Imagine for a moment that much of the world is living under a set of ideas that has manifestly awful economic, social, and moral consequences. Imagine, in fact, that one of the most obvious things about the world is the negative impact of those ideas on the people who live under them—which is why some scholars have toiled long and hard to assemble an empirical record of the influence of these ideas, showing the various ways in which they are bad for human beings.
Now imagine one more step. Imagine that, despite the empirical evidence about the human costs of those pernicious ideas, many people, including many or even most leading scholars, don't want to face the facts. Some simply ignore the data. Others try to explain them away as artifacts of something—anything—other than the bad ideas in question. Still other people, perhaps most perverse of all, argue that the consequences of these ideas are actually good—as in, they might seem bad to particularly unenlightened souls, but they make perfect sense once one's consciousness is elevated in the right direction.
If it seems incredible that otherwise reasonable, educated people in possession of damning empirical evidence would want to ignore it rather than change their minds, rest assured that it isn't. In fact, this picture of intellectual denial captures perfectly what went on for decades among educated people in the advanced West, over a not inconsequential matter that was resolved around the time many of today's college students were born.
The matter was, of course, the Cold War. Incredible as it seems in retrospect, even to those who witnessed some of those years, the moral facts of the Cold War remained disputed at the highest intellectual levels, especially on American campuses, until about two seconds before the Berlin Wall came down. Yes, incredibly enough—and despite the fact that most other people on earth knew exactly what to think about communism, especially those unfortunate enough to live under it—there was no intellectual unanimity in the West during the decades leading up to 1989 about whether communist ideas and governments, in practice, had proved to be a human disaster.
In fact, to the extent that elite opinion on the subject did exist, it lined up in the majority quite the other way. In universities above all, especially elite universities, government and political-science departments were dominated by strains of what was known as anti-anticommunism—in other words, by the idea that being against communism was somehow worse than being in favor of communism.
Astonishing as it seems today, some professors and intellectuals throughout the Western struggle against communism were outright Marxists. Other took a more nuanced view. They argued that, whatever the communists were doing, the capitalists and governments of the West were just as bad—or perhaps even worse. This line of argument was dubbed by (and deplored by) anticommunist critics as “moral equivalence.” Of course, the most interesting thing there is that word equivalence—which at least implies that the communists were as bad as we were. In truth, though, many other critics of Western capitalism did not think the systems morally equivalent at all. They thought it obvious that communism was superior.
Still other scholars and intellectuals who stood against supposedly simple-minded anticommunism took a different tack. They argued that the Cold War was a “false construct,” meaning that the differences between communism and capitalism were more superficial than they appeared. One subset of this line of reasoning was something called “convergence theory,” according to which the United States and the Soviet Union—despite appearances—were actually behaving more like each other all the time.
I once took a rather sophisticated college class from one of the extremely convinced professorial leaders of this wing of thought, in 1979—a year in which, just for instance, 40,000 soldiers and officers of the Soviet communists marched into Afghanistan at Christmastime and proceeded to wage a war against civilians that stands distinguished in its wanton ferocity toward innocents even today. Yet even events like these did not upend the ideas of sophisticates intent on ignoring the evidence of the time and obeying the unwritten imperative to put the United States in the wrong. If one had asked most intellectuals and professors of the time whether the Cold War was morally clear cut, and whether or not communism was causing misery on an unprecedented scale, one would have witnessed some combination of the responses just described—rounding the bases of denial, heated denial, and damned denial.
In retrospect, this formidable perversity—this otherwise inexplicable act of intellectual abdication—was more than just an outbreak of intellectual slumming. It was, in fact, one of the defining features of the Cold War. The denial stretched across the Western intelligentsia from Seoul to Boston, Oslo to Buenos Aires, and just about every point in between, wherever people clever enough to ignore the evidence could invent seemingly sophisticated reasons for doing so. Such profound and systematic resistance to the empirical facts was dubbed by the stalwart anticommunist Jeane Kirkpatrick as the “will to disbelieve,” in an essay by that same name—a fine phrase that deserves resurrecting in a different context today, for reasons that will be explained.
I have dwelt on this analogy because I believe it illuminates a related problem that so often seems inexplicable in our own time: the powerful will to disbelieve in the harmful effects of another world-changing social and moral force governed by bad ideas.
