Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

E. B. White and James Thurber’s prescient satire of the sexual revolution in America, Is Sex Necessary?, was published in 1929, just before things really got going. It reminds us that sex was already understood as an arena of contest between the individual and society. Social order meant channeling and concealing our sexual emotions, and adhering to the unspoken agreement not to talk about them, at least not directly and in explicit terms. People might do unconventional things in private; but going public was taboo. Of course, Freud and the Freudians had upset things, but they discussed the matter in medical language that neutralized the appeal of the things they described. Apart from a few rude novelists like Henry Miller, Americans believed that decency forbade us from making a show of our inclinations and that the norms of middle-­class society should continue undisturbed.

That was as true on the left as on the right, and it remained true during the rise of the baby boomers after the Second World War. The liberal causes of the sixties and seventies were enshrined in the civil-rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. They were protests on behalf of social justice at home and peace in the world. The idea that politics was really about sex, and about the liberation of the individual from the constraints of the bourgeois family, was a European import, which had little or no bearing on the issues of the day. The protesting voices of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Joan Baez, and Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the American people as a society of families still unsure “what to tell parents” about sex.

But Thurber and White’s prophecy of a new sexual politics was about to be fulfilled. Beginning in the fifties, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and Herbert Marcuse implanted their infectious synthesis of Marx and Freud, which identified the liberation of the oppressed classes with the life of sexual freedom that these new gurus were intent on enjoying. And the Kinsey Reports, the first of which was issued in 1948, led many Americans to believe that everybody was doing it, so it was time to get a share of the action.

Sex, however widely enjoyed by activists, was not at the forefront of the radical causes of the sixties and seventies. But those causes entered a kind of stalemate as people on the left came to believe that, short of protesting over individual cases of racist behaviour and defending affirmative action against legal challenges, there was nothing further to be done to improve the status of African Americans. Withdrawal from Vietnam put an end to that cause, and the apparent futility of the war led to isolationist feelings across the political spectrum, which lasted until the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. By the end of the protest culture of the 1970s, sexual liberation had moved to the top of the liberal agenda, for the reason that there was nothing left to put ahead of it.

Sexual liberation is not a simple matter, however. Wilhelm Reich, the pioneer, writing in the 1930s, believed that orgasm is the answer. But he never defined the question. His cranky therapies were very ob­viously an expression of his own sexual obsession, and apart from a few loners, nobody now pays attention to them.

But the question remains: If sex is liberated, what is it liberated from, and what is it liberated to? The lack of a clear answer soon became obvious in the feminist movement. Do women liberate themselves by taking multiple partners, defying the conventions enshrined in marriage, and having children at random by the men whose embraces they enjoy? Or does this not frustrate a deeper need for a stable family? Have women benefited from a liberation that enables men to abandon them at will, or are they merely the more completely enslaved by this? Easy divorce has meant that a woman’s power to retain the father of her children and the protector of her home has been removed from her. Is that a gain in freedom, or a loss? And if liberation is a matter of being free to have multiple partners, what kind of freedom does this bestow on the unattractive and the shy?

Those are real questions, and the first effect of them was to give rise, within the women’s movement, to another and more radical bid for sexual liberation. Not liberation with men, but liberation from men. If sexual liberation means living without sexual norms, pursuing pleasure in whatever way it arises, what is so special about men? Why take the risk of putting yourself in the hands of a dominant partner, whose track record in self-assertion beats that of all women beneath Cleopatra and Catherine the Great on the social scale? And so one bloc of the women’s movement began to morph into lesbian activism. With a woman you are safe: She won’t use sexual pleasure as a means of enslavement, but will acknowledge its true character, as a form of mutual bonding, in which partners enjoy equal freedom and equal rights.

However, that attempt to recapture, in altered form, the loving heart of sexual union and to incorporate it into a new kind of domesticity was, from the point of view of the sexual revolution, an anomaly. In the works of Reich, Marcuse, and Fromm, liberation is regarded as a release of the true self, the inner self, from the shackles of bourgeois society, and the purpose of this release is not some new form of domesticity, since that is merely a new form of enslavement. The purpose is self-expression—and in particular the pursuit of pleasures that are self-enhancing, though forbidden by the social norms.

