What if the sexual revolution is not even half over? Sexual revolutionaries have had many victories since the 1960s, but they have not yet fulfilled their greatest ambitions. Promoting childhood sexuality will bring them closer to their goal.
Sexual revolutionaries in the ’60s hoped to achieve total liberation by undermining the institutions and manners that “repressed sexuality.” In an atmosphere free of repression, they believed, all expressions of sexuality would be blessed, while those who taught that there was a right way and a wrong way to have sex would be stigmatized as Puritans or worse.
Yet the end of repression is a long way off. Revolutionaries hoped to watch marriage wither on the vine, but a majority of Americans still marry, and most marriages last a lifetime. Revolutionaries won public acceptance of homosexuality and then same-sex marriage, but the number of practicing homosexuals has not skyrocketed. Revolutionaries hoped to free sex from enduring relationships, but polymorphous perversity has not yet become the American norm. Revolutionaries have also subverted the moral and sexual teaching of their greatest enemy, the Christian faith, but most churches continue to draw lines on sexual behavior. Things could be worse.
Conservatives often claim that the sexual revolution will meet “natural limits.” Perhaps the principal natural limit is respect for the sexual innocence of children. Our society has long opposed thinking of children as sex objects or sexual beings, and rarely encouraged children themselves to engage in sexual play and exploration. Childhood is a time to cultivate self-control, to encourage sexual modesty, and to turn shame into sexual virtue. We enforce this limit with age of consent laws and with laws against child pornography.
But sexual revolutionaries do not respect this “natural” limit. Indeed, sexual revolutionaries consider children to be sexual beings with sexual desires that crave fulfillment. Leaders of the sexual revolution thought Christian and bourgeois society would collapse if children were raised to a “sex affirmative” environment without “repression.” For Wilhelm Reich, author of Sexual Revolution, “abstinence for children” is “pathological and causes the very chaos it feels called upon to master.” In Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse stated he hoped the revolution could “eroticize previously tabooed zones, times, and relations,” such as childhood. The influential Alfred Kinsey thought that the distinction between infantile and adult sexuality would disappear in a truly non-oppressive society.
For revolutionaries, the failure to sexualize childhood explains why the sexual revolution has not advanced further. Therefore, many are adopting a new brand of comprehensive sex education that begins earlier and encourages actual sexual activity. Revolutionaries peddle early sex education under the relatively moderate banners of halting pregnancy, preventing abuse, and stopping sexually transmitted diseases. Their ultimate goal is for public institutions to normalize treating children as sexual beings. Early sex education, they hope, will affect the habits and affections of children and shape their actions and attitudes.
Our tech giants are encouraging childhood sexuality. Netflix’s recent Cuties may do for childhood sexuality what Will and Grace did for same-sex marriage. Who can forget “Desmond is Amazing”—the story of an eleven-year-old drag performer? Advertisers long ago abandoned the idea that pre-teens are sexually innocent.
And age of consent laws are changing. California is the leader. While it remains a crime, for instance, for an eighteen-year-old to have sex with a twelve-year-old, judges can now call such sex voluntary but not consensual and lower the penalty for the perpetrator (as long as the age gap is ten years or less). Thus, legal support for maintaining the sexual innocence of children is eroding. Soon enough, age of consent laws will fall into desuetude, much like earlier forms of sexual regulation.
The 2020 Democratic platform supports “medically accurate, LGBTQ+ inclusive, age-appropriate sex education.” In Boise, the mayor’s task force on building a more equitable city aims to “establish sex education at pre-k level–12th” grade. This is happening throughout the country. Biden’s campaign website promises to pursue universal pre-K education for all American three- and four-year-olds. Will that include sex education? More than half the states mandate sex education in Kindergarten. State boards of education are also blessing such approaches.
The new comprehensive sex ed emphasizes tolerance for sexual fluidity and alternative lifestyles. It instructs young kids in “sexual pleasure, their nascent sexual bodies, and sexual intimacy,” as one writer puts it. Kids can learn about consent by practicing sexual intimacy in grade school, as they have done in Germany. As schools adopt early sexual education, sexual intimacy will be taught earlier and exploration of the body will go from discouraged, to optional, to encouraged. If children are by nature sexual beings, expect their sexual nature to be revealed ever earlier: If children are innately sexual, revolutionaries can never say “that is too early.”
Many parents are repulsed by early childhood sexual education. But many have also largely relinquished their roles as parents, trusting the experts to indoctrinate their children. Parents today are themselves products of the sexual revolution and are likely to see fewer reasons to protect children than their forebears. As a result, resistance to this new brand of sex education will not be what it once was.
Sexualized children, stripped of a sense of shame and encouraged to be sexually fluid, will be less likely to support marriage and responsible parenthood. Sex will be further detached from marriage. Alternative lifestyles and support for pedophilia will grow more common, and pornography more mainstream. Sexual self-restraint will be less common.
Sexualized childhood is the next frontier for the sexual revolution. It comes in the sheep’s clothing of pregnancy prevention and healthy lifestyles, but it is a wolf. It promises to disorder human sexual relations—and to undermine what remains of our marital and family ethic and subvert civilization itself.
Scott Yenor is the author of The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.