"Perhaps the most mocked of Humanae Vitae’s predictions was its claim that separating sex from procreation would deform relations between the sexes and “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Today, when advertisements for sex scream from every billboard and webpage, and every teen idol is sooner or later revealed topless or worse online, some might wonder what further proof could possibly be offered.
But to leave matters there would be to miss something important. The critical point is, one might say, not so much the proof as the pudding it’s in. And it would be hard to get more ironic than having these particular predictions of Humanae Vitaevindicated by perhaps the most unlikely—to say nothing of unwilling—witness of all: modern feminism.
Yet that is exactly what has happened since 1968. From Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer on up through Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, feminist literature has been a remarkably consistent and uninterrupted cacophony of grievance, recrimination, and sexual discontent. In that forty-year record, we find, as nowhere else, personal testimony of what the sexual revolution has done to womankind.
Consider just what we have been told by the endless books on the topic over the years. If feminists married and had children, they lamented it. If they failed to marry or have children, they lamented that, too. If they worked outside the home and also tended their children, they complained about how hard that was. If they worked outside the home and didn’t tend their children, they excoriated anyone who thought they should. And running through all this literature is a more or less constant invective about the unreliability and disrespect of men.
The signature metaphors of feminism say everything we need to know about how happy liberation has been making these women: the suburban home as concentration camp, men as rapists, children as intolerable burdens, fetuses as parasites, and so on. These are the sounds of liberation? Even the vaunted right to abortion, both claimed and exercised at extraordinary rates, did not seem to mitigate the misery of millions of these women after the sexual revolution.
Coming full circle, feminist and Vanity Fair contributor Leslie Bennetts recently published a book urging women to protect themselves financially and otherwise from dependence on men, including from men deserting them later in life. Mothers cannot afford to stay home with their children, she argues, because they cannot trust their men not to leave them. (One of her subjects calls desertion and divorce “the slaughter of the lambs.”) Like-minded feminist Linda Hirschman penned a ferocious and widely read manifesto in 2005 urging, among other bitter “solutions,” that women protect themselves by adopting—in effect—a voluntary one-child policy. (She argued that a second child often necessitates a move to the suburbs, which puts the office and work-friendly conveniences further away).
Beneath all the pathos, the subtext remains the same: Woman’s chief adversary is Unreliable Man, who does not understand her sexual and romantic needs and who walks off time and again at the first sashay of a younger thing. What are all these but the generic cries of a woman who thinks that men are “disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium” and “no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection”?
Perhaps the most compelling case made for traditional marriage lately was not on the cover of, say, Catholic World Report but in the devoutly secular Atlantic. The 2008 article “Marry Him!” by Lori Gottlieb—a single mother who conceived her only child with donor sperm rather than miss out on motherhood as she has on marriage—is a frank and excruciatingly personal look into some of the sexual revolution’s lonelier venues, including the creation of children by anonymous or absent sperm donors, the utter corrosiveness of taking a consumerist approach to romance, and the miserable effects of advancing age on one’s sexual marketability.
Gottlieb writes as one who played by all the feminist rules, only to realize too late that she’d been had. Beneath the zippy language, the article runs on an engine of mourning. Admitting how much she covets the husbands of her friends, if only for the wistful relief of having someone else help with the childcare, Gottlieb advises: “Those of us who choose not to settle in hopes of finding a soul mate later are almost like teenagers who believe they’re invulnerable to dying in a drunk-driving accident. We lose sight of our mortality. We forget that we, too, will age and become less alluring. And even if some men do find us engaging, and they’re ready to have a family, they’ll likely decide to marry someone younger with whom they can have their own biological children. Which is all the more reason to settle before settling is no longer an option.”
To these and other examples of how feminist-minded writers have become inadvertent witnesses for the prosecution of the sexual revolution, we might add recent public reflection on the Pill’s bastard child, ubiquitous pornography.
“The onslaught of porn,” one social observer wrote, “is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’” Further, “sexual appetite has become like the relationship between agribusiness, processed foods, supersize portions, and obesity. . . . If your appetite is stimulated and fed by poor-quality material, it takes more junk to fill you up. People are not closer because of porn but further apart; people are not more turned on in their daily lives but less so.” And perhaps most shocking of all, this—which with just a little tweaking could easily have appeared inHumanae Vitae itself: “The power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time.”
This was not some religious antiquarian. It was Naomi Wolf—Third Wave feminist and author of such works as The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities, which are apparently dedicated to proving that women can tomcat, too. Yet she is now just one of many out there giving testimony, unconscious though it may be, to some of the funny things that happened after the Pill freed everybody from sexual slavery once and for all.
That there is no auxiliary literature of grievance for men—who, for the most part, just don’t seem to feel they have as much to grieve about in this new world order—is something else that Humanae Vitae and a few other retrograde types saw coming in the wake of the revolution. As the saying goes, and as many people did not stop to ask at the time, cui bono? Forty years later, the evidence is in. As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver observed on Humanae Vitae’s thirtieth anniversary in 1998, “Contraception has released males—to a historically unprecedented degree—from responsibility for their sexual aggression.” Will any feminist who by 2008 disagrees with that statement please stand up?"
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