Please support First Things by turning your adblocker off. Thanks!

I was born in San Francisco and went to a college barely an hour’s drive from the famous Haight-Ashbury district. It gave me a front-row seat at the beginning of what we now refer to as the sexual revolution. I watched as the young women around me gave in to the onslaught. It was only later that I learned that the more experienced young men who lined up to watch the freshman girls arrive on campus actually competed with one another for “scores.” They literally put notches in their belts to keep a tally, placing bets on who would win the game. But it was not a game, not for me and not for the young women around me. We had entered college life full of hope; for many, that hope dissolved in the meaningless sexual encounters that lay in wait for us. Though the cultural transformation that took place during that time is widely considered to have been liberating, I now recognize those events as the beginning of a new kind of servitude.

The first indication that one of my dorm mates had “done it” was most often morning-after tears, followed by embarrassing regret as it dawned on her that the young man to whom she had given herself had no intention of calling back. The second was the desperation that filled the halls of the dorm as we all waited for someone’s menstrual cycle to begin. When it did, there was usually some kind of party; when it did not, the girl disappeared. Abortion on demand, the one thing remaining that would ensure complete sexual freedom, was still out of reach. But it no longer made sense to say “no” to young men so intent on their desires; at least, it didn’t make sense to them. Apparently, the advent of the pill had opened the door to sex without consequences, even if you weren’t taking it. Or such was the assumption. Most of us didn’t know yet that one simply needed to visit the campus clinic and procure a prescription for those magical birth control pills. It had all happened so fast. And anyway, to do so was an open admission that one had decided to “do it” on a regular basis. At first, at least, that was a hard step to take. It ­gradually became clear that almost no one was likely to acquire a steady boyfriend. The men were looking for conquests. The women took their chances on every date—and every date brought with it the same tussle. No? Yes? No? Until, finally, one by one, the women, exhausted, surrendered.

Now, there were women who seemed to thrive in this situation. They had somehow adapted to the new norm with ease, often helped by older sisters or even parents. They had gotten the hang of looking at sex as just another recreational activity. Without guilt or fear, they smoothly adapted their dress and their politics to a lifestyle that delighted in sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. They would fascinate (or horrify) the rest of us with stories of sexual exploits and narrow escapes as they tried to navigate the complexities of multiple partners and encounters with unexpected nighttime visitors—or the angry “other woman.” In keeping with the tenor of the times, some were distinctly Marxist in their outlook, ideologues intent on achieving some kind of parity with men. Others were simply enjoying themselves and their newfound freedom. I admit that there were days when I envied these women; life seemed so easy for them. They appeared to be unencumbered by any worries about the future and seemed so confident in their unassuming sophistication. I did try on the persona for awhile, but it was not a good look for me. Plus, I usually had an 8 a.m. class. Sometimes I was the only one who showed up.

Though I was Catholic, I knew nothing about Humanae Vitae or its teaching. I was at a public university, and it never really came up. I have no recollection of the priests at the Newman Center ever mentioning it; nor do I remember the priest at my home parish preaching about it. I knew what sex was but had little experience of it. What I did know for sure was that it was darn hard to get a date those days unless you had somehow hinted that you might be ready or willing to “go all the way.” One young man said to me—when I protested that I did not do that sort of thing—“Well, I would like to hear your reason, but it had better be a good one.” I remember feeling panicky as I realized I actually wasn’t completely sure why; I did not know how to explain my reasons for saying no to his demand for sex. It was just an instinct for which I had no explicit rationale. But I was fairly certain that telling him that my mom told me not to was not going to fly. After all, he had taken me out for a nice dinner.

It is a story that repeated itself in one way or another throughout my first years of college. The men might ask you out, but there was a price. And if you were not willing to pay it, you were at risk of being labeled a tease, or frigid, or hung-up. One young man pursued a close friend for almost an entire year. She was absolutely head over heels in love with him but steadfastly resisted his advances while trying to maintain the relationship. He swore to her that he loved her and promised fervently that he would never hurt her. Finally, she succumbed. She never spoke to him again after that night—except when he walked by her in the quad with barely a nod.

It is actually hard to say now who was the perpetrator and who the victim in all this. We were all very young, and like all young people without fully developed frontal lobes, our judgment was unsurprisingly impaired. The natural desire for intimacy is an ineluctable feature of human existence; young men and women have always tended to mistake sexual attraction for love. Which is generally why they need adult supervision. And so, at the end of the day, we were all complicit. And once we all agreed to it, there was nowhere to go except exactly where we find ourselves now—in a state of total confusion about human relationships. If only we had given it a moment’s thought, we might have realized that this could have been predicted.

When, in recent months, I began hearing the persistent whispers that a movement was underway at the highest levels of the Church to “rethink” the teaching of Humanae Vitae, I really couldn’t believe it. I scoffed at the possibility at first. “Preposterous!” I declared with blustery confidence to friends and colleagues. The Catholic Church will never change that teaching, I said. Not now, not after decades of reflection on the theology of the body. Not now, when abortion has claimed the lives of millions of innocent children. Not now, when it should be clear to anyone willing to consider the data that Blessed Pope Paul VI was a prophet of the first order.

