Americans must finally get a grip on the sexual revolution's excesses

Americans must finally get a grip on the sexual revolution's excesses

Likely most Americans are willing to acknowledge that, as a people, we are prone to negative excesses. We consume vast quantities of large vehicles and empty calories. We disproportionately pollute the planet. And our economy produces massive gaps between the rich and the poor.

So why are Americans unlikely to acknowledge the excesses of our sexual revolution, now nearing at least its sixth decade?

By negative excesses in the sexual arena I am referring to practices and outcomes with regularly demonstrated adverse consequences (and not to its healthy effects such as the normalizing of human sexuality, and the end of the “double standard” as between men and women).

ADVERTISEMENT
These adverse consequences might include, at a minimum, the four-in-ten children born nonmaritally, who will experience, on average, diminished academic, emotional and economic outcomes. Lone parenting is also significantly fueling historic wealth and income gaps between poor and rich, black and white and even men and women. These would also include the 57 percent of Americans who cohabit, despite persistent evidence that, save for “already-engaged” cohabitors, the practice is more likely to increase than decrease the risk of divorce should the couple marry. And it would include the volume of “maybe-but-not-definitely-consensual,” casual sexual encounters, leaving in their wake historic rates of sexually transmitted infections, depression, and loneliness.

 

There are more than a few reasons that Americans might decline to engage on these outcomes. None are terribly noble. There is, first, a persistent myth that an individual’s sex life affects no one else; it is a private matter. This would be funny were it not so tragic. Sex is interrelational, emotionally intense including at the hormonal level, and makes babies. Of course other people’s lives are affected.  

Second, children — powerfully affected by adults’ sexual expression, which creates their lives and their family structure at one and the same moment — neither vote nor donate much to political campaigns. They are a “constituency” with far too little influence, no matter how many politicians speak of “our children’s future” during any election season.

Third, Americans are inclined to believe that contraception and social welfare programs — continually tweaked to boost results — will eventually deliver as promised. But nonmarital birth rates are way up and marriage rates way down since the government began pouring millions of dollars annually into contraception programs in the 1970s. How many decades of failure do these programs get before we realize that separating sex from even the idea of children, quickly separates sex from ideas like future, family, kin, marriage and even love? And social welfare programs — though many deliver basic food, shelter, education and health care, and should persist — just can’t seem to replicate what a child’s stably married parents can do for him or her.

Fourth and finally, there is the role of the law. In about 60 years, Americans saw the legal system move from the use of “sticks” to punish nonmarital parenting (laws, e.g., banning cohabitation, fornication and adultery, which were problematically invasive of privacy) to the Supreme Court’s fawning over a couple’s nonmarital sex in its 2003 opinion in Lawrence v. Texas. Surely, cooed Justice Kennedy in one of the most naïve passages in Supreme Court history, “When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring.” Interest groups wouldn’t fight so hard to get the law on their side were it not a powerful teacher.

Now would be a good time to declare that the essence of the sexual revolution — unlinking sex from even the ideas of children, marriage or even “tomorrow” — has been a failed experiment. To borrow the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, it is time to cease “liv(ing) beyond our moral means” in the sexual arena, by continuing to valorize adults’-first-individualism despite its many negative outcomes.

It’s rather time to face the music and to say that we are appalled at the widening gaps between socioeconomic groups, at our lack of responsibility for vulnerable children, and at the decline in men’s and women’s ability to sustain lasting mutual commitment — all due in part to the excesses of the sexual revolution.

Helen Alvaré is professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.