The Sexual Counter-Revolution
Planned Parenthood recently distributed flyers at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma, Washington. The flyers targeted eleven-year-olds, informing them that they could have sex with anyone under the age of thirteen, and that their parents were not entitled to determine whether they took birth control or were tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The kids could make up their own minds.
Flyers and sex-ed programs preaching sexual freedom are leading edges of a revolution that has been gaining power over the West’s moral imagination for more than two generations. Liberals, feminists, and gay activists press it forward.
Dishonest catchphrases of “choice” and “freedom” are used to promote the revolution. But when it comes to marriage, sex, family, and sex roles, the notion that choice governs is always an illusion. Every society has a sexual constitution. With the tools of honor and shame, the sexual constitution shapes desire, guiding it toward certain experiences and expressions and away from others. It teaches citizens what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. It determines the rank of marriage, sex, and child-rearing among the goods that people pursue.
Two ideologies shape the reigning sexual constitution: feminism and sexual liberation. Feminist ideologues seek a world “beyond gender,” in Judith Butler’s words. This means formulating laws and enforcing taboos so that differences between men and women evaporate and socialization toward distinct gender roles is prohibited. Feminists seek a society in which women achieve emotional and economic independence from domestic duties and family life. In the pursuit of female independence, sexual taboos that encourage enduring and monogamous marriage are themselves made taboo.
Sexual liberationists want a society “beyond repression.” Boundaries must give way to enlightened, expressive sexuality until “repression” vanishes and people are free to pursue sex as they wish. Love is love. New taboos stigmatize as “haters” those who perpetuate traditional sexual mores.
New obstacles arise as progressive mores are adopted. Effort is redoubled. Eleven-year-olds must be taught to masturbate and to question their identities. Four-year-olds must sit on the laps of gay men dressed as sexualized women, who read picture books to them. Strictures against adult sex with children must be “problematized”—and eventually overcome. Monogamy is ridiculed, called oppressive, and replaced with polyamory. The revolution keeps on rolling, “beyond gender” and “beyond repression,” toward the abolition of marriage and marital norms.
Conservatives and family activists have been standing athwart the sexual revolution shouting “nature” for decades—to little effect. Nature imposes limits, but not in the way conservatives hope. True, males and females act and think differently from one another under our new sexual constitution, in a rebuke to the androgynous hopes of feminists. A supermajority continue to desire the old-fashioned discipline of monogamy and marriage, in a rebuke to sexual liberationists. But the persistence of nature does not portend a return to norms supporting marriage and family life. Instead we get a new man and a new woman, shaped by our new constitution. Neither is suited for marriage and family life as they existed under the old constitution.
Thus, we cannot depend on nature alone. Our new sexual constitution remakes sexual desire and intimate relations, reshapes the sexes, builds new institutions, and leads to a new hierarchy of human goods. Like a command-and-control economy, our re-engineered ways of being male and female work poorly. Liberalized sexual mores disrupt the male-female dance. Stable marriage becomes a luxury good. Family life frays. Both intimate relations and domestic life become dysfunctional.
The only alternative is counterrevolution.
Conservatives must establish systems of honor and shame, pass laws, and buttress institutions that shape our natural inclinations in more humane and fruitful ways than does the sexual constitution that feminists and sexual revolutionaries have succeeded in building.
Second-wave feminists idealized “the independent woman” as described by founding mother of feminism Simone de Beauvoir. The independent woman does not need a man. She thinks her life incomplete if she does not undertake “serious,” “creative” work outside the home. Betty Friedan sold the public a version of feminist ideology that was billed as moderate, but ruthlessly disparaged mothers and wives who dedicated themselves to homemaking. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan asserts: “The only kind of work which permits” a woman “to realize her abilities fully, to achieve identity in society, is lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession.” The independent woman is also sexually adventurous, not “frozen” or awaiting male advances. Men will be relieved, Friedan insisted, when they no longer must provide for dependent, clingy women, or be responsible for sexual initiation.