But the rumors appear to be true. The stage has indeed been set for a “rethinking” of Humanae Vitae.

This is an inexplicable development in light of the insurmountable evidence of the damage the sexual revolution has wrought. Our culture is committing a kind of slow suicide, and everyone knows it. Just a cursory glance at the data, most of it compiled by those with no commitment to the moral teaching of the Church, reveals some stunning facts. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that U.S. birth rates fell to an all-time low in 2016: sixty-two births per one thousand women ages fifteen to forty-four, down 1 percent from 2015 and just below the replacement rate after accounting for immigration. The CDC reports that the spread of STDs is at an all-time high and calls for urgent action to prevent further transmission. Also according to the CDC, four out of ten children in the U.S. are born to unmarried women; almost one in four lives without a father in the home. We could go on.

And yet here we are. A reversal is sought in spite of all the data, in the face of every indication that the contraceptive mentality that permeates our culture has led not to the liberation it promised, but to a situation in which men feel justified in demanding sex from women who no longer feel equipped to say a simple “no.” Even the women it was intended to liberate are reporting what economists refer to as the “paradox of declining female happiness.” When I first heard that analysis, I laughed out loud. Let’s just say for now that to call this a “paradox” is a kind of category error.

Only animals have sex without thinking about it. And it is a woman who knows, if only inchoately, the significance of her often-instinctive refusal. Women know it for what it is: an act of self-preservation, but one that simultaneously safeguards the personal integrity of man and the sacred potency of their union. For it is chastity that leads to an experience of a properly human eros, lifting the natural animal sexuality of both beyond an attachment to the merely gratifying, elevating it to a love of the beautiful and the truly good. It is because women say “no” that men are called to confront their own often-chaotic desire for sex. Without this “no,” men are held captive by their instincts; their development is stunted; they are prevented from becoming fully themselves. They end up mired in an endless childhood, driven by the wish for instant gratification, ­unable or unwilling to grow up.

But the woman recognizes the greatness that lies in potency in the man; it is in fact her very refusal that invites him to a deeper reflection on who he is and could be. It calls him to forge a will capable of ordering itself to a life of heroic virtue lived out in continual acts of self-sacrifice and devotion to family and to the common good. Female modesty allows for the expression of sexual differentiation as a feature of human living as a whole. Too many men and women in our culture seek happiness in sexual encounters devoid of human purpose or meaning, mere couplings driven by lust or a misunderstood desire for intimacy. The sexual act has indeed been reduced, as Allan Bloom once said, to “the thing-in-itself.”

Though ridiculed by many today as mere sexual repression, a woman’s instinct to refuse the sexual advances of man reflects a profound wisdom, held in the deep recesses of her being. It is a knowledge that manifests in every sexual encounter, wanted and ­unwanted. Men, especially men seeking the heroic virtue characteristic of authentic masculinity, do understand this intellectually and can learn to govern their appetites. But they must be summoned to that effort; they must be invited to it. A man simply cannot know the full meaning of the sexual act as a woman does, for it actualizes a potency that only she possesses. It was—and still is, whether they admit it or not—women who understand what is at stake in their “yes” or “no,” women who sense, often in a completely preverbal way, something about sex that is organically unknowable to men: that it is women’s own selfhood, along with its life-giving potencies, that is on the table. For the truth is that every human must pass through the womb to his destination. Every woman contains within herself, at least potentially, all future humanity. It is this ­inchoate, hidden understanding that is now laughed at by those who, unaccountably, have won the right to tell everyone what to think.

A careful look at Genesis 3:1–24 reveals the truth at the heart of this state of affairs. Both Scripture and human experience attest to the fact that the effects of original sin develop in different ways in men and women. Man’s gift, which had been a particular insight into the nature of the created order, suddenly becomes his burden. He struggles with creation now. Those things he named as his own in Genesis 2 yield their fruits only with suffering and backbreaking toil. Instead of occupying the place of secure and confident steward of God’s creation, he now has to fight with it. And in forfeiting his natural relationship with the things of creation, he also loses sight of the gift that woman was and is. He forgets what he had understood in his first glimpse of her: that she is “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh,” a person, his match in every way. Man now tends to treat everything, including woman, as an object. Thus is woman made into a something rather than a someone. She becomes for him a “thing” to be mastered.

Eve, whose special status as the mother of all humankind earns her the right to a name, and whose very creation marks the entrance of human relationship and community into human history, finds her own individuality and dignity compromised. Her desire will now be for her “husband” even though he wishes only to “dominate” her. Even when she knows he is using her. And even though she knows that their union may result in the pain of childbirth.

It is a narrative that has repeated itself throughout history. It happens every day in our time, in one-night stands, drunken encounters on college campuses, domestic abuse, and pornography. What had been bestowed on each as a kind of genius, reflected in man’s capacity for productive use of the goods of creation, and woman’s infinite capacity for the person, is now turned upside down, diminished, distorted.

