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

The sexual revolution has a well-known masculine bias. Though feminists have won real battles, the outcome of the war has never been in doubt. Unmooring sexuality from the home, from marriage, and from religion has benefitted nobody more than lecherous, grasping men.

The two most consequential gains of the sexual revolution in my lifetime have been birth control and pornography, both of which have radically shaped the public square in the image of male desire. Both oral contraceptives and abortion have been cast as victories for female liberation, and to the degree that “liberation” means the weaponizing of our bodies against nature, this is true. But it is the men who have reaped the richest rewards (sex without children), without any of the tradeoff. Men, after all, need not concern themselves with the physiological effects of the pill, or with the surgeon’s knife, or with the risks of darkness and depression. It is the liberated women, not the men, who are asked to sacrifice their bodies for equality.

Likewise, pornography has been pitched as empowerment, the public affirmation of woman as a self-sufficient sexual being. If this is so, why are the kings of the mammoth porn industry so male? Why is Hugh Hefner lionized and eulogized as a social revolutionary, while the women in his sweatshops toil away, often at the cost of great social shaming and self-loathing? We haven’t even mentioned the porn industry’s influence on mainstream entertainment, expressed violently in the testimonies of women like Salma Hayek, coerced by Harvey Weinstein into filming a sexually explicit scene. And we could spend much time contemplating porn’s influence on the modern, Tinderized dating scene. Does the age of swipe-right sound like an egalitarian age to you? Or does it sound like a horny frat boy’s dreamland, a sex factory designed by a grown-up, amorous Augustus Gloop?

At the heart of the #MeToo moment in American culture is the dawning awareness of just how unfair revolutionary sex can be. This isn’t only about raising awareness of violent acts of rape or assault, though it certainly is about that. The architects of #MeToo see the movement as a referendum on something much bigger. This is why, for example, Aziz Ansari has been publicly humiliated amidst allegations that read a lot like sour grapes. Whether the young woman’s encounter with Ansari was consensual feels almost beside the point (though it shouldn’t be). The point, as Uber-feminist Jessica Valenti wrote, is that “what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us [women], and oftentimes harmful.” Harmful as in rape? Not necessarily. Harmful as in assault? Well, not quite. How then? Harmful as in unfair. Ansari is a wealthy, famous, powerful man. His partner was none of those things. The economics of their sex—before, during, and after—skewed in his direction. Of course they did. They were always going to, no matter what.

Valenti’s statement that what are considered “normal sexual encounters” are failing women is a revealing one. Valenti is not the voice of backwoods country girls, being married off at seventeen in lieu of college and career. The “us” in her sentence refers to women like her: modern, progressive, educated, socially aware, and at least modestly affluent. These are the women that every sociological study tells us wield intellectual and social power. While men drop out of school and into the Xbox, these women are ascending. Yet, the sexual experiences of these advantaged females do not seem (or do not feel) progressive enough. After all the gender politicking, the boys still seem to hold the strings.

If nothing else, the failure of contemporary sexual politics to deliver a better experience for women should make us reconsider our assumptions about progress. Why have decades of porn and pills failed to snuff out male privilege? It could be because our gatekeepers were wrong about what a more feminine society looks like. David Sandifer, in a fascinating essay for Touchstone, reconstructs the moral world of Victorian England and concludes that its “prudery” tended to serve the ladies more than the men:

[O]ne of the most fruitful ways of framing the changing norms of public morality in nineteenth-century Britain is as a kind of feminization of society: the standards that had earlier been applied most forcefully to women came increasingly to be directed toward men as well. … Revealingly, this was precisely the way that the rise of a purified tone was viewed by its detractors: William Thackeray lamented the fact that even satire had become “gentle and harmless, smitten into shame by the pure presence of our women and the sweet confiding smiles of our children,” and Algernon Swinburne pined for a poetry that would not be “fit for the sole diet of girls.”

The point is not that British prudery represents an antidote to gender inequities. Modesty and propriety are not enough to make a magnanimous society, as contemporary Islamic republics demonstrate. But the relationship between a grounded, transcendentally moral sexual ethic and the protection of women from exploitation and abuse may not be the inverse relationship our twentieth-century sages believed it to be.

Just a year ago, protesting simulated sexuality in films and television was thought to be nothing more than anti-female fundamentalism. In the past year, however, Hollywood has yielded some of its non-secrets, and we know that the entertainment industry is littered with voyeuristic men in charge of screenplays and production companies. All that skin and coarse talk that befuddled audiences with its excessiveness now becomes explicable, and the explanation does not flatter those who cheered the naked bodies as victories over repression.

It’s a mistake, I believe, for social conservatives to sort themselves into the “not all men” tribes in the wake of movements like #MeToo. Going to bat for Aziz Ansari and criticizing affirmative consent might feel like the properly conservative instinct in a “pink police state,” but it’s not ambitious enough. If we are worried about the increasing litigiousness and public shaming in the gender wars, we should stand athwart history, pressing for a holistic sexual ethic. We should listen carefully to Wendell Berry, who warned that the disintegration of the moral, familial, and communal bonds of sex would lead to erotic hostility rather than freedom. “According to its claims,” Berry wrote, “sexual liberation ought logically to have brought in a time of ‘naturalness,’ ease, and candor between men and women.”

It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty, and fear. Women, though they may dress as if the sexual millennium had arrived, hurry along our city streets and public corridors with their eyes averted, like hunted animals. “Eye contact,” once the very signature of our humanity, has become a danger. The meeting ground between men and women, which ought to be safeguarded by trust, has become a place of suspicion, competition, and violence. One no longer goes there asking how instinct may be ramified in affection and loyalty; now one asks how instinct may be indulged with the least risk to personal safety.

The task of repairing a broken sexual culture will be a long-term project, but it can begin with repenting of our prejudice against purity. For all our evangelical regret over the excesses of “purity culture,” we need to consider whether a more protective, more equitable place for the sexes will be one that errs on the side of prudence rather than revolution. We are hearing from a generation that they want sex that doesn’t break, abuse, or humiliate them. To which every Christian should say, “Me too.”

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books and blogs at Mere Orthodoxy.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Photo by Tyler Ross via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles