This piece is adapted slightly from a speech given at Spring Arbor University in Michigan at September’s FPR Conference.

The sexual revolution as we understand it today was not originally on the feminist program.  The first wave feminists—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the suffragettes—wanted property rights and the vote, and there is no question where most of them stood on matters of chastity or abortion: they were for the first and horrified by the second.

Even Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique, which is generally credited with being the starter’s pistol of the Second Wave of the feminist movement, is not a book of sexual revolution in the way we now use the term.  She has several chapters discussing women’s sexual fulfillment, but that was within marriage, which she wanted to improve and not abolish.  And she remained hostile to homosexuality, in particular, for years.

Feminism is much more a fellow traveller with Western social change than a true driver of it.

But in a movement whose rallying cry quickly became the personal is political, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a revolution in what feminists accept and promote in intimate behavior and family life.  If that radical germ hadn’t been within Second Wave feminism itself, the forces that have shaped the sexual revolution in the wider culture would have carried it along—and I have always believed feminism is much more a fellow traveller with Western social change than a true driver of it.

In consequence, the anti-pornography stance of the early feminists very quickly gave way to seeing sexual expression of all kinds as empowerment for women.  This meant that Gloria Steinem’s 1963 exposé for the magazine Show of the Playboy Club gave way to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1973 letter to Hugh Hefner, published in the Forum section of his magazine, thanking him for his large donation to the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.  Today, of course, we see things like the recent New York Times op-ed headline: “Stormy Daniels, Feminist Hero.”

It’s also worth noting that Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl came out a year earlier than The Feminine Mystique, in 1962, and sold faster—2 million copies in three weeks—while advising women to find both financial independence and sexual fulfillment in or outside of marriage.  It was written at her husband’s suggestion, by the way.  The future producer of Jaws, David Brown, said she should write a book on how a single girl could go about having an affair.

Helen Gurley Brown went on, of course, to become for 32 years the editor at Cosmopolitan, once a family magazine, whose content is now so pornographic that even a member of the Hearst family, whose media group owns and profits from it, advocates that it be brown-bagged and not sold to minors. Just last March, in a very small victory for parents, Walmart announced that the chain would not longer sell it in the checkout line—though you can still find it on the store’s main magazine rack.  In any case, its readership is enormous: 17 million monthly readers of the magazine, the company says, and 15 million on social media, and millions more still abroad.

And to peruse the contents of Cosmo or any of a number of women-oriented magazines, any number of mainstream movies and television shows, or advertisements, or pop concerts, or comedy acts, or even White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner speeches, is to find a level of lewdness and in particular a level of feminine lewdness that is excused both by feminists and the wider culture as an empowering expression of female strength, liberation and freedom.  I could give specific examples, but you can all too easily think of them yourselves.

In the name of liberation, young women in particular are willing to degrade themselves both in private and increasingly in public.

The writer Ariel Levy—who is no conservative—has a term for this: she calls it raunch culture.  And she’s written a book about it, called Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is too coarse to recommend, but which is nevertheless a very good discussion of how, in the name of liberation, young women in particular are willing to degrade themselves both in private and increasingly in public.

Levy’s book came out in 2005, so it is a little dated in its examples.  But the Paris Hilton of the early 2000s has only stepped (slightly) aside for Kim Kardashian today, who has far surpassed Hilton in profitability and cultural influence.  And if Sex and the City has mostly faded, after a six year run in the late 1990s-early 2000s, when its storyline placed an equal emphasis on shopping and sexual conquest, it has been replaced with TV shows that are ever more explicit about every sort of personal act.

We find ourselves in a place where Third Wave feminists like Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Gloria Steinem’s former assistant, can write with blithe equivalency, as these two in did in their book Manifesta, “Whether it’s volunteering at a women’s shelter, attending an all women’s college or a speak-out for Take Back the Night, or dancing at a strip club, whenever women are gathered together there is a great potential for individual women, and even the location itself, to become radicalized.”

Cosmopolitan’s former Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles put it more bluntly.  Her response to the Walmart decision was to say the campaign to get her magazine out of stores was “sexist” and a “double standard.” “I have no time for a debate,” she said.  “I am too busy putting out a magazine and encouraging American women to have more and better —–.”

Sex sells, and more and better is what Coles is selling, and that is important because while mass magazines tend to reflect a national culture, they certainly have the power to shape it as well.  Just what that means has been a topic for discussion since at least the 60s, as many of us have wrung our hands–or exploited–the enormous influence of mass media on shaping Americans’ view of themselves.  That force has only gotten stronger, as we go through our days frequently checking that hand-held, unexpurgated, world-wide-web-tied computer which lives in our back pocket and which we occasionally use a phone.  The 70s was no New Victorian Age, but I don’t think anyone now in college can imagine the relative media silence we lived in, or what I could go hours and even days without seeing, that now you and I cannot.  I don’t think the modern power of mass advertising and entertainment can be overstated.

But because it is one of the characteristics of media always to default to the extreme—man bites dog is the story, not the other way around–when I talk about this revolution or any other, especially among reasonable people, I don’t want to forget that there are millions in this country for whom the sexual revolution has not meant the end of marriage or an embrace of abortion or a desire to jettison any notion of privacy.

It is perfectly reasonable to eat to live.  It is not reasonable to live to eat.

Still, great swathes of our society–and especially the young, though not only the young–are vulnerable to the persuasion and the illogic of a life without restraint.  I don’t know if I am wise enough to be able to untangle all the reasons for that. What I can say is that to a Christian, sex is God-given, must have existed in Eden before the fall, and can still be a great gift even in this fallen world.  But the difference between proper emphasis and overemphasis is the difference between right action and sin.  It is perfectly reasonable to eat to live, for example.  It is not reasonable to live to eat.  The one is meeting a natural hunger; the other is gluttony.

And the gluttony that lies behind so many of the enormous changes in sexual mores has taken an act that, personal as it is, is nevertheless a building block of community, and turned it into a splintering force that works against community in the name of individual empowerment and choice.  Precisely because there is so much about the sexual revolution that has been personally damaging to individuals, there has been wide social cost as well.

Let me give you a example—local to me—that demonstrates the cast of mind I am trying to describe.

Three years ago a young woman called Nan was an 18-year-old high school senior at a private Louisville independent school, incongruously named for a saint.  Her gender studies class taught her that though she was young, healthy, and lived securely with two parents who were able to afford the school’s $24,000 a year tuition, she was nevertheless, as a woman, oppressed.  She admitted she had not noticed this before, but having noticed it now, she decided to take a stand against that oppression.  What she chose to do—to a wider audience than she initially targeted, because she forgot to mark her Facebook invitation post “private”–was to organize a 400-person topless march down Louisville’s busy Bardstown Road.  This was with her parents’ full approval, and her father marched by her side, protectively but surely very uncomfortably.

While Nan and others who stage similar marches say that part of their purpose is to support women who have been criticized for breastfeeding in public, they argue that the real issue is equality: because men can take off their shirts without much public comment, women ought to be able to, also.  They march naked to desexualize a women’s chest.

“Women’s bodies are hypersexualized because we cover them,” Nan told the Louisville paper, “we do not keep them a secret because they are inherently sexual. Any part of your body can be sensual — the hands, the feet, in a moment that is fitting, at the right time. But breasts are just part of the human body, too, and women should not feel judged or censored or ashamed because they have them.”

Her argument is that an individual’s body should only be deemed a sexual image when she or he says it can.  Nan was so certain of this that a friend marched beside her with a sign that read, This is NOT public nudity. 

But of course it was public nudity.  No amount of teenage self-assertion can overcome a logical absurdity and a commonly held standard.  And that’s because none of us is perfectly able to control other people’s reactions to the image we choose to project. Most of us live in the midst of other people who, while increasingly tolerant of revealing clothing, nevertheless still hold that a naked woman’s chest is obscene, even where a bare female chest in public is technically legal, as it is in Kentucky.

And because of this general consensus, the world we live in is, inevitably, predictably, and I would say justifiably, going to be full of people who find naked women worthy of remark. Sometimes it will be very rude remark, and some of the comments on the YouTube video Nan posted after the march are indeed just that.