How I wish that someone would have pulled me aside in 1970 and helped me realize the danger my generation was in. Where were the priests, the ministers, the adults then? They were silent, afraid to preach or speak out about it, or applauding from the sidelines, regretful that such a revolution had come too late for them. Had I known then what I know now, about my body, about my dignity as a woman, about the meaning of truly fruitful love, how different my life—and the lives of countless young women who came of age in that era—would have been. And what of the hundreds of thousands of young women who have struggled since—who continue to struggle now—to overcome their natural instinct toward modesty and their predisposition to decline male advances outside of a committed, loving relationship? Though many women still secretly hope for a “steady boyfriend,” many more are well on their way to replacing that instinct with indiscriminate libido. Having finally accepted that what they are looking for is merely a romantic myth, absorbed by watching Cinderella when they were little, they have moved on to the theme from Frozen: “Let it go. . . . No right, no wrong, no rules for me.”

Following the prompts of a disordered understanding of freedom, women seem to be dangerously close to the “liberation” they were promised so many years ago. It has taken a while. Should we not warn them that they have fallen into the “Enlightenment” trap of believing that the only thing that really matters is individual autonomy? Do you think we should help them understand the flaw in the modern conviction that to be “free” means to have the “right” to be free of even the desire for a relationship? Are we really hoping that women will finally accept that isolation is the goal, that commitment is for fools, and that children are merely a burden or a commodity? Even though, in her heart of hearts, it is relationship she seeks, woman is now—finally—poised at the brink of accepting that real freedom means the right to liberate oneself from one’s nature. Freedom means the freedom to refuse something already given: the gift of who one actually is.

Here’s the problem. What happens if women, the bearers of life, finally accept that the ideal way to live is to model their lives on the patterns suggested by the impulses of eighteen-year-old boys? The contemporary, sexually active woman may not grasp the source of her discomfort or her bitterness. But it is not hard to comprehend. For though it is never acknowledged, promiscuity, the hook-up culture, thoughtless sexual encounters, meaningless sex—all these factors, though certainly primary contributors to the decline of manhood in our culture, are even more destructive of women.

Man is fundamentally oriented to the external; he faces outward. From his bodily design to the objects of his attention to the types of activities that engage him, he is turned toward the world. For him, the sexual act is itself ordered outwardly. His seed literally leaves his body; his involvement is momentary. Not so for woman. Woman’s gaze is toward the internal. She bears everything on the inside. Who women are, from the design of our bodies to the things that concern us to the life of the child we have the capacity to carry—all this is immanent, hidden. It is the inner life that catches the woman’s attention. 

For a woman, the sexual act is an invitation to the man—or at least an agreement—to enter her, to enter her very being. Sexual intercourse is an actual penetration of woman’s inner self. When not accompanied by love and commitment, it is an act of theft that is permanent, of something that cannot be retrieved. She will not recover when she is used for the pure pleasure of it, no matter how hard she tries to feel whole again, for she holds within herself the memory of having been entered—and of what was lost.

It is woman who holds the union of the procreative and unitive dimensions together in her very body. In some silent, organic way, she grasps the truth of St. John Paul II’s claim in Love and Responsibility that the sexual act is man’s participation in the very transmission of existence. And because this transmission travels along the axis that links heaven and earth, it has the force of an electrical current. Deny its nature, and it is like trying to grab a power line. Come too close without the right formation or without the right intention, and there will be a short. Human sexuality is at the core of man’s essence, which is why the serpent never tires of meddling in it.

It is woman who is grounded; she is the equivalent of a heat sink. And she understands that in the sexual act, she will discover her capacity for self-gift. She knows in the depths of her being that it is a gift that must be radical and total for it to have the full meaning it has, not only in the eyes of God, but for her. And she knows that in making that gift to a man who truly loves her, she reveals to him the gift that he is. In offering herself as a gift, and in accepting the gift of her beloved, she illuminates the essence of married love. Woman is the guardian, the keeper of the gift of self, because it is only in her body that the fruits of that gift—new life—take root, grow, and are born.

The contraceptive mind-set that governs our culture is an affront to the dignity of woman because it is a declaration that who she is, in her very being, is not wanted. Woman’s fertility is not a disease; it is not an inconvenience. It is at the heart of the gift she is to the world. Whether or not a woman becomes a mother in the physical sense, or in the spiritual, her infinite capacity for the other is a feature of who she is. It is her task to remind all of us that all human activity must be ordered toward human flourishing. Women have rights because they are human, not because they are able to act like men. They are not men. Stop trying to make their bodies behave as though they were.

If we fail to resist the sexual revolution, how will we explain it to our daughters and our sons—those precious gifts to mankind who, in their beautiful innocence, have trusted us, their parents, their priests, their ministers, to guide them through the turbulent waters of puberty and into a flourishing adulthood? Without the wisdom of centuries to inform and support her, how will my own beloved daughter respond when her instinct for self-preservation is awakened, when the silent recognition arises that she possesses a fundamental dignity that seeks expression and affirmation? How will she respond when a young man says to her, “Well, I would like to know your reason, but it had better be a good one”? 

Deborah Savage is a professor of philosophy and theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.