The same view is propagated by the Kinsey ­Reports. Widely regarded now as works of fiction, the reports are nevertheless emphatic concerning two points that have become orthodoxies. The first is that sex is about pleasure, and that sexual pleasure is sensory, localised in the “erogenous zones,” available in a variety of ways and with a variety of partners. The second is that this pleasure is, in itself, morally neutral. The attempt to stamp out any particular form of it, or any particular means to obtaining it, is therefore a gross violation of individual liberty, and an act of oppression.

Freudian psychology fed into those two beliefs. For, although Freud’s views developed in time, it was Freud who popularized, in his earlier writings, the idea of the “erogenous zone,” and gave a reductive description of sexual pleasure as a bodily sensation. The ideal of sexual liberation was inspired in part by Freud’s theory of repression, which describes sexual desire as a kind of hydraulic force, which will burst out in surprising places unless “repressed” by the superego. The imagery here was far more potent than the reality, since it led to a completely new vision of sexual behavior. Sex was henceforth seen as the release of desires welling up from the “real me” inside. To release those desires is to produce a harmless, localized pleasure. To repress them is to “bottle up” urges that become dangerous when contained and not allowed to flow freely. To deny their release is to repress them, and repression of the sexual urge is also oppression of the individual.

Repression replaces oppression as the malignant political force. And since it is a force exercised on behalf of the old forms of domestic union, it is clear that repression is part of the bourgeois order, to be overthrown for the sake of inner freedom. A new revolutionary agenda therefore emerged in the works of Marcuse and Reich. This agenda had the form of Marxism without the content. And it had this one immense advantage over the old Marxist ideas, which is that the new kind of revolution could be achieved on your own, without a mass movement of supporters, and without doing much more than seducing whoever was needed to take part in the game.

It is for this reason, I believe, that sexual liberation has not only crept to the top of the liberal agenda but also remained there. Earlier liberal causes were causes on behalf of others. The enslaved, the workers, ethnic minorities, women, the wretched of the earth—all stood in need of the campaign that would free them from their shackles. Liberal politics was a matter of combining with others to release each new set of victims. By contrast the cause of sexual liberation is fought on behalf not of others but of the self, at once more abstract and more intimate than any victim discovered in the outside world. Hence this is a cause that can be fought and won on your own. Disillusion with radical politics of a more altruistic kind is therefore compensated for by a new radical politics that is entirely self-centered: politics against the others, whose staid morality stands as a barrier to individual fulfillment, and politics on behalf of the real me whose right to pleasure has been stolen.

In the revolutions of 1968, and in particular that which had its epicenter in Paris in May 1968, we already see the beginnings of this shift in focus. The “others” on whose behalf the revolution was fought were vaguely and irresolutely defined. The workers were at first proposed as the beneficiaries, on the understanding that, being inarticulate, they need not be consulted. When the workers began to protest against the students who were burning their cars, however, the proletariat rapidly disappeared from the agenda. It became easier to protest on behalf of the distant and unknown peasants of Vietnam and Cambodia than any victims closer to hand. The safest bet was to protest against the bourgeois order and to leave it to history to decide what one was for. Hence the revolutionary slogan “C’est interdit d’interdire.” It is forbidden to forbid. And since the students were young, comfortable, and with time on their hands, it was forbidden to forbid their pleasures.

This shift in focus can be seen most clearly in the writings of Michel Foucault, whose spirit is inseparable from that of 1968. His early works are pleas for the liberation of those incarcerated, whether for crime, for “madness,” or for illness. But he soon turned his attention from local liberation to general condemnation. He does not use the language of “repression,” but he is adamant that bourgeois society is threatened by those who express what they truly are—whether through crime, through “unreason” (déraison), or through whatever rebellious urge causes them to be confined within clinics, prisons, and asylums. The one who sets out on the path to be himself, to express his urges and his visions in authentic gestures, is the one who fights for all of us against the lies, distortions, and manipulations of the bourgeois order.

Hence those who challenge the idea of sexual normality and seek their pleasures in forbidden ways are—for Foucault—the true heroes of our time. He himself was such a hero. His strenuous efforts to liberate himself took him night after night to the sadomasochistic bathhouses of San Francisco, leading to his martyrdom from AIDS. By that time he was well into his four-volume History of Sexuality, which he left unfinished at his desk. But there is a curious story to be told about this powerful and scholarly work.