My point is this:  Nan was trying to do more than change the general community standard about what is and is not decent.  She was asserting her right to deny that the standard exists. And that is really a much more revolutionary act than her nudity was.

This idea–that what I intend to mean by my self-expression is what you must understand it to mean—is a significant part of the whole mess of solipsistic fury we live in the midst of today. Somehow this goes hand in glove with the opposite argument, that the intention behind what you say is much less important than my interpretation of it.  And it lies behind the newly popular argument from the Me Too movement, with which I have a lot of sympathy in some ways, though not this one: that truth does not need to be weighed; or that any accusation of sexual assault should be treated as proven, even if made by an anonymous accuser, whether or not there is any supporting evidence, and before there has been time for due process.

The common ground of all these points of view is that there is no common ground:  there is just my ground, just What I Think.

The common ground of all these points of view is that there is no common ground:  there is just my ground, just What I Think.  There is just: I.  And when that’s your standard, even abortion becomes, as it has become, to a significant number of otherwise caring people, not just a hard option taken in great sadness in truly difficult cases, but a right, and an expression of personal autonomy and hence an actual good.

Sexual revolution is supposed to mean freedom, and the question should be, not just freedom from what but freedom for what?  The sexual revolution is supposed to be about the right to love and be loved, and however cynical or jaded or used millions of us may feel, the vast majority of men and women certainly want to feel love and be given it.  But to love and be loved implies and demands a limit—because love requires effort, time, faithfulness and constancy in order to be, and requires human beings to make choices that reject other choices.  So to the extent that the sexual revolution preaches limitlessness—that we don’t have to choose, don’t have to stick around, or don’t have to stay true—it works against love.

But from love—and I certainly mean all kinds of love, not just the love that has sexual expression—from love comes the community that I believe is the essence of our reason for being. Wanting to change the world and the world’s standards, to make it a better place, is a right purpose.  But we cannot do that by telling ourselves that our own delight, our constant delight, psychic or physical, or our personal growth, or self-expression, is the most important consideration, so much so that any other consideration that hinders us, and any other person who gets in our way, must go to the wall.

And yes, sometimes we will say, as Friedan said in the much-quoted opening paragraph of her book, Is this all? We might say that having been long married or long single, or doing any kind of work.  Life is a fight, sometimes—a lot of times.  We are not going to make it easier or better or more fulfilling by overemphasizing sexual pleasure—which can indeed be a wonderful thing—over the much greater pleasure of loving each other as souls as well as bodies, and living in community with those around us, including all the difficulties and obligations that come with that living.  Because it is only there we will find real purpose and joy.

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Katherine Dalton
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Jason Peters' volume Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Morris Grubbs' collection of interviews Conversations with Wendell Berry.  She lives in her native Kentucky.

2 COMMENTS

  1. It strikes me that the cultural phenomenon which has been so carefully unearthed here — that the primacy of subjective experience seems to crowd out all hope for recognition of common ground — is rooted in the problem of ‘bigness’ written about so extensively at Front Porch by Michael J. Sauter. Sauter shows us that young people are influenced more and more to feel small and insignificant in the face of a seemingly limitless cosmos. The emphasis is all too often on those factors which make human endeavor seem futile. Our fixation on bigness is crippling for the human ego — it breeds nihilism and cynicism and motivelessness.

    How is this related to third wave feminism and the behavior of Nan outlined above? It seems to me that the impulse to assert the primacy of one’s subjective experience is rooted in a deep sense of insignificance. If you feel hopeless and small, a movement like third-wave feminism offers you a means of capturing back your sense of importance, it flatters your pride and ego and sense of dignity. It makes you feel big in an age where we’re often told to feel small. In the 21st century, when so much so is so easy, it’s nevertheless difficult to live a fulfilling and meaningful life when bombarded with nihilistic philosophies left and right. Third-wave feminism and similar movements that give subjective experience and personal feelings a seat atop their value-throne call out to those who are in need of a feeling of importance and dignity.

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