Tuesday, February 19, 2002

“The Sexual Revolution: What Women Have Gained and What They Have Lost” was the debate topic at a symposium sponsored by the Manhattan Institute on Thursday in New York. The two debaters were Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Institute, and Naomi Wolf, an author and adviser to the Gore 2000 presidential campaign. Mrs. Hymowitz is also the author of “Ready or Not: Why Treating Our Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours.” Miss Wolf just published “Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood.” The following are excerpts from their debate.
Mrs. Hymowitz: I want to start by mentioning two victories that came with the sexual revolution for women; the recognition that sex is one of life’s great pleasures. The liberators of the 1960s and 1970s, when I was coming of age, massively exaggerated the originality of this observation.
The Kinsey Report of 1948 found a substantial rise in premarital sex among women born post-1900, so there already had been a shift in sexual mores around the country. Half of all women were reporting already having premarital sex.
The second one is that women enjoy sex as much as, perhaps even more than, men. The sexual revolution certainly [knew] these desires need to be recognized and affirmed. I think these principles were unfortunately bound up with others that were less true and less fulfilling.
First, that it wasn’t that sex was just a good, it was a good for everyone every way, everywhere; young, old, men, women, dogs, sheep, it didn’t matter. It followed from that, that rules, taboos, social mores were bad. These things got in the way of individual fulfillment.
In the late ‘60s, we believed that not only would sexual liberation make way for happier sex lives, it would resolve individual neuroses, make childhood happy, destroy fascism, and bring world peace or the perfect state of man, in the words of Havelock Ellis.
I remember a statement by the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin: “Puritanism leads to Vietnam.” That really was some of the thinking of the time: By releasing sexual energy, we’d create a new utopia.
By equating 15-year-olds with 30-year-olds, by equating adolescents with adults, by equating women with men, by turning sex into an act of individual self-exploration, of autonomous fulfillment, we shrunk the conditions that gave sex the potential to help us to bond on a deep human level and to fill the void of our existential loneliness.
Miss Wolf: Taking the position of supporting the gains of the sexual revolution on Valentine’s Day does seem like the dream assignment. It is an incomplete revolution. I’d like us to acknowledge the great gifts of our lives.
I find that in a lot of the right and the institutions of the right, demonization of the feminine and sexual revolution is predicated on hypocrisy about our real lives respectfully and on a straw woman. I will start with hypocrisy. [I want a] show of hands. Who here has never had premarital sex?
[One woman raises her hand]
Show of hands: Who here has never used contraception? [No response] OK, all right. Most of us have had premarital or nonmarital sex and most of us have used contraception. So the reality of our lives is that we are regularly using, living, trusting, taking as a given the key technological benefits of the sexual revolution, which was the invention of contraception. Also the right to explore who we are before making the hopefully lifetime commitment of marriage or partnership.
The developing world hasn’t had the sexual revolution we have had. What are they doing? They are dying in childbirth in their millions because they cannot space their children because they do not have access to contraceptives or to the premise of freedom that you are entitled as a woman, you are entitled when to choose to have a child and under what circumstances and conditions to have a sexual life.
It is not socially acceptable [for college students] when asked about sex outside of a committed relationship to say: “You know what? It’s not always great, sometimes it’s painful, sometimes there are difficult lessons. I really want to be responsible about my sex life, but I have learned a lot from having the right to make these mistakes and taking these tentative steps to explore my human development in this way.” A great deal of what we need to acknowledge is not sayable in a public forum.
Mrs. Hymowitz: I certainly am not somebody advising kids not to have premarital sex, nor would I ever take a position suggesting we are not better off for not having contraception. One of the things we want to see happen with young men and women in their adolescence or young adulthood is they have this period of time to explore who they are. My fear is they are not allowed to do that because they feel under a great deal of pressure to have sex.
Girls [on campus] have told us that the way you meet a guy is go to a party or go to a bar, you get drunk and then you basically decide to go back to one another’s room. They said it was “hooking up.” We asked what that was. They told us “hooking up” was anything from a make-out session to all-out intercourse. They told us it was fairly rare to have intercourse on the first hook-up.
The sad thing is what these women described is that usually these hook-ups would end when the girl or guy went back to their room and you did not talk to each other again. It was a kind of rule that you have nothing to do with each other. Girls would describe their friends sitting by the phone and wondering why the guy didn’t call. They really were not prepared for this. I do not know how you can have real self-exploration under conditions like that.
Miss Wolf: On college campuses, something generally awful is happening. There is a lack of consciousness and responsibility about sexual contact. There is no more dating and very little courtship on college campuses.
Children today 14- and 15-year-olds are being educated about what sex is by pornography. Over and over again, young women I interviewed said [they] were watching porn videos. That is their sex education now. These kids are being pornographized at an early age. That is what pornography is. You don’t talk. You don’t have a relationship. You have action, and then it’s over. So many young women I’ve interviewed say, “I don’t know what happened. It just happened.” There’s an unconsciousness about it.
Mrs. Hymowitz: What concerns me is the bitterness with which women come out of these situations is profound. The number of girls [interviewed] who said boys are dogs, they are pigs. It was a barnyard. We’re not even talking about the frat houses. And I want to know: Which parents are turning on those pornography channels?
Miss Wolf: Although I’ve been attacking the right, one thing the left has been profoundly negligent about is they’ve dropped the ball on family responsibility to provide a moral foundation [for their children].
Mrs. Hymowitz: Today, parenting takes a lot more confidence and self-consciousness and understanding about what you want. It’s a very difficult time to be a parent because our kids are bombarded with sexual imagery.

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