Ideas don’t only have consequences, they have companions. For thirty years a ragtag trio has been running across the cultural landscape, linked like escapees from a chain gang and causing similar havoc: sexual liberation, economic independence, and reproductive choice. Even as the bad news is that these notions rose and flourished together, the good news is that hints of their common fall are becoming discernible.
Take sexual liberation (i.e., promiscuity). As recently as 1989 the Centers for Disease Control found that 59 percent of high schoolers had had sex. In subsequent years, similar CDC studies showed the numbers dropping: 54 percent in 1990, and 43 percent in 1992. In 1994, the Roper Organization released a study done in conjunction with SIECUS (the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.), which found that only 36 percent of high schoolers had had sex.
A 23 percent drop in five years is notable, if not amazing. What’s happening?
Sexual liberation sounded like an excellent idea in the seventies, when contraception was abundant and venereal disease rare. Why should men have all the fun? Why should there be an unfair double standard? Women’s sexual desires were as strong as men’s, and if they weren’t they ought to be. In fact, anything men wanted ought to be what women wanted too; in the fretful and self-contradictory thinking of nascent feminism, men were scum, but their values were objects of envy.
Although hammering men for exploiting women and treating them as sex objects, feminists tacitly adopted the Playboy Philosophy of sex without commitment as the new standard for female sexuality. But gradually women began to realize it was a bad bargain. If girls give sex in order to get love, while boys give love in order to get sex, dumping free sex on the market inevitably drove the cost of love through the roof. Female bargaining power was demolished. Girls had to fling enormous quantities of sex at boys in desperate attempts to buy the smallest units of love. One teen told a friend of mine: I slept with Rick last night. Do you think he likes me?
Though sexual liberation is still viewed confusedly as something that helps women own and enjoy their sexual feelings, the negative fallout has been hard to ignore: divorce, disease, abortion, illegitimacy, and multiplying heartbreak. Free sex made women feel free in the sense that you feel free falling from a twelve-story building: exposed, vulnerable, and headed for disaster. Thus the phenomenon of date rape, which is largely the result of uncertainty over what the current rules are for behaving like a gentleman.
Not only are church-sponsored abstinence clubs booming, but anti-promiscuity messages are popping up in unexpected places as well, perhaps indicating the mainstreaming of the movement. A popular dating handbook, The Rules , advises women to refuse sex, reminding them how painful it is when last night’s lover doesn’t phone, and what power there is in recovering the word No. And teens in the straight edge movement refuse sex, drugs, and alcohol”while dressing like punks, screaming in hardcore bands, belligerently espousing vegetarianism and animal rights, and having no discernible ties to religion.
While rising numbers of teens are saying no to sex, the most telling evidence against liberation comes from the kids who said yes. A survey published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 1991 asked sexually experienced inner-city junior and senior high students what they thought was the ideal age to begin having sex: 83 percent suggested ages older than they had been. Twenty-five percent of these sexually experienced kids also said that they believe sex before marriage is wrong. (This point of view has continued to grow in popularity. The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute surveys 250,000 new college freshmen every year. In 1987, 52 percent of the students said that casual sex was acceptable; only 42 percent of the 1996 class agrees.)
In the 1994 Roper survey cited above, 62 percent of sexually experienced girls, and 54 percent of all experienced high schoolers, said they should have waited. And, most poignant, a study published in a 1990 issue of Family Planning Perspectives described a questionaire distributed to one thousand sexually active girls, asking them to check off which item they wanted more information about. Eighty-four percent checked how to say no without hurting the other person’s feelings.
Of all the problems that can be caused by sexual promiscuity, the hardest to ignore is pregnancy. Unexpected pregnancy can be disruptive in many ways, but the bottom line is money: a new mouth to feed historically required the care of two, a full-time caretaker and a full-time breadwinner. Thus, if sexual promiscuity was to be practically feasible, it required that women be economically self-supporting, just in case children came along. Otherwise, a one-night stand might turn into a lifetime commitment. A lifetime commitment might be what women would prefer, but that would undermine the noble goal of sexual liberation.
Rather than the interdependence of family life, women were exhorted to grasp the mirage of empowerment through economic independence. As a result, having a high-paying career became the locus of meaning in life. This marked an ironic reversal at the time. The sixties were characterized by rejection of the corporate rat race and the material success and status that implied. Instead, we were going to get back to the land, live simply, wear tie-dyes and munch granola.
The feminism that grew out of the sixties did an about-face on this. By the early seventies, the struggle was to get women into that corporate rat race, which now looked all the more appealing for having been off-limits. If men wanted to spend their lives at ulcer-churning work, never seeing their kids, and dying early of stress-related disease, it must be what women wanted too. Particularly in those early days of feminism, child-rearing was disparaged as mindless work for drudges; in this, supposedly progressive women adopted the condescending and contemptuous male chauvinist attitude toward housewives, and toward the work women have done nobly for millennia. It was a wholesale rejection of women’s heritage and an adoption of masculine values”values that were, in fact, not very healthy for men either.
The two-paycheck family is on the decline, reported the financial weekly Barron’s in 1994; the traditional one-paycheck family is now the fastest-growing household unit. Those leading the charge are the youngest moms, between the ages of twenty and twenty-four. One says, My mother worked; my husband’s mother worked; we want our child to have more parental guidance at home. According to William Mattox of the Family Research Council, these young parents feel they were cheated by parental absence growing up, and 62 percent say they intend to spend more time with their kids than their parents did with them.
