The mariners of the sixteenth century could not have imagined that people would ever cross the ocean in anything but a ship. Not only technological facts but also moral facts can seem impervious to change. In many sophisticated precincts into the nineteenth century, few objected to child labor, now almost universally scorned.
Even in the rare moments when people do perceive that civilization is about to change, and change radically, just what will change remains necessarily occluded. Think of the anxious literature of the Aztecs on the eve of the Spanish conquest, so full of apprehension and yet so profoundly unknowing at the same time.
That same opacity about the future marks us modern Western men and women too. We are teleological infants, chronically prone to accepting certain features of our time as “inevitable”—including, and maybe even especially, those features that some wish for moral reasons were otherwise. Secular culture sends the message that religious believers are on the wrong side of history, and even believers suspect that’s true.
Of all the current examples of this maxim, none is more obvious than the widespread and often fierce insistence that the sexual revolution is a permanent feature of humanity, and that there’s no changing the fact that the vast majority of people are happy participants in it. Consider as Exhibit A the secular media’s celebration of the Pill’s fiftieth anniversary in 2010, when one cliché after another conveyed the idea that the sexual revolution is the one social change invulnerable to history. The genie can’t go back into the bottle. The Ozzie and Harriet days are over. There’s no turning back the clock. We can’t go back to the 1950s.
If there really is no going back to a time when pre-revolutionary morality enjoyed some kind of social consensus—so the thinking seems to run—then everyone going forward will sooner or later be complicit. Complicity is the sexual revolution’s best friend.
Such is the exculpatory undercurrent of much ideological maneuvering today, as can be seen especially in the increasingly impatient attacks on the Catholic Church. When will they get with the program? Society wants to know when the Church is finally going to change its ideas about contraception, abortion, surrogacy, same-sex marriage, and related experiments. After all, this is 2013.
Even so, history is littered with movements that once claimed inevitability for themselves. Consider cigarette smoking. In the past half century, the entire Western world has done a 180-degree turn on tobacco use. Only fifty years ago, most people were resigned to cigarette smoke whether they themselves smoked or not. Most people back then would almost certainly have said that tobacco smoking was here to stay—that it was, in some sense, inevitable.
They were wrong. Even more interesting, smoking has declined with the reluctant moral support of many smokers themselves. That is a remarkable journey from social fact to social stigma in just half a century or so, and it raises the question: What happened?
The answer is that people started examining the empirical evidence, and eventually—against many acts of denial and resistance—that evidence changed bit by bit the way most people came to feel about tobacco smoking. The trend toward smokelessness is a fact about our world today that would not have been predicted in 1960.
One can also argue that a similar rethinking is now underway at the edges of the sexual revolution’s bloodiest battlefield: abortion. The small but unmistakable increase in pro-life sentiment among younger Americans is almost certainly due to a technological change that no one in 1973 could have seen coming: the ever more up-close-and-personal sonogram machine. Even a child looking at the sonogram screen says “baby,” not “fetus.”
The late great social scientist James Q. Wilson once ended an essay in Commentary about mandatory sonograms with the simple and powerful words, “Let them see it.” Survey data from decades after he wrote those words vindicate that insight. And if rollback is possible in the matter of abortion, might it also be possible in any other cultural territory currently occupied by the revolution?
Consider another reason to think that men and women of the future might cast a colder eye on the way we live now than today’s people understand. Think of how we in 2013 now look back on the pictures of the gin alleys of London by William Hogarth in the mid-eighteenth century. We grasp them exactly as Hogarth intended us to, but as many people of his own time would not have: with queasiness and sometimes horror. We feel moral outrage on behalf of those abused and untended babies, their neglectful mothers, and the bewilderingly blind society that tolerated such depravity.
In a similar way, it might well turn out that the sexual revolution is spawning tragedies of its own that generations to come—generations perhaps more sensitive or empirically informed than our own—will see differently than most cultural arbiters do today. And, as with the scenes commemorated by Hogarth, perhaps the scenes of the present that will be most deplored have to do with the revolution’s effects on the most vulnerable human beings: the young.
Generations of Western children have now grown up weeping over the moment when Bambi the cartoon deer loses his mother, or the similar orphaning of Littlefoot the dinosaur in The Land Before Time. Like Hamlet contemplating the actor weeping over Hecuba, today’s adults should ponder those weeping children and ask as Hamlet does: What’s to become of those children with genuine “motive and the cue for passion”—those on the front lines of the revolution itself?
How is it going to look in the long run to know that some children in real life here and now are purposefully deprived of any mother at all—created in a womb for hire and legally dispossessed by powerful adults of any right to future contact with the “owner” of the egg or womb they came from? Or what about the children purposely deprived of a father—this, in a world where the emotional, financial, and other tolls of the fatherless home have been calculated by social science for decades now?
Some of these children of the revolution are created with mixtures of DNA that blur the existential questions all human beings are born with: Where did I come from, and why am I here? Even worse may be the fact that when their natural longings surface, and their missing of a mother or father becomes acute, the adults and the society around them will deny that they are entitled to those feelings—deny that they are even allowed to grieve for missing something that all of humanity before them could take for granted. Who will make these amputees whole?
Some of these children are also being created at great hazard to other human beings. In India—the world capital for surrogate motherhood—not long ago a woman orphaned her own two children when she died in childbirth, serving as a paid surrogate to wealthy Westerners. How will anyone looking back on us from the future possibly justify the supposedly mature decisions that put her in harm’s way?
The sexual revolution today has its cheerleaders, its style pages, its movies, and its laws. It does not yet have, or perhaps is only beginning to get, its William Hogarths, its Charles Dickenses, its Jonathan Swifts, its Martin Luther Kings. And yet the dramatic potential—certainly the tragic potential—is all there.
No social movement gets a special dispensation from history, no matter how badly some people want it to. Human beings are not only moral creatures but also rational ones, at least collectively and over time, and the record about the dark side of the sexual revolution will eventually be noticed and affect what people say and do in response.
Over time, many people do change their minds when faced with empirical evidence that something causes harm. Anyone who doubts it should try lighting up a cigarette in Union Square today. In a way that would have baffled most people in 1960, all the talk in the world about genies and bottles won’t get you out of a ticket. Revolutions are like that: more susceptible to the lessons of history and reality than we think.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.