That would be the sexual revolution. By “bad ideas” I mean simply what many other people regard as good ones: the destigmatization and demystification of nonmarital sex and the reduction of sexual relations in general to a kind of hygienic recreation in which anything goes so long as those involved are consenting adults. Such a sexual world is one that liberationist philosophers have dreamed of for centuries now, and, as anyone on most campuses today can testify, such a world, whether we asked for it or not, is ours today. About that much concerning the legacy of the sexual revolution, there is little doubt anywhere.
What is not widely agreed on, however, is the nature of the fallout from the revolution. Such a lack of consensus is interesting, because the empirical record by now weighs overwhelmingly against the liberationists—again, quite similarly to the way in which the moral record of communism weighed against the communists, even as many intellectuals in the West continued to deny it.
To say as much is not to say that the sexual revolution has caused anything like the Gulag archipelago or some of the other more dramatic legacies of communism (which apologists used to call “excesses”). It is not to say that the sexual revolution is the root of all evil, any more than any other single momentous historical development is the root of all evil. It is to say, however, that the similarities between today's intellectual denials of the costs of the sexual revolution and yesterday's intellectual denials of the costs of communism are striking—and for those who are not in denial about what's happening, the similarities between these two phases of intellectual history line up uncannily well.
Consider just a few of the likenesses between these two epochal events in modern intellectual history. In both cases, an empirical record has been assembled that is beyond refutation and that testifies to the unhappy economic, social, and moral consequences. Yet in both cases, the minority of scholars who have amassed the empirical record and drawn attention to it have been rewarded, for the most part, with a spectrum of reaction ranging from indifference to ridicule to wrath.
The empirical record today on sex ubiquitously reveals the benefits of marriage and monogamy, beginning with the married partners themselves. As the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has shown, for example, monogamous married people score better on all kinds of measures of well-being. They tend to be happier than others. Women whose husbands are the breadwinners also tend to be happier than others, and men who are married earn more and work harder than men who are not. Conversely (as Wilcox's research has also shown) promiscuity on campus appears closely related to educational failure and other problems such as alcohol and drug consumption. Wilcox and the author Maggie Gallagher have also shown that widespread divorce and unwed motherhood—two offspring of the sexual revolution—are not only bad for many people but also costly for society.
Sara McLanahan, similarly, has been doing important work from the days when she seemed practically a lone voice in a liberationist wilderness. Her seminal 1994 book, Growing Up with a Single Parent, coauthored with Gary Sandefur, features on its first page one of the most succinct indictments of the sexual revolution yet written: “We have been studying this question for ten years, and in our opinion the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the children are born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries.”
For fifteen years now, those words and formulations like them have been fighting words among sociologists, with the majority lining up, sometimes ferociously, opposite McLanahan and like-minded thinkers. It's not that they are unaware of the evidence. It's just that they feel forced to explain it away. Such is the deep desire to disbelieve that shapes—and misshapes—so much of what we read about sex today.
Or consider more recent evidence of the revolution's toll. One is an interesting book published a few years ago by Elizabeth Marquardt entitled Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. Based on a 125-question survey administered with her coresearcher Norval Glenn to two groups—those who had grown up in divorced homes on the one hand, and those from intact homes on the other—Marquardt's results show clearly the higher risks of dysfunction and disturbance that follow many of her subjects into adulthood.
This brings us to the moral core of the sexual revolution: the abundant evidence that its fruits have been worst for women and children. Even people who pride themselves on politically correct compassion, who criticize conservatives and religious believers for their supposed “lack of feeling,” fail to see the contradiction between their public professions of compassion in other matters and their private adherence to a liberationist ethic.
This resolute refusal to recognize that the revolution falls heaviest on the youngest and most vulnerable shoulders—beginning with the fetus and proceeding up through children and adolescents—is perhaps the most vivid example of the denial surrounding the fallout of the sexual revolution. In no other realm of human life do ordinary Americans seem so indifferent to the particular suffering of the smallest and weakest. Our campuses especially ring with the self-righteous chants of those protesting the genocide in Darfur, or wanton cruelty to animals, or gross human rights violations by oppressive governments such as China's. These are all problems about which real students shed real tears. I'm not saying their compassion is wrong. I'm just saying that it's selectively deployed. People who in any other context would pride themselves on defending the underdog forget just who that underdog is when the subject is the sexual revolution.
Think about those who are the most stalwart defenders of laissez-faire sexuality in the public square: libertarians, many of them young men, almost all of them (I have in mind the blogosphere) single. This is the demographic in which liberationism thrives, among those generally strongest, in the prime of their lives and operating on the assumption only of the revolution's benefits for themselves.
