Anna Młynik-Shawcross didn’t see it coming. “There was definitely a feeling, from the mid-80s, that it was never going to end,” she has said of her life as a student activist in Communist-ruled Poland. “Year by year was passing, and to start with we were hoping—‘It can’t last for ever, something will happen, something will change’—but it wasn’t.” There are many similar testimonies from the history of communism: Almost everyone, whether they longed for the end or dreaded it, assumed that the world built by the Russian Revolution was there to stay.
It may seem ridiculous to wonder about the end of the sexual revolution at a time when that revolution appears triumphant: rewriting laws around the world, occupying great cities with its parades, advancing toward new goals like the deconstruction of the male-female binary. But the Soviet example suggests that it is never a complete waste of time to look for signs of the end.
One turning point for communism in Europe, though it took place more than thirty years before the collapse, was First Secretary Khrushchev’s 1956 speech acknowledging Stalin’s crimes. However self-serving Khrushchev’s aims, however limited his analysis, his frankness about the evils of Soviet tyranny was a moment of truth from which the U.S.S.R. never recovered.
It’s striking, then, that the last decade has seen some acknowledgment that the loosening of sexual mores in the ’60s had its victims. In 2010, a horrifying Der Spiegel article urged the German left to look honestly at its past. “The members of the 1968 movement and their successors,” wrote Jan Fleischhauer and Wiebke Hollersen, “were caught up in a strange obsession about childhood sexuality.” Fashionable kindergarten networks openly discussed whether sex with children should be part of the program. The influential magazine Kursbuch (circulation: 50,000) printed naked pictures of toddlers, whose sexual activity with adults was described. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, today a prominent E.U. politician, wrote about “five-year-old girls who had already learned to proposition me” and later remarked: “When a little five-year-old girl starts undressing, it’s great, because it’s a game. It’s an incredibly erotic game.”
In Britain, similarly revolting tales have been plucked from the dustbin of history. It’s been remembered that the Paedophile Information Exchange achieved respectability in progressive circles: Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has recalled her “sinking feeling that in another five years or so, their aims would eventually be incorporated into the general liberal credo, and we would all find them acceptable.” Other aspects of the sexual revolution also look different in hindsight. David Steel, the architect of Britain’s abortion liberalization, has said he never expected “anything like” the number of abortions that followed.
Hollywood, which did so much to foster the revolution, has started to have second thoughts. As Kyle Smith recently pointed out, in a decade and a half Roman Polanski went from receiving a standing ovation at the Oscars to being kicked out of the Academy.
To beleaguered social conservatives, these may seem like small concessions. But it is with such concessions that ideologies start to fall apart. Party members didn’t tend to abandon communism in one go: They would start by saying that, while Leninism was obviously true, Stalinism had gone too far; or that, while they were most definitely still Leninists, they had one or two difficulties. . .
The early sexual revolutionaries were utopians. They believed, like Wilhelm Reich, that the orgasm would bring about the good society; they hoped, like Margaret Mead, for the sexually-liberated bliss supposedly enjoyed by Samoan teenagers. Today, among the best writers of the younger generation, that optimism has evaporated. The eloquent feminist Laurie Penny, for instance, observes: “We are surrounded by so many images of sexuality that it’s easy to think of ourselves as liberated.” But “Today’s sexual freedom is rather like today’s market freedom, in that what it practically entails is freedom for people with power to dictate terms and freedom for everyone else to shut up and smile.” The article is so candid that I hesitate to recommend it, but it shows that the language of “liberation” is becoming meaningless.
The same goes for an influential essay by the philosopher Amia Srinivasan, which rebukes “sex-positive” feminism for its view of liberation. The focus on “free sexual choices,” Srinivasan writes, risks promoting racism, “transphobia,” and “every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference.’” In liberating sex, the essay frets, we may have accidentally enslaved ourselves. Srinivasan repeatedly says that she isn’t calling for “prudery” or “authoritarian moralism.” But the revolutionaries of fifty years ago did not have to make those reassurances.
If anything symbolized the new freedom, it was the contraceptive pill, celebrated by a 1967 Time cover story as “a miraculous tablet.” And today? “Women have had enough of the pill,” the Guardian reports. Another writer, canvassing opinion, receives an “overwhelming” response along the lines of “Contraception makes me hate being a woman.” The fitness magazine Shape worries: “Why Is Everyone Hating On Birth Control Pills Right Now?” Perhaps the “sex recession,” the unexpected decline of younger people having sex, has something to do with this discovery of the hidden costs.
Most tellingly, the art produced by the younger generation speaks bluntly about the disappointments of freedom. One of the defining songs of the 2010s, the background music to several TV shows and ads, has been “Youth” by Daughter. It summons the clichés of liberation: “We are the reckless, we are the wild youth.” But the song is really a lament, for “the lovers that went wrong” and what they left: bitterness, blame, empty hearts (“most of our feelings, they are dead and they are gone”) and burnt-out bodies. Smoking—a familiar symbol for sexual carefreeness—now means decay and self-destruction: “If you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky one / ’Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs.” Underneath this exquisite misery, the percussion rolls and crashes like an approaching storm. You can’t tell how far away it is until it breaks.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.