Great changes in child-rearing, the reorganization of the workplace, and the transformation of educational institutions have brought this new woman into being. Consider education, where girls outperform boys at almost every level. Nearly 70 percent of high school valedictorians are female. Boys fail more, are suspended more, earn lower grades, are disciplined more, and are less likely to enjoy school. Females earn about 60 percent of undergraduate degrees (and have earned more than males since 1982) and a majority of master’s degrees and PhD’s. When men are overrepresented in disciplines such as engineering or physics, university leaders consider it a diversity crisis. Males are increasingly homeless and clueless in this female-oriented world. They will not be leaders of families, much less of a great country.
Most feminists ignore these education gaps, since they compromise the feminist narrative that more must be done to cultivate female achievement. Hanna Rosin, in The End of Men and the Rise of Women, celebrates an “education system that plays to girls’ strengths”: It rewards conscientiousness, verbal skills, the ability to focus, the ability to please those who assess, and a penchant for multitasking. Roughhousing is out; sitting still and talking are in. “The qualities most predictive of academic success,” Rosin writes, “are the ones that have always made up the good girl stereotype.” Her conclusion? Boys should get with the program and act more like girls. They already do, to some degree.
Institutions everywhere reinforce the gender ideals of the new constitution and attack those of the old. Our sexual constitution used to value an education that pointed girls to motherhood and homemaking (among other things). It rewarded sexual modesty and chastity. Both of these ideas are now subverted and stigmatized. Our institutions also de-emphasize what boys are good at. Shop classes have all but disappeared in high school, while white-collar college-prep curricula are given priority. Girls often prefer clear expectations to open-ended exploration (more suited to the natural tendencies of boys). The girls, therefore, thrive in task-specific, credentialing educational programs. College preparation, resume-building, finding reliable mentors and securing internships—young women lay out life plans for achievement. College graduation pictures replace marriage portraits on the walls of proud parents.
Workplaces become more cooperative and personal as women enter them. Employers show appreciation for employees so that all will feel affirmed and validated. Sensitivity training ensures that no one is uncomfortable. Fewer people have workaday jobs; they have meaningful, fulfilling careers (or so they think).
This moral revolution brings about a new woman, but she is not independent as the feminists had promised. No human being is truly independent: The new woman merely depends on different things than did women of earlier generations. She depends on credentials to set her on a career path. She depends on her workplace, where bosses affect the affirming ways of husbands and friends. Her networking helps her get ahead in times of uncertainty. Like “Julia” in an Obama campaign ad in the last decade, she requires legal regimes and social programs to protect and provide for her in the ways husbands used to.
What Tom Wolfe decades ago called “the hookup culture” also plays a crucial role in cultivating the new woman. Feminists do not outwardly champion male exploitation of female promiscuity. But they recognize that career ambitions demand the delay in marriage, which in turn requires a loosening of sexual mores so that our natural desires for sexual union can be satisfied. “Feminist progress,” Rosin writes, “is largely dependent on hookup culture.” It has emotional downsides, but there’s no other way for young women to have their careers and their sexual satisfaction, too.
The old sexual constitution drew upon an Old Wisdom that made realistic assumptions about men, women, and sexual desire. Men desire more sex than women do, but moral expectations once supported female modesty and sustained women’s efforts to communicate the need for commitment before consummation by confining sex to marriage. (These norms were often honored in the breach and varied in different historical periods.) Sex within the purview of enduring relations went with the grain of women’s nature. Men benefited, too. They learned to subordinate sex within enduring relations and to conform to female patterns of sexual desire in ways that pointed them away from juvenile preoccupations with sex.
Today’s sexual constitution, abetted by easy access to contraception and abortion, disconnects female sexual desire from marriage. Women not only have more sexual partners over the course of a lifetime than they used to—they also now claim to want more sexual partners. They engage in kinkier sex than did their predecessors. They are less likely to demand commitment before sex than they once were.