As many people honestly did not realize when all this started, the sexual revolution—specifically, the part of it that marches under the slogan that a family is whatever someone says it is, and need not include a biological mother and father—has been a disaster for many, many children. Boys and girls without fathers in the home, as generations of studies and social scientists have shown by now, suffer emotional, financial, educational, and other problems at higher rates than their peers. They are at higher risk for a variety of behavioral and mental disorders. They are more likely to go to prison. As another pioneering writer, David Blankenhorn, took a whole book to explain—perfectly titled Fatherless America—not having a father in the home can predict all kinds of unfortunate results. Just for one, children whose mothers are divorced or unmarried are far more likely to suffer physical abuse in the home than are children with intact biological parents.
That kind of empirical evidence abounds for those who need it; for those who don't, mere testimony of those afflicted might do. And evidence abounds, as well, quite apart from the social science. Contemporary rock and rap, for instance, are driven in significant measure by the fallout from the sexual revolution; their predominant themes (apart from sex itself) include broken homes, broken families, mom's abusive boyfriends, sexual predators, and the rest of the revolution's effect.
And just as so many passionate and enlightened people ignore the fact that kids have been damaged by an anything-goes zeitgeist, so too do they ignore this related fact: The sexual revolution has been a disaster for many women. Like hostages in the grip of Stockholm syndrome, feminists—above almost all other interest groups, pornographers excepted—cling to the defense of the sexual revolution. How many feminist-minded students who demonstrate for abortion rights realize that in many parts of the world, including the United States, girls are more likely to be aborted than boys?
Most campuses have made it their business these days to train women against potential rapists. One recent such program at Princeton comes with a nifty online video, showing women being trained to yell and crouch and kick in strategically obvious places. No one would protest women defending themselves. But seeing just how omnipresent these kinds of classes and workshops are on campus, can't we wonder: Would we really need them so much if our campuses were a little less libertine, and the line between a plastered date and a real live rapist were a little easier to draw in the first place?
Though it's regarded as outrageous to say so in our metrosexual, unchivalrous times, women are more vulnerable than men to physical abuse. The empirical evidence bears this out. Women who are divorced or unmarried are far more likely—twice as likely, according to one study—to suffer physical abuse than are women in an intact marriage. To emphasize the ways in which sexual liberationism has injured women is not to say that men are unaffected. But with many men, the sexual revolution seems more like a slow-acting virus whose damage does not become apparent till much later in life. As Linda Waite, for one, has emphasized, divorced men have higher rates of depression, alcoholism, and other forms of “risk taking”—including such pedestrian oversights as failing to go to the doctor.
For women, though, the fallout from the revolution appears more immediate and acute. It is women who have abortions and get depressed about them, women who are usually left to raise children alone when a man leaves for someone younger, women who typically take the biggest financial hit in divorce, and women who fill the pages of such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Mirabella and liberationy websites like Salon with sexual doublespeak.
Just look at any one of those sources, or take in a segment of those women's morning talk shows or a random ten minutes of Sex and the City. All reveal a wildly contradictory mix of chatter about how wonderful it is to be liberated by sex, on the one hand—and how impossible it has become to find a good, steady, committed boyfriend or husband on the other. It's as if, say, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were to put out magazines that were half pitches for vegetarianism and half glossy pages of pork and beef and chicken simmering in sumptuous sauces. If something like that were to happen, people would notice the contradiction. But because of the will to disbelieve in some of the consequences of the sexual revolution, they don't when the subject is sex.
If you thought the will to disbelieve was powerful in the West during the Cold War years when faced with the facts about communism, just imagine how much more powerful is the will to disbelieve in the facts about the sexual revolution. As Malcolm Muggeridge once observed, “People do not believe lies because they have to but because they want to.” And it's hard to imagine wanting to believe anything more than the notion that one can enjoy sex on any terms without penalty. That's part of what the empirical facts are up against here—nothing less than human nature.
Just about everyone alive today—with the possible exception of those who entered that Trappist monastery the second they reached the age of reason and have been living in a cell without windows or the Internet ever since—has been compromised in one way or another by the sexual revolution. Not a family in America (or, one is tempted to say, the entire advanced world) has not been touched or shaped by some facet of the revolution—by divorce, single parenthood, abortion, cohabitation, widespread pornography, open homosexuality, and all the rest of the behaviors that easy contraception, combined with liberationist ideas from Sigmund Freud to Hugh Hefner to the Bravo Channel, have made so widespread and possible.
This fact that we're all implicated one way or another also gives people a powerful reason to deny the true costs of the sexual revolution. After all, who wants to give offense? Who wants one's divorced brother, homosexual cousin, or remarried father to get hurt? The answer is no one, of course—and the desire not to hurt the people who are openly living the liberationist creed is yet another reason for denial.
