Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, by Mary Eberstadt (Ignatius, 175 pp., $19.95)
“Ready for some contraception?” he asks as he stands and holds out his hand to me. . . . “I’m so glad you’re here,” he whispers. “I can’t wait to get you naked.”
Isn’t it romantic?
“Dr. Greene is coming to sort you out,” Christian Grey tells Anastasia Steele, his 22-year-old “submissive,” in another pivotal scene involving contraception in the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey sadomasochism trilogy that’s been dubbed “mommy porn” for its popularity among — to borrow a phrase — desperate housewives. The book’s plot depends on contraception: There’s no fun for billionaire businessman Grey until the “best ob-gyn in Seattle” has provided that most liberating pill.
“Did you take your pill?”
“I need to take my pill.”
“Alarm for my pill.”
So goes the dialogue in this (need I say, abysmally written?) series. There is no mistaking what makes the characters’ deeply unhealthy relationship possible: modern contraceptives. The “liberation” oozes from the book’s pages.
Christian peremptorily announces the doctor’s contraceptive house call to Anastasia. She is peeved:
“It’s my body,” I mutter, annoyed that he hasn’t asked me.
“It’s mine, too,” he whispers.
I gaze up at him. . . . Yes, my body is his. . . . He knows it better than I do.
Why are unhappy married women drawn to this (“my body is his”? way to go, feminism!)? Why are unhappy single women declaring the death of marriage (see “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” Atlantic Monthly)? And what do women want, anyway? These are the topics of Mary Eberstadt’s important and provocative book Adam and Eve after the Pill.
“Sex is easier had than ever before; but the opposite appears true for romance,” Eberstadt writes:
This is perhaps the central enigma that modern men and women are up against: romantic want in a time of sexual plenty. Perhaps some of the modern misery of which so many women today so authentically speak is springing [from] . . . a sexual flood — a torrent of poisonous imagery, beginning now for many in childhood, that has engulfed women and men, only to beach them eventually somewhere alone and apart, far from the reach of one another.
This strangely austere sexualization, Eberstadt contends, has its roots in one specific historic development: “No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.” The post-pill Sexual Revolution has made people “happy” in one very limited sense: “It has freed the consumers of modern contraceptives from the natural consequences of their sexual behavior.” But she compares this happiness to that of smokers: It’s fun while it lasts, but often has devastating results.
Eberstadt discusses decades’ worth of evidence about “the negative empirical fallout from the Sexual Revolution,” and the entrenched denial that this evidence has met with in academia and in the media. She compares it to the deep denial among Western intellectuals, a few decades ago, about the true nature of the Soviet Union. Eberstadt hastens to add that she does not intend a reductio ad Stalinem — she’s not comparing the hook-up culture on campus to the Gulag. But in both cases, there’s denial and willful ignorance. Some of us are asleep, ignoring the “harmful effects” of the “destigmatization and demystification of nonmarital sex and the reduction of sexual relations in general to a kind of hygienic recreation in which anything goes so long as those involved are consenting adults.” Those who sound the alarm are dismissed: Woe to the academic who dares to study the effects on family life, and the politician who dares to talk about them.
“Destigmatization,” “demystification,” “hygienic”: What’s the harm in any of that? Eberstadt lists some of the consequences of the mindset represented by those phrases:
The young women on campus and elsewhere exploited by men whose expectations have been warped by the revolution’s false promises; the older women who bought the revolution’s rhetoric of sexual equality, only to find too late that marriage and motherhood won’t be for them; the men caught in one or another back room at the revolution’s wild party, who discovered, also too late, that they couldn’t get back home again after all. And . . . the children who have faced, and continue to face, all manner of higher risks in their lives because the Sexual Revolution helped to disrupt their lives.
And pornography surely isn’t helping matters. “The widespread gorging on pornographic imagery,” she writes, is “deleterious and unhealthy.” Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has phrased the danger inherent in a pornified society as follows: “Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.”
The Sexual Revolution ushered in a new normal for sex, one in which non-committed sex, contraception, and abortion have become intimately bound up with one another — and, not coincidentally, with widespread social and marital unhappiness. In the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor remarked that “people have organized intimate relationships, and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.” George Mason University law professor Helen Alvaré has pointed out that, in turn, the greater availability of abortion “has led to expectations of more uncommitted sexual encounters . . . and thereby to more sexually transmitted infections, more nonmarital pregnancies and births, and more abortions.” This is a vicious circle, and one with tragic consequences.
Political developments during the Obama presidency give further urgent cause for reflection. In the Department of Health and Human Services mandate of insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, the administration has institutionalized the values of the Sexual Revolution. When opponents of the mandate talk about religious freedom, the White House insists that its opposition is waging a “war on women”: If you object, in conscience, to paying for contraceptives, you are striking at the heart of women’s liberty and self-respect. Never mind that birth control is ubiquitous, and that no woman in America who wants it is being deprived of it. Mandatory, near-universal contraception coverage: This is the post-revolutionary definition of freedom.
The Sexual Revolution may be the central social fact of our time, and, as Eberstadt points out, “just about everyone alive today” is “implicated in one way or another” — through divorce, single parenthood, abortion, cohabitation, and other widespread phenomena. But Eberstadt sees signs of hope: She writes, for example, about pastoral, psychiatric, and technological efforts to help people break the porn habit.
A stark contrast, on one recent midsummer night in Manhattan, also suggests an answer to our troubles. Women passing through a commuting hub had the opportunity to meet Megan Hart, a bestselling erotic-fiction author. In the station and on their homebound trains, they would have been bombarded with ads offering “reproductive health” assistance, the tension of encouraged and expected choices hanging over their lives like a dark commercial fog. But — just a short cab ride away from that commuting hub — self-possessed twentysomethings were gathering in trendy SoHo for their weekly “Love and Responsibility” session, where they walk through the lectures of the late Pope John Paul II on sexuality. If the Fifty Shades/erotica audience represents a cultural cry for help, the Millennials downtown are a portrait of a generation that wants — and may even insist on — something better.
Call them dissidents. They’re not quite Václav Havel, not yet at least. But they’re looking for truth, in their dating lives as much as anywhere. Those of us who question today’s sexual pieties aren’t trying to hurt anybody, or wage a prudish crusade against anybody’s freedom. But the truth is out there — not just in social science, but in the lived experience of real people. It’s an ailing culture as prescribed by the poisoned pill of modern contraception. Continued denial will only add to the pain, as the clock ticks; the mouse is clicked; and happiness eludes another generation.