Journalist Heather Tomlinson shares her thoughts on the sexual revolution and sexual ethics following a recent episode of The Big Conversation
If you’re a Christian and haven’t yet read Louise Perry’s book ‘The Case Against the Sexual Revolution’, stop what you’re doing right now and order one straight away! That’s how important and useful I think this book is, with its exposure of the damaging effects of liberalising sex and marriage on women and society more generally.
Perry discussed some of the content in her book with Rod Dreher on a recent episode of The Big Conversation.
Christians can get very caught up in debates on the question, “what does God want us to do?” From a spiritual point of view, this is good. It’s important to use scripture to answer social questions such as, “is divorce allowed?” or “should we wait until we’re married to have sex?” To us, what God thinks is the most important thing. However, we sometimes get a bit lost when it comes to the practical implications of our beliefs and how they affect society.
While we’ve been having these arguments in the Church, we’ve not persuaded the wider world why traditional Christian attitudes about marriage and sex are good. Saying “the Bible says so” doesn’t persuade people who don’t care about scripture. Meanwhile, the world outside the Church has changed rapidly. Casual sex is the norm, and Christian ethics such as monogamy, sex within marriage, chastity and divorce restriction are considered very old-fashioned and rarely practised.
The sexual revolution
Since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, ignited by the contraceptive pill and legalised abortion, liberal campaigners have been busy pointing out the difficulties of a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics. There are very important challenges, such as the reality of women forced to stay in unhappy, violent marriages, or being unable to work and have independence. They have won the argument. Now it is rare to hear a politician advocating for tougher divorce laws or restricting contraception such as the pill, for example. Such beliefs are usually perceived as damaging to women – not protective.
Yet now, we have a society with ubiquitous broken families and all the hurt they represent, an epidemic of young people with mental health difficulties, horrendous sexual expectations in the dating scene and the brutal marketplace of Tinder, widespread addiction to pornography and the sad truth that many people are unable to sustain loving relationships. It’s never been more important to argue for a more conservative sexual ethic that values restraint and compassion towards our mates. Perhaps now, the negative consequences of the sexual revolution are so obvious that more people will listen. As Perry says, we have seen “an experiment of 60 odd years” and the results aren’t good.
Which is why it’s a considerable step that Perry, as a secular feminist, has made the case against the “sexual revolution” from a non-religious perspective in her book. She points out how much the breakdown of marriage and the pornification of society have harmed women, especially those who want to have children and raise a family – but other women, too.
She was brave enough to question the dogma she had been raised in: the “liberal feminist” ideas that marriage is inherently oppressive and that women should be able to have sex “like men” – ie for their own enjoyment without consequence – so long as both people “consent”. When liberated of these beliefs that are now so widespread, Perry has seen clearly that women have an intrinsic inequality as the only biological sex able to bear children.
There is no such thing as “no consequence” casual sex for women. At the very least “liberated” women face the physical risks of hormonal contraception and abortion; but also the emotional harm of being degraded and used for another’s pleasure – and a lot worse. So our so-called sexual “liberation” from chastity and monogamy has actually only served a particular kind of negative Hugh Hefner-inspired male sexuality. The “sexual revolution” has been a disaster for our kind. However well-meaning the intentions of the people who led it, the outcomes are terrible, and we need to do something about it.
Male and female
Perry uses a scientific and evolutionary worldview to make her case. That might not be some Christians’ cup of tea, but it’s a lot more grounded in truth than postmodern discussions about undefinable concepts such as “identity”. There are real, biological, physical, meaningful differences between men and women.
Yes, Christians believe there’s a lot more than the physical. But the breakdown of traditional sexual ethics has harmed us in very concrete, real ways – not just spiritually. Her book describes this clearly.
Once convinced of the importance of repairing important social institutions such as monogamous marriage – how can this be done? Perry offers advice for young women, such as avoiding men who are over-sexualised or violent, and waiting to get to know a man before having sex. While I agree with her, I doubt that this will lead to the kind of radical change that is needed.
Conversion to Christ
In a recent Premier Unbelievable? Big Conversation between Louise Perry and Rod Dreher, who is senior editor of The American Conservative, Dreher said he thinks we need more than persuasive arguments; only widespread conversion to Christ will have the power to change society back to one that values chastity, virtue and chivalry. “I don’t think we can get back there without a reconversion,” he said. “Because human sexual desire is so overwhelming, that you need to ground any sort of resistance to it – and an attempt to control it and contain it – in some sort of transcendent morality.”
Dreher speaks of his own conversion to (firstly) Catholicism in his mid-20s, after a period of “digging myself into really deep holes,” involving a pregnancy scare and “broken hearts”.
“I got so disgusted with myself for instrumentalising sex and instrumentalising these women,” he said. “It was casual hook-up culture…I wasn’t a cad really, but I was ashamed of the way I was behaving because it was dehumanising.”
Although he was keen to follow Church teaching on chastity, Dreher found that Catholic and later, Orthodox churches were afraid to teach about it. “If you were a single person trying to live out the Catholic Church’s teachings, you were on your own, because most priests didn’t want to have anything to do with it…I’ve been Orthodox for 16 years and I’ve never heard one homily about Christian sexual teaching, even though it is at the centre of so much despair and disorder.”
Perry seems more open-minded about what it would take to change society. She argues that people have choices about sexual behaviour: “Individuals still have an enormous amount of decision-making power,” she says. “It is completely possible for any reader of my book to just decide to live differently…people can still get married, people can still be monogamous, people can still forgo premarital sex.”
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At the very least the Church needs to start making the case again. At present, many churches seem afraid of being perceived as conservative, judgemental or outdated. “The assumption from many British Christians and from the Church of England in general is that the Church has to…meet the progressive culture, and that liberalising Church teachings is the way to get people through the door,” said Perry. “I suppose maybe in some circumstances that might be working, but I know a surprising number of young Catholic converts…people who have felt so dispirited by mainstream culture and actually are longing for more…something clearer and more deliberately rigid…that seems to offer access to the wisdom of the past.”
But these converts are empowered by the spiritual reality of their new faith. Perry thinks that younger generations are so sick of the toxicity around sex that change can come through discussion and debate. She calls a return to traditional ethics “a sexual re-enchantment process” and says that radical change “is pushing on an open door, because it’s what people feel”. For her, the issue is “how to frame it in an ideological way…that de-Christianised people could accept”.
Is it possible to turn back the clock without real and genuine acceptance of faith and trust in God? At the very least we need to let people know that there is an alternative to the sexual mess that we find ourselves in – and Perry’s book articulates it brilliantly.
To hear Louise Perry and Rod Dreher discuss the sexual revolution in greater detail, watch episode 2 of the most recent The Big Conversation series.
Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. You can find her on twitter @HeatherTomli or through her blog http://www.heathert.org