Sexual difference persists amid these changes. Women are still the gatekeepers of sexuality (showing the persistence of sexual differences), but they keep those gates differently than they did before (showing the influence of our new sexual constitution). Women have and want fewer sexual partners than men do. Women are much less satisfied with the hookup culture, since they are more likely to think sex and commitment should go together. Many women justly complain that it is hard to find a good man who will commit these days, but the new sexual constitution justifies sex apart from marriage and commitment.
Feminism has changed women profoundly, but in ways not always consistent with their happiness. And it has changed men as well. With sex detached from commitment, men have less incentive to grow up. Their adolescence extends for a decade or more beyond physical maturation. As it does among women, the hookup culture also creates winners and losers among men. Raw good looks and sex appeal become more valuable. Non-cosmetic traits such as likeability, companionability, steadiness, and trustworthiness leveled the playing field under the old sexual constitution, which required sex to be about more than sex. Those traits are less relevant in the hookup culture. This is one reason the new constitution gives rise to a paradoxical combination, as greater sexual aggression coexists with less sexual activity among young men.
Sexual liberationists hoping for a world “beyond repression” have long sought public blessing for homosexuality. Such affirmation liberates sex from all aspects of “repressive” traditional morality, including the connection between sex and procreation. Public acceptance of homosexuality confirms the destruction of the old sexual constitution and points to the new one.
As society shifts from shaming homosexuality to cheering it, we get more of it. The homosexual is portrayed as creative, someone who “adds to diversity,” while the straight person is described as conventional and a drag on our progress toward a “rainbow” future. Young people get the message. Since 1970, the number of lesbians and gay men hovered around 3.5 percent of the American population in most polling, and it remained there until the early 2010s. The percentage has skyrocketed in the younger birth cohorts, a testament to the power of our new sexual constitution. The percentage of the general population identifying as homosexual increased from 4.5 in 2017 to 5.6 in 2021, according to Gallup polls. More than 8 percent of millennials (born between 1980 and 1999) identified as LGBT in 2017; by 2021, the number was 11.5 percent.
The officious public honoring of homosexuality (remember the White House bathed in the colors of the Pride rainbow?) and subtle shaming of heterosexuality shapes men and women in different ways, a testament to their natural differences. Men tend to initiate sex; women tend to be attracted to men who take the initiative. In man-woman relations, men seek permission, and women grant (or deny) it. In this way, the sexes check one another. By contrast, same-sex relations exaggerate the sexual characteristics of men and women. Put male sexual initiators together, and there is a lot more sex. Studies show that men who have sex with men have far more lifetime partners and have sex more often than do other groups. Put two sexual gatekeepers together and there is a lot less sex. Data indicate that lesbians have far less sex than either gay men or straight couples. The term “lesbian bed death” was coined for this reason.
This points to the problem of sexual obsessiveness. Encouraged in everyone by the new sexual constitution, it is manifested most vividly in gay men. Though data on this question are scarce (illustrating how our new sexual constitution punishes social scientific research that runs counter to its dogmas), the Center for Humane Technology conducted a survey of the happiness of app users. Users of Grindr, the gay dating app, were the least happy of all app users. (Seventy-seven percent were unhappy with their lives). Commenting on this survey, liberal website Vox opined: “We need to talk about how Grindr is affecting gay men’s mental health.” This confuses cause with effect. Human beings want to be thought of as more than mere sexual beings, yet our new sexual regime insists that sexual orientation is the central attribute of human identity. And public affirmations of homosexuality liberate gay men to participate fully in the supercharged environment of all-male sexuality. It’s not Grindr that immiserates; it’s the new sexual constitution.