If we see marriage, and sexual relations generally, as a matter of pleasure, to be exchanged and obtained in some bodily transaction that concerns the partners alone, then it is possible to believe that the old norms of sexual conduct are merely the results of a power game. Foucault therefore begins his study from this question: “Why does sexual behavior, and why do the activities and pleasures which pertain to it, form the object of a moral preoccupation? Why this ethical concern?” But his researches took him in the opposite direction from the one suggested by that question. He set out to show the transience of sexual norms. And he discovered that sexual norms are not transient or malleable, but embedded in the very heart of our social understanding. In volume 2, entitled The Use of Pleasure, he studies a variety of ancient texts dealing with sexual attraction, attempting at first—as the title of the book indicates—to identify the primary sexual phenomenon as pleasure. But he discovered that the texts that he studied are not about sexual pleasure at all.

In the sexual act, as in the relations that made it possible, the human being was seen by the Greeks and Romans as shaping and symbolizing his social position. Sex is never simply sex; it is intrinsically “problematized,” as people trained in the terminology of Foucault are taught to say. Concepts of honor and virtue creep in behind the first impulse of desire, and even relations between men and boys raised, for those who practiced them, the question of how to distinguish the honorable from the dishonorable way of enjoying them, Plato famously arguing that the element of sensual pleasure must be transcended and replaced by the desire to educate.

In volume 3, The Care of the Self, Foucault argues that, in the ancient world, sexual activity, at first conceived as a symbol of the social status of the participants, is gradually “privatized.” Public concerns about honor recede in importance, and attention shifts to the “care for the self.” This, he suggests, is the source of the growing emphasis on purity, virginity, and fidelity in marriage. But, as he recognizes, “the intensification of the care for the self goes hand in hand with a valorization of the other.” By the end of the book the reader is made aware that sex, in the world of Pliny and Plutarch, was not about pleasure at all, except as an incidental side effect, still less about power and domination, but about mutual dependence and the care of children.

Foucault does not draw any moral from this. He adopts a position of detachment, as though pleasure remained the primary subject matter of sexual conduct and social structures the peculiar avenues through which people passed in order to reach it. Such remains the assumption behind the cause of sexual liberation. But Foucault’s style is circumspect, and by taking the position of women and children seriously, he comes close to recognizing the truth, which is that it is not pleasure but love that makes the world go round.

There are several important lessons that I wish to draw from Foucault’s example. One is that sexual pleasure is not a pleasurable sensation, such as you might obtain from a hot bath or a taste of sugar. It is a directed pleasure, like the pleasure you take watching a child at play. It is pleasure in and with another person. It is not reducible to any sensation in the body or its organs but involves our whole stance toward the other, who is the true object of desire. You can no more detach sexual pleasure from the social circumstances in which it arises—civilization, in other words—than you can detach love from the beloved, or fear from the threat of danger.

Likewise, sexual desire is not a hydraulic force of the kind described by the Freudians but a directed desire—a way of recognizing the other and targeting him. It is essentially compromised and compromising and cannot be expressed without raising the question whether it is rightly expressed and rightly received. Sex does not come to us as a neutral appetite that is then “problematized.” It is an interpersonal ­experience, for which we are accountable and which we understand as a gift. Shame, hesitation, tenderness, and revulsion all lie incipient within it, and everything depends upon the mutual self-giving of the participants.

If sex is just a matter of physical pleasure, then the freedom to enjoy it becomes the default moral position. Any further question concerns the use to which this pleasure is put. Such is implied by Foucault’s title, The Use of Pleasure. This way of seeing things feeds into two other orthodoxies of our time. My pleasures are mine, and if you are forbidding them you are also oppressing me. Hence sexual liberation is not just a release but a duty, and by letting it all hang out I am not just defying the bourgeois order but casting a blow for freedom everywhere. Self-gratification acquires the glamor and the moral kudos of a heroic struggle. For the “me” generation, no way of acquiring a moral cause can be more gratifying. You become totally virtuous by being totally selfish.

