Are We Better Off after the Pill?

Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution

  • Mary Eberstadt
  • Ignatius Press, 2012; 171 pages, $19.95

As Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s mandate requiring all health-insurance plans to cover contraception “free of charge” to women took effect August 1 of this year, Mary Eberstadt’s collection of essays Adam and Eve after the Pill is timely and relevant. Eberstadt explores the question, “Are American citizens and our society better off after the Pill?” While her insightful reflections were published as stand-alone articles in First Things and Policy Review, and thus lack unity and coherence as chapters of a book, they expound her thesis—vigorously supported by a mountain of social-science data—that the sexual revolution utterly failed to deliver on its promises, from gender equality to greater happiness for women. Given this premise, the research fellow at the Hoover Institution wonders why scholars, opinion leaders, and policymakers remained committed, in the face of all the contrary evidence, to supporting public policies that sustain a revolution that has also dealt great harm to women, men, and children.

Each chapter is loosely linked to Eberstadt’s claim that the well-being of all Americans has taken a beating from the sexual revolution, with particularly notable damage coming from the near ubiquity of the contraceptive pill. Eberstadt notes that Americans, ranging from social philosophers like Francis Fukuyama to former movie stars like Raquel Welch, acknowledge the profound transformation that took place with the Pill. Although the Hoover Institution scholar overlooks the role of the Supreme Court in declaring state restrictions on the use and sale of contraceptive devices unconstitutional in 1965 and 1972, she is correct in her general assessment of the social impact of the Pill. After forty years of easy availability of the Pill, today’s generation of young women, as Claire Gillen notes in the Washington Times, takes for granted the fact that they can “control” their fertility; they fully embrace the “technological progress that facilitated the sexual revolution.”

Legal access to the Pill, then, has been integral to and, indeed, made possible by the sexual revolution. Eberstadt cites well-known social-science data revealing the human costs and the negative consequences of the resultant promiscuity—what Joan Desmond in the National Catholic Register calls the “toxic sexual culture of 21st century America.” Eberstadt refers to the sexual climate on college campuses as “Toxic U.” Having virtually 100-percent effective contraception produced seismic social and economic changes, including delayed or denied marriage, delayed or denied fertility, increases in divorce rates, and dramatically increased rates of STDs. Cohabitation outside of wedlock and illegitimacy are commonplace, with single-mother parenting and the subsequent rise in poverty leading to unprecedented crises—staggering social disintegration, unsustainable levels of means-tested welfare spending, and threats of national economic collapse.

Eberstadt gives attention to exploring the personal consequences of this revolution for women, with judicious use of scholarly journals, popular magazines, news reports, and polling data. While feminism delivered many benefits for women, the “free-sex” movement, which Eberstadt attributes to the contraceptive pill, has advanced neither the fairer sex nor its well-being. To be sure, as I document in Gaining Ground: A Profile of American Women in the Twentieth Century (2000), American women made phenomenal strides forward in life-expectancy, economics, education, and in maternal health throughout the twentieth century. But I also note that measures of personal well-being and happiness, both in absolute terms and relative to men, tell a different story.

Indeed, studies suggest that many of the new freedoms afforded to women since the 1970s have backfired. Although they don’t tie their findings specifically to the Pill, University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have nonetheless quantified, in a 2009 study, a significant decline in women’s happiness since the early 1970s, when the use of the Pill became widespread among unmarried women. Writing in the Huffington Post, Marcus Buckingham moreover suggests that decline in women’s happiness is due not to longer work hours, or negative gender-based attitudes, or even home-work inequalities. Commenting on data like Stevenson and Wolfers’, he suggests that rising levels of female discontent are the consequence of a sexual revolution that chiefly benefited men, not women.

Eberstadt, however, maintains that both men and women have suffered: “First, and contrary to conventional depiction, the sexual revolution has proved a disaster for many men and women; and second, its weight has fallen heaviest on the smallest and weakest shoulders in society—even as it has given extra strength to those already strongest and most predatory.” At the same time, her pithy summary of the “paradox of declining female happiness over the past 40 years” makes it clear that modern feminism has left women with the short end of the stick:

With all the gains they have made with increased freedom and financial independence and less discrimination, women are less happy now than 40 years ago. Sociologists call it a “paradox,” but it is only a paradox if the sexual revolution makes you happy. What if it doesn’t? That’s the radical thought people should be ready to entertain.