While feminists continue to wring their hands over the gender wage gap, the fact is that the gap has shrunk to 2 percent”that is, when corrected for variation in lifestyle choices. Childless men and women between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-three earn nearly the same amount. But a great many women earn less than men because, putting child rearing and family life first, they choose to work at less stressful and demanding jobs.
In a world where women are expected to be sexually available, but also expected to be financially self-supporting, the prevention of childbirth”reproductive choice”becomes a necessity. Contraception is a partial solution to this problem, but contraception fails, or participants fail to use it for one reason or another. Thus abortion becomes the necessary third link in the chain of companions.
The first year abortion was available, about three-quarters of a million were done; by 1981, the number had doubled to one and a half million. Invention was the mother of necessity: something that people had always managed without (often by turning to adoption plans or marriage) turned into such a handy solution it became nearly indispensable. At the same time, the availability of abortion took away one of women’s classic reasons to turn down casual sex, and even made less urgent her insistence on contraception. (I’ll take a chance this one time; I can always have an abortion.) Thus the availability of abortion contributed to an increased rate of unwed sex, unplanned pregnancy, and (coming full circle) subsequent abortion. It also made it easier for career to be moved to the top of a woman’s agenda, since the distraction of children could so easily be eliminated; indeed, it seemed that abortion was the course a responsible career woman was expected to take, while bearing an unexpected child was unprofessionally whimsical and selfish.
In recent years, the number of abortions has dropped slightly, and public acceptance of the procedure has dimmed. An August 1996 Harris poll found that public support for Roe v. Wade had slipped to 52 percent, the lowest point in a decade. The pro-choice movement had dropped nine approval points since 1992, while the pro-life movement had risen five. Polls by CBS News/ New York Times can be compared as well: in 1989, 40 percent of respondents agreed that abortion is the same thing as murdering a child. In 1995, that figure had risen to 46 percent.
But that’s not the most startling element to the story. In the later CBS poll, one particular age group emerged as the most likely to call abortion murder; they raised the average ten points, to 56 percent. The age group wasn’t pious behind-the-times grannies. It was young adults, ages eighteen to twenty-nine.
Roe v. Wade is now twenty-four years old, which means that every person in America under the age of twenty-four could have been aborted. Of course, a great many were; the ratio has hovered around two or three births to each abortion, and over those years some thirty-five million children were lost. High school and college students can imagine every third or fourth classroom chair reserved for the ghost of an aborted would-be friend or sibling. They know themselves to exist only due to their parents’ choice, not due to any inherent value or dignity of their own. Thoughts like these can radicalize.
A study in the April 1992 Family Planning Perspectives stumbled over a tendency of teens to oppose abortion. Authors Rebecca Stone and Cynthia Waszak were dismayed to find that the vast majority of adolescents in focus-group studies were united in believing abortion to be medically dangerous, emotionally traumatic, and wrong. This finding transcended ethnicity, income level, and gender. Indeed, the young women were even more judgmental of other women’s motives than the young men, with some opposing abortion even in the case of rape, or alleging that a rape exception would induce some women to lie.
Contraceptive failure was not seen as justification for abortion, since the possibility of conception came with the choice of having sex. Abortion was called selfish and a cop-out, and associated consistently with words like murder, blood, and death. The authors attribute this to successful propagandizing by an intensive antiabortion campaign (implausibly implying that these kids haven’t had sufficient exposure to the arguments for choice). Participants believed that life begins at conception, and the right solution to an unexpected pregnancy was having the baby: Anything’s better than killing it, one said.
While reading this study one can almost hear the authors wringing their hands. Though they certainly intended to listen, not lead, in the focus groups, glimpses of ideology struggling against professional restraint slip through. One young woman reminds the group of something the author/facilitator had said earlier: Religion is legal; we have our choice. Abortion is legal; they have their choice. Perhaps under the influence of such encouragement, most of the adolescents do affirm legal access to abortion (while presuming erroneously that it is presently illegal nearly everywhere, and under nearly all circumstances). In this they reflect the prevalent American compromise: abortion is wrong, but it should be legal. What distresses the authors is the fervency and obstinacy with which the teens think it is wrong; this may guide their votes later. (Indeed, the UCLA study of college freshmen found that in 1990 65 percent believed abortion should remain legal, but by 1996 only 56 percent agreed.)
For all three of these links in a chain of consequential ideas”promiscuity, careerism, and abortion”an inevitable return to balance and health is beginning to occur. In all three cases, the way is being led by teens and young adults, the most encouraging sign of all. What is eliciting such a change is a matter of speculation; perhaps it’s the undeniable evidence of past failure, the dawning of reality, a deeper understanding of what really satisfies in life, or a renewed respect for the guidelines offered by biology.
Or maybe it’s something else. The authors of the study cited above blamed antiabortion views, conservative morality, and religion for forming the teens’ attitudes, and throughout the discussions religion did keep rearing its threatening head. The authors report, in a mix of headscratching bewilderment and dread: Many of the participants described having personal relationships with God, and some quoted Scripture and said God was the only source of the right advice. The following conversation is quoted:
A male participant said, At the end, legal or illegal, at the end you are gonna pay consequences. Not to man but to God. Cause the Bible warns you of what’s gonna happen.’
A young woman added, Judgment Day.’
The young man replied, Exactly.’
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a syndicated columnist and a commentator for National Public Radio. She is author most recently of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey Into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy.