The Recovery of Family Life:
Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies
by scott yenor
baylor, 368 pages, $49.99
Norms about sex, sexuality, marriage, and family life have been upended by a rolling revolution that wastes nothing, builds upon everything, and can never be satisfied. Scott Yenor, a professor of political science at Boise State University, describes how this revolution has advanced so far, and why it will someday run up against stubborn sex differences and the natural reasons for restraint and modesty. At some point, acts of “social construction” must yield to reality. Calling a body of water “Lake Superior” or “Gitchi Gumee” may be a social construction, but the fact that inhaling its water would kill you is not.
At the beginning of my career, I thought the ideas and terms of Judith Butler and Susan Okin were being peddled in vain. But I was wrong. Survey results, which appear throughout Yenor’s book, measure the march of what he calls a “seemingly unfinishable series of changes in marriage and family life toward the realization of individual autonomy” and “stripping away the Christian or traditional aspects of marriage.”
It is impossible to oppose the sexual revolution while supporting feminism, Yenor argues. He divides feminism into two forms, “retail” and “radical.” The former is largely concerned with equal pay and prestige. It is a more corporate and conformist feminism. But retail feminists are not so easily separated from their radical sisters. What starts out in campus discussions of radical theory ends up being enforced by the human resources department at the corporation, non-profit, and government agency. Equality demands it.
How far has Butler’s vision of sex, gender, marriage, and family life advanced? One can’t answer so broad a question with survey data. But one can get a few measures of what’s happening. In 2018, I asked a random sample of more than five thousand American adults whether they supported hormones or surgery for transgender teenagers (who couldn’t buy a pack of cigarettes, for harm’s sake). It didn’t even occur to me to ask this question in 2015. The result? Only 43 percent of American adults disagreed with the idea, while 26 percent agreed and 31 percent weren’t sure what to think.
Culture is about the power of legitimate naming, in James Davison Hunter’s apt phrase, derived from Pierre Bourdieu. It is about the ability to classify, to penetrate the imagination, to alter terms, to shift the perception of reality. This is why there is often bitter struggle over words and terms around sex, and the politics of using them or avoiding them. Words tend to move, albeit slowly, from the radicals’ pens to the “urban dictionary” to the everyday lexicon.
How has the culture been so thoroughly transformed in the most religious nation in the West? Yenor believes he knows: Wide libertarian sentiment “clears away the underbrush while contemporary liberalism builds a new world.” State neutrality appeals to people who want to be left alone, but it empowers aggressors: “If the law no longer supports a monogamous marriage, the culture will be less supportive of monogamous marriage and there will be consequently fewer monogamous marriages.” Live-and-let-live bromides fail to account for this reality.
Yenor believes we are “in the infancy of this Sexual Revolution.” If so, what’s next? Predictions are foolish. But some of the new proposals currently being incubated include socially directed reproduction, the permissibility of incest, the obsolescence of monogamy, and the emergence of the “intimate care-giving unit” (or ICGU), a watered-down, subsidized version of a family household. Only radicals are talking about these at the moment, but two or three decades from now they may not seem so extreme.
Yenor provides a sensible account of what has occurred and what we should expect next. But not all the news is bad. If queer theory holds, as Yenor claims, that “all expressions of gender and sexuality are socially constructed and hence changeable,” it means the future is never settled. It can be struggled over. There is no measurable “right side of history.” Monogamy and marriage are not minority practices—yet. But we are being treated to a preview in the failure of men to be worthy of marriage. Not all of them, of course, but it doesn’t take many to affect marriage market dynamics. What awaits women today, feminist or not, is less a cornucopia of choice than slim pickings.
Despite his dark view of our cultural state, Yenor claims to be an optimist. He offers one hundred pages of possibilities—projects to try, even slogans to adopt. Few resonated with this realist, given that reason is in shorter demand than in supply. For example, Yenor proposes a frame shift away from feminism to “womanism.” It’s a noble notion, but lacks social support—that is, scholars to employ it, leaders to repeat it, social media sloganeers to push it. Hence, I finished the book more sober than when I began. “Stoicism, so far from the spirit of the age, heals many wounds,” he comforts.
One bit of good news is that old habits (and social arrangements) die hard. They are the well-worn pathways—cultural, physiological, mental, historical, behavioral—that have long determined how communities and persons organize sexuality (monogamous marriage and children, for example). These “grooves” can be compared to the phenomenon of evolutionary “canalisation,” the propensity of a population to produce comparable traits or behaviors regardless of variability in environment. These traits and behaviors are like the ruts that signaled the presence of an old pathway. They’re real. You don’t have to travel by them, but ignoring them won’t make life easier. Despite revolutionary claims to the contrary, they are not socially constructed, though they are socially directed. Tacking to the grooves offers the clearest path to happiness.
Mark Regnerus is professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.