- - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

By Mary Eberstadt
Ignatius Press, $19.95, 175 pages

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate has reopened the contraception debate. While the mandate violates religious freedom by requiring religious employers to offer insurance coverage for contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations, its fundamental justification rests on a moral and social issue: the desirability of the widespread use of contraception. Anyone who accepts this premise should read Hoover Institution fellow Mary Eberstadt’s thought-provoking new book “Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution.”

“No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception,” writes Mrs. Eberstadt. Great applause greeted the pill’s 50th anniversary in 2010, demonstrating the shift from the caution of early 20th century social observers to the full embrace of the technological progress that facilitated the sexual revolution. Oral contraceptives are heralded without reservation as the solution to social problems such as poverty and inequality between the sexes.

In a series of essays, most of which were published in earlier form in First Things and Policy Review, Mrs. Eberstadt challenges this rosy picture, arguing that the sexual revolution has proved disastrous for both sexes. She also contends that the burden of the sexual revolution has been borne by the weakest members of society, women and children, even as it strengthens the predators.

Mrs. Eberstadt draws an analogy between western intellectuals’ “will to disbelieve” the realities of the Cold War during the 20th century and the denial of the consequences of the sexual revolution today. While men are affected by the sexual revolution, its outcomes are more apparent and immediate among women and children.

The children of divorced or fatherless homes suffer lower emotional, behavioral, financial, educational and other outcomes than those in two-parent households. Similarly, women suffer more directly from the effects of divorce, abortion and other behaviors that the sexual revolution normalized.

While Mrs. Eberstadt marshals strong empirical evidence to support her case, she also takes cultural evidence seriously. For example, she draws on examples in popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, which illustrate “sexual doublespeak” by revealing “a wildly 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.”

Likewise, Mrs. Eberstadt analyzes articles on marriage in Atlantic, Time and other high-profile publications. The sexual dissatisfaction that afflicts many modern marriages introduces Mrs. Eberstadt’s discussion of the effects of the sexual revolution on men, seen most troublingly in the rise of what University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Mary Ann Layden has termed “sexual obesity” - rampant pornography use, rising average counts of sexual partners and riskier sexual behaviors.

Mrs. Eberstadt focuses on pornography in particular as an addictive substance destigmatized by the sexual revolution that leads many men to lose interest in physical relationships with their wives.

Mrs. Eberstadt’s claims about the unintended consequences of sexual liberation hold particular force in her discussion of binge drinking and concomitant hook-up culture that reigns on many college campuses, encouraged by events like Yale’s infamous Sex Week. The sexual revolution “continues to reach into dorm rooms with the false messages that women and men want the same sexual things and at the same sexual starting line.”

A keen social observer, Mrs. Eberstadt pinpoints two intriguing examples of what Nietzsche called the “trans-valuation of values,” that is, the moral culture of a post-Christian society. She discusses the way in which food has replaced sex as a new arena of taboos. Similarly, she draws attention to the parallels between erstwhile arguments for tobacco and current defenses of pornography.

Like tobacco, pornography is an addictive substance defended by consumers and marketed by producers as a harmless choice that affects only the individual. Just as tobacco companies eventually succeeded in marketing cigarettes to women, “Big Porn” seeks to overcome market gender imbalance by targeting females, linking “its product pitch to the image of the modern, liberated, cool woman.”

Acknowledging that “it’s hard to imagine wanting to believe anything more than the notion that one can enjoy sex on any terms without penalty,” Mrs. Eberstadt presents a powerful argument that a less ideologically driven compassion would allow our society to recognize the sexual revolution’s human costs. She concludes by reflecting on the startling prescience of the 1968 papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which is often reviled for upholding traditional Christian moral teaching.

In this concise, elegantly written book, Mrs. Eberstadt marries brilliant analytical power with wry wit. By sensitively and honestly depicting the ironies of the sexual revolution, “Adam and Eve After the Pill” makes an enormous contribution to understanding both modern moral culture and the significance of current political debates.

Claire Gillen is a senior at the University of Notre Dame and was an intern with the Commentary section of The Washington Times.

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