just peruse the last few years of tony secular magazines like the Atlantic for writing on relations between the sexes. What are these women saying? Some are giving up on marriage. Some are giving up on men. Some are creating purposely fatherless homes because they can’t or won’t have a man in their life. And all of them wonder aloud about what’s killing romance and sex.

Why are all these educated, enlightened, relatively well-off women so unhappy, in their very own words? Well, one explanation could be that contrary to what they’ve been told to believe all their lives, the revolution and its cheerleading squad, modern feminism, haven’t delivered the human goods. Read Lionel Tiger and George Gilder and Midge Decter for the reasons why — more people who aren’t exactly cat’s-paws of the nefarious American Catholic bishops.

Flooding the sexual marketplace with competition hasn’t made women happier. It’s just added even more problems to the eternal ones of getting along with any other human being in the first place.

LOPEZ: Is this Adam and Eve book in any way a prequel to The Loser Letters? What would A. F. Christian say?

EBERSTADT: She’d be pretty down with Sorokin.

LOPEZ: The denial “bears comparison to the deep denial among Western intellectuals that was characteristic of the last great debate that ran for decades . . . the Cold War”? Isn’t that a bit much?  

EBERSTADT: Nope. For decades now, sociologists and other experts have built up a library’s worth of evidence about the toll of this human experiment. Yet a great many sophisticated people deny that this record exists and excoriate anyone who so much as points his thumb at it. This is uncannily reminiscent of what happened during the Cold War, when an impressive number of sophisticated people across the West reacted to Communism . . . by attacking anti-Communists rather than Communists.

Of course in retrospect, everyone can see that Communism was exactly what the anti-Communists said it was: an experiment with enormous costs. Nobody disputes that anymore, not even all those anti-anti-Communists who spent their days defending or rationalizing the thing. The point is that as it turned out, a lot of sophisticated people were wrong all along about a pretty important issue that turned out in retrospect to be a no-brainer.

That’s where the comparison to denial about the legacy of the sexual revolution comes in. Right now, those who might be called the “anti-anti-liberationists” are running the show. In retrospect, though, they’ll be the losers in this debate, just like the anti-anti-Communists were yesterday, and for the same reason: because the facts aren’t on their side.

I think that evolution is happening already, in fact. Just look at the recent article in the New York Times, all about how being married or unmarried is a decisive factor not only in income inequality — married people are financially better off — but also, the author dares to suggest, in children’s overall well-being.

That kind of thinking in the paper of record represents a real turnaround. It means that the evidence assembled by Charles Murray and W. Bradford Wilcox and other tenacious social scientists about the “marriage gap” has finally started to sink in. And I’m betting there’s more of that to come as the adverse economic consequences of non-traditional family arrangements get more attention. The connections between the decline of the traditional family and the economic woes of Western welfare states are only beginning to be understood, but they’re obviously there — and again, you don’t need to be a flack for Rome to see them. Just reading a little secular social science will do. 

LOPEZ: Does Toxic U have anything to do with our friend Andy Ferguson’s Crazy U?

EBERSTADT: Absolutely. Andy’s wonderful Crazy U documents the irrational lengths to which parents go in order to get their teenagers into choice colleges. “Toxic U” is my slang for the feral nocturnal world that many of them enter once they get there.

Of course the two phenomena are connected. Mothers and fathers shelling out staggering sums to these institutions are the last people on earth who want to hear about current rates of sexual assault and other fallout on the quad. Here, too, reliable social science abounds, for those who need it. Others can just read Tom Wolfe’s uniquely brave fictional portrayal of this same world, I Am Charlotte Simmons, or any number of nonfiction memoirs from recent years about what it’s like to be a girl on campus these days. Lots of parents won’t, though, because they really don’t want to know.

LOPEZ: What do food and sex have to do with each other?  

EBERSTADT: One of the themes in Adam and Eve after the Pill is that the sexual revolution hasn’t only affected individuals and individual families. It’s also had a seismic effect on mores, even on the very way that modern Western men and women think about the world.

A typical 1950s housewife, for instance, would have been laissez-faire about food, but likely a Kantian about sex — i.e., someone who thought moral law applied to the latter area, but not the former. Today, say for that woman’s 20-year-old granddaughter and plenty of other people, those same moral poles have been perfectly reversed. That is, many people today are laissez-faire about sex, thinking it is strictly a private matter between consenting adults — but they are simultaneously and increasingly morally censorious about food issues. Just think of the passion behind discussions of the rights and wrongs of buying organic, or being a vegan, or advocating slow food or locavorism, or not buying tuna from certain whalers — etc., etc., etc.

It’s a really intriguing turn of the moral wheel, and I think the two trends are definitely connected. It’s actually a kind of secular transubstantiation. People are moral creatures. They’re driven to call something right or wrong, whether they want to or not. My hypothesis is that the post-revolutionary unwillingness to be Kantians about sex has led to this fascinating phenomenon: More and more people become Kantians about food instead.

LOPEZ: Given the seminal event the introduction of the contraceptive pill was, and the ubiquitous nature of contraception in American lives, is turning back the clock, as they say, realistic?

EBERSTADT: The vehemence with which people say that the clock can never be turned back on the sexual revolution is pretty ironic. Just think of all the times you heard that phrase during the debates over the HHS mandate — or the one about not putting the genie back in the bottle, or not ever returning to the 1950s, etc.  

All these clichés are shorthand for one word: inevitability. A lot of people for a lot of reasons want to claim that everything about this revolution is now a permanent fact of life, off-limits for contrarian interpretation. And what’s really interesting about that embrace of the idea of inevitability is that history has shown time and again that human beings just don’t operate that way.

As Karl Popper showed in The Poverty of Historicism, history is not, in fact, on the side of movements claiming inevitability for themselves. Just ask the Communists . . . if you can find any. No social movement gets a special dispensation from history, no matter how badly some people might want it to. Human beings are not only moral creatures but also rational ones, at least collectively and over time, and the empirical record about the dark side of the sexual revolution will eventually make a dent. As mentioned, I think it already has made one.

Over time, many people do change their minds when faced with empirical evidence that something causes harm. Anyone who doubts it should try lighting up a cigarette today in New York City. All the talk in the world about genies and bottles won’t get you out of that ticket.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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