So how do those in the intellectual minority who are in possession of the facts, who are not in denial about them, break through all this profound resistance? One guideline might be, the same way renegade thinkers did during the Cold War—by never giving up on patiently discussing the actual record of the world as it is, no matter how resolutely the other side ignores or disdains you. At a minimum, stooping to the level of liberationist, Christian-bashing bloggers and pundits isn't the answer. Do not treat your opponents as they will habitually treat you—as if the merest contact with them requires a giant pair of barbecue tongs. An admirable example of what not to do might be a recent piece in the New Yorker about “red-state sex and blue-state sex,” whose narrator breathlessly treats the subject of teenage pregnancy among evangelicals with all the anthropological frisson of an explorer encountering the Stone Age Yonomami of the Brazilian rain forest for the first time. At a minimum, those on the other side ought not follow suit.
What to do instead? For one thing, understand something that may be counterintuitive: We moderns do not really live in an age of nihilism. It's often said we do, and people in despair over what the sexual revolution and other modern changes have wrought often believe it. But contrary to such pessimists, we are not predestined by postmodernism to a nihilistic swamp—any more than the intellectuals of yesterday were predestined by Marx to a dystopian collectivist future (though many people believed that, too). In fact, people do believe in all kinds of universalizable moral codes, even if they often go by other names. I suggest we study and appropriate where possible exactly those codes. In particular, I suggest that moral traditionalists study one unlikely but potentially fruitful source of just such a moral vocabulary—namely, the highly successful and longstanding animal-rights, vegetarian, and vegan movement so popular on campuses and elsewhere today.
For a moral traditionalist, a borrowing of their vocabulary might go something like this. “No, of course I don't hate sex/fun/gay people/love—any more than a vegetarian, say, hates people who eat beef/chicken/pork. In fact, let's explore that analogy a little more, because maybe then you will understand where I'm coming from. And just as vegetarians don't hate meat-eaters, I don't hate people who do things I don't, or things that I think are wrong. But that doesn't mean the matter ends there or that I'm saying these things are a matter of taste only. Like the vegetarian, I think there are serious reasons for my aversion to what other people do. These reasons are moral. They also have to do with health. In general, I think it would be a better world if people didn't do these things, again as the vegetarian thinks. But please understand that hatred has nothing to do with it. Reason and information and a desire not to do harm—these things do.”
Jeane Kirkpatrick closed her “Will to Disbelieve” essay with an important point. She reminded us that, no matter what the reasons for the will to disbelieve may be, it is wrong simply to wash our hands of the matter and allow those in possession of bad ideas to claim a monopoly on truth. “Disbelief in the evidence,” she wrote in the context of the Cold War, “is dysfunctional. It does not correspond to the demonstrable patterns of contemporary history, and it is not, as [William] James said a true idea should be, ‘profitable to our lives.'”
In the end, consolation also comes from this fact: The intellectual divide over the Cold War and the divide today over the sexual revolution another feature in common. In both cases, many on both sides suspected that history had already decided the matter. This was true even of some of the leading anticommunist intellectuals of the day. Jean François Revel opened his 1984 book, chillingly entitled How Democracies Perish, with the equally chilling sentence: “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.” Similarly, Whittaker Chambers famously opens his magisterial autobiography, Witness, with a letter to his children warning darkly of a world “sick unto death,” and he told his wife when he chose to defect from communism, “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” Chambers was wrong about that, of course—even as he was singularly and fearlessly right about so much else.
In place of the historical materialism of those days, which seemed so towering and implacable at the time, Americans today face a different putative verdict of history: the idea that the sexual revolution is similarly a juggernaut never to be halted or reversed. History, however, doesn't absolve everyone so easily after all. As it also shows, the empirical truth will out eventually—even when those who will be threatened by it seem unshakable in their denial of the facts, and even when those in possession of those same facts suspect personally that the historical gig is up.
That's why it's so important to get the facts right, even—or make that especially—when outnumbered by thousands to one. When people look back on this or any other momentous debate decades from now, one of the first things they will want to know is whose corner reason and empiricism and logic were in. That would be the corner of those willing to believe the truth—secured by the research of the scholars whose work testifies to it, whether it is welcomed by the rest of the world or not.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, author of Home-Alone America, and editor of Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. This essay is adapted from a keynote address for the Love and Fidelity Network's Intercollegiate Conference at Princeton University in November.