Over the past thirty years, studies from around the world have observed that gay people have suicide rates somewhere between three and seven times higher than straight people. For a long time, respectable scholars held unanimously that our supposedly homophobic culture caused these higher suicide rates. Yet the suicide gap persists even after the homophobic culture has been dismantled and the new, affirming sexual constitution has attained great power in public life. Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands are among the most sexually progressive countries in the West. A spate of studies from the mid-2010s show that homosexual suicide rates in these countries are still at least three times higher than those of heterosexuals.
If homophobia is not the cause, what is? Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, a novel about gay lifestyle from 1978, a more honest time, ends with the suicide of its aging gay protagonist. His life of partying, drugs, and anonymous promiscuity failed to satisfy. He was left behind as he aged, exiled from the “strange democracy whose only ticket of admission was physical beauty.” Does male homosexual love tend to be emptier than love between men and women? If so, it would be unsurprising, given the role sex and procreation usually play in creating the most needful human community.
Women in love with women have their own problems. Legally recognized lesbian unions in the Netherlands are twice as likely to break up as legally recognized unions between gay men: In Great Britain they are two and a half times as likely. Similar trends seem to hold in America. The reason flows from the natural differences between men and women. Women tend to put a strong emphasis on shared emotions in their sexual relationships. Without male reticence in this area—so frustrating to many wives—lesbian relationships tend to exhibit intense and often escalating emotional demands, which make relations unworkable over time.
The old sexual constitution stigmatized same-sex love, but this was no irrational prejudice, as many allege today. It marked an astute judgment about what makes for happiness and what makes for misery. Old Wisdom recognizes that male sexual desire disconnected from female demands for an emotional bond leads to indulgent excess. Female sexuality disconnected from male obtuseness leads to escalating emotional demands. The rising rates of homosexuality among the young, encouraged under the new sexual constitution, indicate that we are heading toward still greater unhappiness.
Changes in divorce law play a central role in the new sexual constitution. The old, fault-based approach to divorce attached men and women to family life. Women were protected when they devoted themselves to motherhood and minding the home. Society expected husbands to provide for their wives and children. With the imposition of alimony, men paid a penalty for infidelity or gross irresponsibility. The fault-based system constrained the imaginations of men and women, encouraging them to overlook low-grade conflicts for the purpose of maintaining good-enough relations. Put crudely, the old regime fostered magnanimity in men and endurance in women. The man’s tendency to wander was countered by the expectation that he would serve honorably as head of his household. A woman’s desire for social recognition was joined to her genius for relationships, as she basked in the achievements of her husband and children, made possible by her management of the household. Marriage might not answer every human longing, but it tutored sexual differences to the benefit of both men and women.
When no-fault divorce was adopted in the early seventies, many worried that men would use their new freedom to exploit women. It was thought that bosses would leave their wives for their secretaries. But the supposed upside of no-fault divorce was deemed greater: Women would be able to get out of abusive, neglectful relationships. Liberalized divorce laws would, advocates hoped, lead to egalitarian relations between the sexes and lessen sexual differences—central goals of the new sexual constitution.
The real outcome was otherwise. The new divorce regime reshaped the imaginations of men and women, albeit differently—which was inevitable, given the inherent differences between them. When no-fault divorce was adopted in the early seventies, no one predicted that women would file for more than two-thirds of all divorces, usually citing low-level problems such as “basic incompatibility,” money issues, communication problems, and poor personal interaction—not physical abuse or abandonment.
This feature of today’s divorce culture reflects a truth about female psychology. Studies of the “Big Five” personality traits show that emotions and community are more central to female than to male natures. Because women are more cooperative and eager to please than men, they take conflict more personally. Women are more emotionally demanding than men. In one study, 98 percent of wives said they were dissatisfied because their husbands did not talk enough about their feelings and thoughts. Under today’s sexual constitution, all concerned must “share their feelings” and “listen,” and render other services that women naturally both desire and provide. Wives’ needs are socially reinforced, giving them confidence that their judgments are well-founded. She deserves better! Given these factors—brought to prominence by the new sexual constitution—it is not surprising that women have become the less stable partners in marriage.
Across the Western world, women do worse economically after divorce, whereas men do worse emotionally (at least for a time). Sociologists insist that economic harms to women stem from enduring wage discrimination. But the more persuasive explanation is that women are less competitive than men. They prize relationships more than “winning,” which is tied to economic success.
Nature contributes to the emotional damage divorce does to men. Men tend to be more withdrawn and critical—more abstracted from daily concerns and human relations—than women. Most of those who suffer from autism are men! As a result, married men generally have fewer friends than women. Their wives often provide social connections, and their family is their entrée to community. Through divorce, men tend to lose access to their children and to family friends. They report higher levels of depression and other signs of unhappiness after divorce than do women.
Under the old regime, women were encouraged to recognize and appreciate that men are different. The Old Wisdom counseled them to turn to female friends for many of their emotional needs, while appreciating their husbands’ loyalty. The new sexual constitution subordinates parenthood, duties, and procreative sexuality to companionship, emotional closeness, and personal growth. Today, emotional closeness has become the basis of a “good marriage.” Experts (including church leaders) blame marital dissolution on men’s failing to meet their wives’ emotional needs. “Happy wife; happy life” is both a promise and a threat—and men often allow their wives to govern or go their own way, to the long-term happiness of neither.
These changes in the legal framework and cultural norms of marital life have had profound effects. The code of the gentleman makes sense in times of outward female weakness and apparent male strength. At such times, men defer to and serve women as a way of respecting their dependent status as wives and mothers. Today, by contrast, the demand that men be gentlemen has little connection to social reality. Nothing in the present culture of marriage, workplaces, or educational programs confers advantages on men. Men’s disadvantages are underlined by the honor accorded to gay men, the glamorous exemplars of the sexually satisfied and independent man, friend to all and enemy of none. In this atmosphere, male traits of aggression, self-assertion, and emotional absence are often exaggerated because untempered. No one is happy in this situation. Women ask where the good men have gone, and men are less capable of bearing responsibilities or even knowing what to do with their lives.
The old sexual constitution shaped men and women in countless ways. It enforced strictures against pornography, polygamy, and prostitution. Its strict age-of-consent laws, its inheritance laws, and its laws concerning rape had important effects. The new sexual constitution has changed all of this, almost always for the worse, for it produces, on balance, a great deal more unhappiness. The ways in which the new sexual constitution has weakened marriage, broken families, removed commitment as a requirement for sex, and eliminated many of the fruitful checks that men placed on women and women placed on men are major reasons why many of the young are heavily medicated. Sadly, the prospects of countering feminism, gay rights, the no-fault divorce revolution, and other aspects of the new constitution appear dismal, at least in the short term.
So, we must think long-term.
Public symbols are powerful. They express and reinforce what our public honors. March is Women’s History Month. June is Pride Month. April should be declared Marriage Month. We need to celebrate enduring, fruitful marriages, and we should honor parents who have raised children to responsible adulthood. And in Marriage Month we need a marriage flag and powerful symbols around which to rally.
Some conservative advocates for family life champion the Polish and Hungarian family policies. These policies may be effective, but I counsel caution. Economic incentives for family life are less powerful than a public consensus that honors enduring, fruitful marriage. Advertisements that emphasize happy couples (and unhappy loners), happy mothers, and responsible fathers are often seen on TV and billboards in Hungary. Compare this to America, where entertainment features strong women, homosexuals, and gender-bending models. Those of us committed to building a new constitution, one that guides men and women toward greater happiness, must boycott media that promote the rolling revolution. And we must support media that have the courage to be counterrevolutionary.
