America’s Rutting Robespierres
To question whether the Sexual Revolution has had something to do with the decline of marriage is like wondering whether the French Revolution had anything to do with regicide.
Given that the family held up comparatively well during the Great Depression, and that today’s lower class, while not doing great, is wealthy beyond the dreams of most people in the 18th century, to suggest that the biggest cultural trend in the 20th century has not affected marriage is prima facie absurd.
At some point, you start to feel like the poor man in Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot Sketch” trying to convey his meaning. A change in how people approach sex, relationships, and family has changed how people approach sex, relationships, and family. After all, it’s called the “Sexual Revolution,” not the “Sexual Fad That Didn’t Affect How People Live.” That’s what it means. That’s what it is.
When it takes a Frenchman to tell left-wingers to get real about sex, you know you’ve got a problem.
This is a classic example of people wanting to edit out their ideals to avoid the taint of reality. The Sexual Revolution can only be responsible for the good things that came from it, not the bad things. Or, the Reagan Revolution only did good things for America; the other-than-good things happened for some other reason. Or, America’s attempt to bring liberal democracy to Iraq is in no way at fault for the destruction tearing the region apart.
We Meant Well is not a moral disinfectant.
And if I may repurpose Bruenig’s form, from a conservative perspective that argument often seems to go like this:
1. A liberal claims that the economy has been just terrible for low-income Americans since the 1970s, and that it’s mostly the fault of Republicans or Reaganomics or capitalism or the lack of a Scandivanian-style welfare state.
2. A conservative replies that maybe liberals should acknowledge the sexual revolution (and maybe even especially Roe v. Wade) played a big role in the problem they’re discerning, because one of the most important changes in the 1970s was the decline of the two-parent family, which has immediately negative economic impacts for families — household income is lower and child poverty higher when households are more fragmented, etc. — and also probably longer-term effects on the life prospects of children (especially male children, it would seem) raised in fragmenting homes.
3. A liberal says, no, you’re confusing cause and effect: It wasn’t the cultural revolution that really shattered two-parent families; all those broken poor and working class homes were broken by economic stresses brought on by Reaganomics or the lack of welfare provisions.
4. A conservatives says, no, that causal arrow can’t be right, because if that were the case family breakdown should have been much worse long before Reagan, when people were poorer and the safety net was thinner. But instead, the post-1960s decline of the two-parent family coincided with not-great but still-real income improvements and a huge expansion of the welfare state — not to Scandivanian proportions, but to a level undreamed-of in eras with much more stable families than our own.
Please do not comment on what Douthat is saying until and unless you’ve read his entire post, which is fairly complex. He makes a further point that I think is a big part of the discussion, but one that is rarely articulated: that from a social (and religious) conservative point of view, declining crime rates, less poverty relative to past decades, and so forth, even amid family fragmentation does not settle the debate, because “we think what’s being managed is a human tragedy, and a deeply inhumane social order, that no matter their material circumstances deprives far too many people of a too-important good.”
That, says Douthat, is something fundamental that we can’t seem to agree on, hence us talking past each other all the time.
By the way, if you haven’t seen Carlos Lozada’s perfectly pitched pan of a new memoir by a woman who dealt with her midlife crisis by ditching her husband for a year and sleeping with anyone she wanted to, you really have to see it. Robin Rinaldi is a Madame DeFarge of the Sexual Revolution. Excerpts:
Rinaldi holds little back, detailing her body’s reactions along the way. At first she is upset that she can’t feel pleasure as quickly as other women, but she finally decides she’s glad that her “surrender didn’t happen easily, that it lay buried and tethered to the realities of each relationship.” Her clitoris, although “moody,” was also “an astute barometer. . . . It dealt solely in truth.”
And truth often comes in tacky dialogue. “Your breasts are amazing,” one of her younger partners tells her. “You should have seen them in my twenties,” Rinaldi boasts. His comeback: “You’re cocky. I dig that.” (Fade to dirty talk.) When they do it again months later, he thanks her in the morning. “Something happens when I’m with you,” he says. “I feel healed.” I’m sure that’s exactly what he feels.
One of her oldest friends calls her out. “How is sleeping with a lot of guys going to make you feel better about not having kids?” she asks. Rinaldi’s answer: “Sleeping with a lot of guys is going to make me feel better on my deathbed. I’m going to feel like I lived, like I didn’t spend my life in a box. …”