A Toxic Mix

Eberstadt is at her best in highlighting both the ironies and tragedies of sexual liberation. She laments the “sexual doublespeak” of popular women’s fashion magazines, a la Cosmopolitan, as they reveal “a widely contradictory mix of chatter about how wonderful it is that women are now all liberated for sexual fun—and how mysteriously impossible it has become to find a good, steady, committed boyfriend at the same time.” Children and young people, too, have suffered. A major legacy of the sexual revolution, she laments, “is the assault unleashed from the 1960s onward on the taboo against sexual seduction or exploitation of the young.” Young people imbibe a “toxic collegiate social brew made possible by the sexual revolution,” a revolution that now includes date rapes, hook-ups, binge drinking, and pervasive pornography. The toxic brew of today’s permissive culture, portrayed by Tom Wolfe in his 2004 novel I am Charlotte Simmons: A Novel, also features what Eberstadt calls contraception’s “permanent backup plan”: abortion. Instead of “liberating women from the slavery of their fertility” as some adversarial feminists claim, the Pill empowered a sexual revolution by absolving men of responsibility and, as Kay Hymowitz documents in Manning Up, left far too many in permanent adolescence. The net effect is a climate of “sexual obesity”—a phrase that Eberstadt borrows from University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Mary Ann Layden—a perfect storm that includes pervasive pornography and attempts to mainstream pedophilia.

An unexpected dimension of the poisoned culture is the imposition of ersatz morals, evident in new obsessions with so-called safe sex and healthy eating, which have filled the vacuum left by the rejection of common-sense morality. Citing shifts that took place in public attitudes toward tobacco and pornography, Eberstadt believes these developments reveal a great deal about our current situation. In the 1950s, pornography was morally repugnant and tobacco smoking was entrenched in the culture. At that time, family-centered morality governed sexual behavior while food choices were morally neutral. Today, the moral valences have been reversed: anything goes sexually, but food choices carry moral significance. Borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche, Eberstadt terms these shifts “the trans-valuation of values,” meaning “the ways in which the existing moral code would become transformed in a social order no longer centered on Judeo-Christianity.” We can only hope that by continuing to shine the spotlight of truth on the sexual-revolution juggernaut, we can halt and then reverse the cultural pollution, the widespread discontent, and the collateral damage.

A devout Catholic, Eberstadt believes that her findings vindicate the predictions of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae: “The encyclical warned of our resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.” The author examines the “historical irony”that “one of the most reviled documents of modern times, the Catholic church’s reiteration of traditional Christian moral teaching, would also turn out to be the most prophetic in its understanding of the nature of the changes that the revolution would ring in.”

All this is well and good, but Eberstadt seems to overlook the increasing irrelevance of such documents for Americans who take the after-the-Pill culture for granted or assume that unlimited restraints on contraception, or in Kathleen Sebelius’s case, federal contraceptive mandates, represent a major step forward for women and for society as a whole. A more effective conclusion to this book would have focused on what Eberstadt, quoting Jeanne Kirkpatrick, calls “The Will to Disbelieve”—a perversely willful incredulity manifest among political liberals, academics, and the legal guild, who all choose to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the sexual revolution wreaked havoc for women and children. But perhaps Eberstadt provides the key to understand that self-delusion when she quotes Malcom Muggeridge: “People do not believe lies because they have to but because they want to.”

The Hoover Institution scholar is not all doom and gloom. She finds encouragement in the way younger members of the sisterhood are becoming the loudest voices against the Toxic U her book laments: “Their voices are almost one in bemoaning their current fate, all of which has been brought about by accepting the rhetoric and empty promises of the Sexual Revolution.” Eberstadt also expresses hope that today’s toxic sexual environment can change through concerted efforts to mount an attractive counterculture. She praises new initiatives on elite college campuses today that are challenging the culture of promiscuity. Nondenominational efforts like the Love and Fidelity Network (founded at Princeton and now expanding to other Ivy League campuses) are resisting the “combined heft of binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and moral relativism on campuses.” She also calls for a recovery of early marriage, a practice that prevailed through the 1970s when the college-educated married shortly after earning a degree. Such a shift would transform campus life today, where “yesterday’s boyfriend has become this year’s one-night-stand.” When students don’t expect to marry anyone they meet in college, Eberstadt claims they have little reason to “invest” in dating or in “romantic” relationships.

Whether this is enough to counter the pervasive impact of misguided law and public policy sustaining the sexual revolution is unclear. Yet numerous surveys indicate that younger Americans are increasingly more conservative than their parents on several issues (pro-life is one); they have seen the devastation of Toxic U up close and personal. If Eberstadt’s recommendations could shift their values, it would transform the culture and restore much of what is broken in contemporary society. For a nation reeling from the disaster of the sexual revolution, there is a glimmer of hope that, just as men and women of an earlier generation changed their attitude toward smoking, today’s young people might jettison the libertinism of the sexual revolution and, once again, view marriage and monogamy as foundations of their happiness and well-being.

Dr. Crouse is the director of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the research arm of Concerned Women for America, in Washington, D.C. Her latest book is Marriage Matters: Perspectives on the Private and Public Importance of Marriage (Transaction).