The counterrevolution we need requires more than public symbols and media support. I can only offer additional preliminary thoughts about how it should proceed. First, the institution of marriage is collapsing among those without college degrees, contributing to degeneracy and despair among our fellow citizens, which in turn erodes middle-class life. Our new sexual constitution actively dishonors marriage, accelerating this erosion. We must be forceful and unrelenting in our promotion of marriage and heterosexual responsibility. Legislators should propose laws that make divorce more difficult to obtain. Immediate measures, such as making fathers the default parents in custody battles, would encourage women into sobering second thoughts about filing for divorce. Perhaps legislators should impose a “sin tax” on divorce, just as we tax other socially harmful behaviors. The churches need to lead the way by reinvigorating taboos against divorce and cohabitation.
Second, the connections between sex, procreation, marriage, and parental responsibility need to be rebuilt. Prohibiting abortion is an important step in this direction. Renewing cultural stigmas concerning contraception is another step. As feminists recognize, abortion and contraception guarantee freedom for the independent woman because they sever the tie between sex and procreation. In social policy, we need to stop funding pre-K and other surrogates for family life. Parents must be encouraged to accept primary responsibility for their children. Financial support should be provided through government payments made directly to parents, not to programs that function as parental surrogates.
Third, we need a new gender ideology, one that restores a workable patriarchy. We cannot go back in time to the old constitution, but family life and marriage can be recovered on new grounds. Many sense the damage done by the new sexual constitution but are anxious not to seem judgmental. They shy away from enforcing the sexual taboos arising from the Old Wisdom. This needs to stop. The sexual revolution rolls over those who object feebly. We must wage an open counterrevolution, a way of life that dares to speak its name.
Feminists portray patriarchy as oppressive. But anyone who sees the world before 1960 as merely and simply harmful to women is a dishonest enemy of mankind. The decline of the old constitution has led to many miserable women and purposeless men. We need a counterrevolution that works for men and women, guiding natural differences toward expressions that are conducive to male-female cooperation and mutual support. Educational institutions, often abetted by overeager parents, cheerlead for female professional success. This needs to stop. Schooling should emphasize a balanced view of work and domestic life, a fitting ideal for boys as well as girls. We should consider mandatory training in military schools for boys from broken homes so that they have a better chance of becoming marriageable men.
The new sexual constitution deems heretical policies that encourage women to work part-time. But being charged with heresy is a good sign when one seeks to foment a counterrevolution. Part-time work allows women to prioritize family life during important years when they feel most acutely their calling as mothers. Three out of four women with children still in the home desire the flexibility to spend more time with them. Promoting part-time work for mothers also means re-emphasizing the role of husbands as providers and instituting economic policies that support them in that role.
We tend to think that men and women will always desire one another. But pornography and now sex robots—two leading edges of the new sexual constitution—may be curing men and women of that desire. We must find ways to keep cheap sex from turning into sexlessness. Easy access to pornography must be stopped, and sex robots should be proscribed.
But we will need still deeper changes in the long term.
We need to sustain what remains of the censuring power of the old sexual constitution. Churches that cleave to biblical teaching are the last institutional holdouts against the rolling revolution in the progressive West. We all must work to stiffen the spines of church leaders on crucial doctrinal matters. Stigmatizing the censure of homosexual acts has played a central role in discrediting the Old Wisdom and ushering in the new sexual constitution. We have no hope of restoring dignity to intimate life and stability to domestic life if we do not insist that our churches sustain traditional prohibitions of homosexual acts.
The rolling revolution has overturned every aspect of gender roles, marriage, and family that our great-grandparents took for granted. It seems unstoppable. But this is to misjudge history. The sexual revolution was born in the imaginations of those who raged against what they perceived as inhumane moral prohibitions and stultifying social expectations. Now that their revolution has remade our world, we can see that it ruthlessly reorders female socialization to accord with the desires of elite women, leaves men poorly formed, undermines marital stability, damages children, disorients young people with the promotion of homosexuality, and immiserates men and women alike. A counterrevolution must destroy this new constitution. The cause is righteous and our indignation just.
This essay was published originally in the November 2021 edition of First Things. Here is a link.