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Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women?

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This is the sixth and final contribution to the Intercollegiate Review symposium “Sex and the Polis: Perspectives on Marriage, Family, and Sexual Ethics.” 

Of all the political gambits that ought to be torn from the playbook once and for all, the idea that a national "war on women" is afoot has got to top the list. It's an ideological whopper that demands more scrutiny than it has so far gotten -- because underneath it are solid rocks of myth, especially myths about the sexual revolution and its real fallout. Let's turn over a few of these to see what facts they hide.

Myth No. 1: The "war on women" consists of tyrannical men arrayed against oppressed but pluckily united women.

In the first place, womankind, bless her fickle heart, is not exactly united on…anything.

Public opinion polls show women to be roughly evenly divided on the question of abortion. This same diversity of opinion was also manifest in the arguments over the HHS federal mandate forcing employers to pay for birth control, including abortifacients.

At the time, and apparently unnoticed in most mainstream reporting, over 20,000 women, from all walks of life, signed an open letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius objecting to the federal mandate. Co-written by lawyers Helen Alvare and Kim Daniels, that letter alone answered the taunting question of supporters of the measure, "Where are the women?" The answer: in impressive numbers, on the opposite side of the dispute.

Other leaders hailing from the XX side of the chromosome gap also took public stands against the mandate, including politicians, pundits, professors, editors and authors who don't seem to have gotten the message that they were victims in all this. They considered the unexpected federal fiat a violation of religious liberty and individual conscience -- but they didn't think these wrongs had anything to do with themselves qua women. All this is to say nothing of the many men who shared their view of the mandate. If this is a war on women, then an awful lot of the troops seem to be working in enemy territory.

Myth No. 2: If it weren't for the Catholic Church, no one would be talking about contraception anyway.

This is another myth worth holding to the light, including for reasons of remedial history.

In fact, it was not only a series of popes but also a number of prominent secular thinkers who have believed the birth-control pill to be one of the major milestones in human history—a diverse group that runs from public intellectuals of a previous generation like Walter Lippmann to such contemporary scholars as Francis Fukuyama and Robert D. Putnam. As many pundits had occasion to observe in 2010, the 50th anniversary of the pill, it’s hard to think of anything else that has changed life so quickly and dramatically for so many.

In other words, the question of the sexual revolution’s fallout isn't just a Catholic thing. In severing sex from procreation, humankind set into motion forces that have by now shaped and reshaped almost every aspect of life in the Western world. Families are smaller, birthrates have dropped, divorce and out-of-wedlock births have soared. Demography has now even started to work against the modern welfare state, which has become harder to sustain as fewer children have been produced to replace aging parents.

The sexual revolution has transformed economics, culture and law. Witness a recent Supreme Court case in which the question at hand was whether an individual's Social Security survivor benefits belong to children conceived with his sperm months after he died. Witness other cases in which children created via rented wombs, anonymous sperm donorship, and other innovations are then fought over in courts of law in circumstances for which the word “heartrending” only begins to capture the facts. And this is only one lens we could bring to just one precinct transformed by the revolution; there are many, many more.

Even on the religious playing field, and contrary to what’s often believed, the Vatican isn’t the only place that thought to wonder what would happen to humanity upon severing the organic bond between sex and procreation. Christian teaching against artificial contraception dates back to the earliest Church fathers confronting pagan Rome. Also little known, Christians remained united on that teaching until relatively recently—1930, to be exact, which is the year that the Anglican Communion made its first, carefully circumscribed exceptions to the rule.

And this wasn’t just a Christian thing, either. Orthodox Jews, Mormons and some traditionalist Protestants have also pondered the issue and ended up proscribing or limiting contraception in different circumstances.

Which brings us to Myth No. 3: The "social issues" are unwanted artifacts of a primitive religious past that will eventually just fade away.

To the contrary.  “The social issues” are here to stay, and we'll be dealing with them for generations to come. The same technologies that have changed relations between the sexes and among the generations will see to that. In fact, one might even predict that these issues will outlast almost every other controversy or supposed controversy burning today – including that putative “war on women” itself.

That's because the social issues can’t be resolved until the legacy of the sexual revolution has been settled in the Western mind—beginning with the question of whether it has been a good thing or a bad thing for women, men, and children. Judging by the state of much current commentary, we've only just begun down that road.

This brings us to Myth No. 4, which is perhaps the most interesting one of all: The sexual revolution has made women happier.

Granted, happiness is a personal, imponderable thing. But if the sexual revolution has really made women as happy as feminists say, a few elementary questions beg to be answered.

Why do the pages of our tonier magazines brim with mournful titles like "The Case for Settling" and "The End of Men"? Why do websites run by and for women focus so much on men who won't grow up, and ooze such despair about relations between the sexes?

Why do so many accomplished women simply give up these days and decide to have children on their own, sometimes using anonymous sperm donors, thus creating the world's first purposely fatherless children? What of the fact, widely reported, that over a quarter of American women are on some kind of mental-health medication for anxiety and depression and related problems?

Or how about what’s known in sociology as "the paradox of declining female happiness"? Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey, two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, made the case in 2009 that women's happiness appeared to be declining over time despite their advances in the work force and education. This was true not only in the United States, but across Western societies, they documented.

The reason this seemed a “paradox,” they noted, was that these same years of declining happiness occurred right alongside social changes like better education and access to contraception. Though the researchers were careful not to draw conclusions from their data, isn’t it reasonable to think that at least some of that discontent comes from the feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere—a feeling made plausible by the sexual revolution?

However one looks at the situation, it seems difficult to argue that the results of the revolution have been a slam-dunk for women’s happiness – and we haven’t even asked about what’s meanwhile happened to men, whose post-revolutionary incarnations obviously have a great deal to do with women’s satisfaction too.

It’s always hard to disentangle the weeds from the plants in such a large field. But if the sexual revolution has made women so happy, we can at least ask what it would look like for them to be unhappy. A broader inquiry might yield some results worth thinking about -- in contrast to shortsighted political theatrics over a supposed “war” that only distracts attention from where it’s needed most, on real human beings.

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of several books including Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. This essay is an expanded version of a column published in The Wall Street Journal in 2010.