Furthermore, it becomes easier to weigh sex in the cost–benefit balance. As society retreats from the vestigial experience of the sacred and the forbidden, we easily imagine that sex has nothing especially to do with love, and that it has lost its sacramental aura. We then try to reconstruct sexual morality in utilitarian terms. Pleasures can be weighed in terms of their intensity and duration, and if there is no more to sex than pleasure we can form a clear and decidable distinction between “good sex” and “bad sex,” qualified only by the principle of consent. It is in these terms that the ethos of sexual liberation is now expressed, with “good sex” being esteemed as the natural outcome of a truly liberated and self-expressing desire—the desire being precisely a desire for pleasure.

If we see sex in that way, as the release of the real me inside, the reward of which is pleasure, then the sexual revolution does not lead to the “withering away of the state,” such as the Marxists foretold. It leads to the withering away of society. When the primary bond between man and woman loses its privileged status and its ­institutional protection, then all that civilization has built on that bond begins to totter. The bourgeois morality dismissed by Reich, Marcuse, and Foucault was not a system of arbitrary constraints. It was the way in which the great force of sexual desire was channeled into love and commitment, not for the sake of the partners only, but even more for the sake of the unborn generation that would be the long-term result of their union. That is why marriage has always been protected as a “rite of passage,” and why the Catholic Church has declared it to be a sacrament. It is why sexual desire itself has been seen as a kind of consecration of the other, who is, in the act of union, both absorbed and revered, both taken and given.

That traditional view of sex stands in the way of the liberal agenda. Sex, as formerly conceived, is emphatically not about “me” and my pleasures but about you and our commitment. Sex was construed as both a constraint on the living and a pledge to the unborn. Hence there grew in opposition to the traditional view not only the program of liberation, but also the far more insidious program of “sex education,” through which, in the late-twentieth century, a kind of moralizing anti-morality was introduced into our schools. Children, it was recognized, have a natural tendency to associate sex with shame, hesitation, and disgust. Their souls need to be swept clean of this bourgeois debris so that they too can be prepared for life as a truly liberated “me.”

This is why liberals have insisted and continue to insist on sex education as a compulsory benefit to the young, whose souls are otherwise in danger from the repressive, self-destroying forces surrounding them. Children are taught that shame is a negative emotion, to be overcome at all costs, that all sexual activity is, if consensual, prima facie “healthy,” a pleasant “release” from tensions that might be otherwise bottled up and dangerous. And in case they don’t get the point, children are provided with indecent images and models, to persuade them that sex is not about love between people, but about friction between their parts.

In the light of all that, we should not be surprised if many of the big issues in liberal politics today are downstream from sexual liberation. “Abortion rights,” gay marriage, the LGBT agenda are causes that under certain circumstances reflect genuine concern for our common humanity as well as common sense about the limits of morality, law, and custom. But they are all too often espoused in a spirit of radical non-compromise. They are seen as ways in which sex can be detached from the civilizing institutions that have expressed and tempered it, and attached to the liberation of “me.” It is for this reason, surely, that the advocates of abortion rights often see no limits to their demands, no reason to hold back from taking the life of the unborn victim, who is seen not even as a victim, but as an “alien presence” in a woman’s body—a presence from which she is entitled to free herself, given that it was the result of her innocent pleasure. In the same way, gay marriage is increasingly seen by its advocates, not as a way to incorporate homosexuals into an institution that channels sexual desire into love and commitment, but as a way to deconstruct marriage, so that it loses its sacramental character and becomes merely a contract for “the use of pleasures.”

Institutions, once destroyed, cannot be recreated. As Wittgenstein said, reviving a tradition is like trying to repair a spider’s web with your bare hands. Nevertheless, the result of the sexual revolution is with us for all to see, and it is far more alarming and far more devastating for the next generation than anything predicted by Thurber and White. We have been liberated from the old morality; but a puritanical anti-morality has come in its place.

The promised pleasures have staled, showing us that it was in any case not pleasure that we wanted. Vestiges of the old morality reappear—the growing panic over pedophilia; the new attempts to control what happens in schools and universities; forms of sex education that now emphasize “stable relationships” rather than “good sex.” Whatever else these new developments show, they remind us that human beings remain as they were—creatures hungry for love and commitment, who have as great a need to give as to take, and who are looking for the forms of social life that make love and giving possible. Will they find these things again? And if not, will they be able to do what until now they have always done by instinct, which is to make a lasting home for their children, and teach those children to make a lasting home in their turn?  

Roger Scruton is the author of Notes from Underground and The Soul of the World.