Professor Gerry Bradley made a spot-on observation here at Public Discourse that one of the underlying forces driving the HHS abortion, contraception, and sterilization mandate is the current federal ideology of “equal sexual liberty,” embracing the notion that “women will and should have lots more sexual intercourse than they have interest in conceiving children. … [that] sexual license should never impede a woman’s lifestyle, at least no more than it does a man’s.” Elsewhere, I have identified such a position as “sexual expressionism” or “sexualityism” and have defined it to include also the suggestion that sex should not only be free of the slightest reflection on its link with procreation, but also free of commitment, or even the real possibility of a relationship between the man and the woman involved.
In this essay, I propose to examine this ideology, not only from a woman’s perspective, but also from the best scientific evidence we can currently lay our hands on. I will suggest that the insidious “twofer” the White House is currently proposing—trampling religious freedom in order to promote sexualityism—is even worse than doing the latter alone.
First, it should be noted that sexualityism is no more than a theory about a claimed cause of women’s happiness—i.e., that its growth is directly proportional to women’s ability to express themselves sexually without commitment and without the possibility of children. The HHS mandate stands on this theory. In a world of easy availability of birth control and abortion, the only reason for a federal mandate for a “free” and universal supply is to try to send the sexualityism message. The White House has all but come out and said: “women of America, vote for the incumbent this presidential election year because he supports women’s equality and freedom, which he understands to include at the very least nonmarital and nonprocreative sexual expression.” Why else choose Sandra Fluke—an affluent, single, female law student, who demands a taxpayer-subsidized, 365-day supply of birth control as the price of female equality—as your spokeswoman? While every savvy media outlet understands the political theater going on here with the whole “war on women,” anti-Republicans message, still when the White House uses its powerful bully pulpit to send such a message, cultural damage is done.
The theory of sexualityism has now had four to five decades to prove itself. There has been a massive expansion of “sexual liberty” on a nationwide scale. Consequently, by this time, observers (and policymakers) with an objective bone in their bodies who believe in the scientific method, would now be searching for a net improvement in the reported happiness and freedom of women. If they did not find one, they would discard this theory about women’s happiness and search for another. But the opposite is happening: the federal government is seeking to expand sexualityism—even while it appears to be at odds with what all known social and human sciences tell us. Simultaneously, it is claiming that groups and individuals who support practices that are closely associated with human happiness and freedom (religion and marital sexual intimacy) are irrational and unscientific.
The federal government has it exactly backward. Let’s look at the evidence. First, there are the declining levels of female happiness, best summarized in a paper by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The study shows not only that women are less happy than they were fifty years ago, but less happy relative to men, as well over the same time period. Were increases in sexual liberty for women a key determinant of happiness (sufficiently key to raise birth control above even life-saving medicines for federal favor), a simple time-series graph correlating the percentage of women using contraception in the United States with the percentage of women reporting themselves as "happy" would show a direct relationship. Instead, we have more women accessing birth control but less female happiness as described above. This is not to suggest that women’s happiness overall does not depend on a host of factors. Of course it does. It is simply to say that if contraception assumed the degree of positive importance in women’s lives ascribed to it by today’s frenzied political advocates and interest groups, one would expect to see some sort of correlation between its exploding availability since the 1960s and levels of female happiness.
Second, even though conventional wisdom holds that sexualityism is "scientific," whereas religion—or any theory linking the meaning of sex with its structure (i.e., the intimate union of woman and man) or outcomes (i.e., partner bond, babies)—is irrational, the conventional wisdom fails to account for the ideological roots of sexualityism or for modern evidence about what does produce human happiness and flourishing. The likely roots of sexualityism are in the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed in freeing humans from sexual repression as a way of curing neurosis. To put it mildly, Freud has been called into question by credible critics, such as Richard Webster and Juliet Mitchell. His work is taught in many universities, but is disappearing from their psychology departments according to a survey reported in the New York Times. Some even consider Freud a deliberate fraud.
Further, evidence about what does correlate with human happiness shows a robust relationship between marriage and religious commitment, and happiness, for both women and men. (See, for example, Arthur Brooks’s Gross National Happiness.) This only makes sense. People are more than their bodily impulses, their nervous systems, or their momentary desires. They are a complex integration of body and mind, body and soul, body and spirit (or however one wishes to phrase this union). Religious beliefs, and the associated drive to live them with integrity and to practice them in action, are therefore and unsurprisingly an important constitutive factor in human happiness. The irony is rich: religious citizens and institutions are called reductionists or physicalists by their detractors, but it is instead those who reduce women’s happiness, freedom, and equality to experiencing a substantial number and variety of uncommitted and/or nonprocreative sexual encounters who should wear this badge.
Third, though the White House touts women’s equality as freedom from childbearing (celebrating the anniversary of the abortion decision, Roe v.Wade, President Obama stated: “Our daughters must have the same opportunities as our sons”), the social and economic literature is clear that achieving this result through large-scale birth control and abortion programs also means more casual sex, more nonmarital pregnancy, and more abortion (all of which America is witnessing). Yet a main driver of male-female commitment is parents’ care for the babies they make together. And the literature is equally clear that increases in casual sex, nonmarital pregnancy, and single parenting are the most important correlates of inequality in America—inequality between men and women (as most poor, single-parent households are run by women), and between blacks and whites.
Most of the backlash against the White House’s latest effort to promote sexuality—the HHS “contraceptive mandate”—is a reaction to the administration’s cavalier treatment of our precious American patrimony of religious liberty. This specter is indeed frightening, and it has generated a commensurate response from many able commentators. Less treated—due to (rational) fears about a backlash—is the utter irrationality of the federal government’s vaulting sexual expressionism over religious freedom in the name of women’s equality and happiness.
And make no mistake about it, the backlash against fingering sexualityism is real. For a while, after revealing my thoughts on the subject on National Public Radio a few times, and being mentioned in a pro- and con- piece in the Wall Street Journal, I believed I might get off easy. But then Jon Stewart ridiculed me twice on the “Daily Show,” and the Internet magazine Salon featured a piece on my thinking, apocalyptically headlined: “Birth Control’s Worst Enemy.” Setting aside the article’s multiple inaccuracies and the author’s failure to call me, it made clear that I had committed public-image suicide in the eyes of the people-who-matter. The comments are as expected: I am the worst kind of self-loathing, woman-hating, celibate-male-mouthpiece prude, who wouldn’t know good sex if it slapped her across the face.
Yet I am far from alone in my conclusions. When this past February I co-authored an open letter with Kim Daniels, to HHS and others, it included a substantial paragraph taking on the subject of federal birth-control programs and women’s immiseration. Nearly 30,000 women signed, solely via friend-to-friend email. I had only sent it to about twenty-four. The letter touched a nerve.
The women continue to write me weekly. They are relieved that someone is saying what they believe but have not previously had a sufficient forum for expressing. I hear personal stories about the side-effects of the pill and about what one eloquent young woman titled the new “problem that has no name”: how girls who believe in sexual integrity are finding neither the courtships nor the marriages they desire. The new “marketplace” for sex and marriage made possible by celebrating birth control and abortion as some kind of “feminism” is raining down some serious misery. Perhaps we’ve started something. Perhaps more of us will continue to feel the urgency to speak. If so, we have the extremism of the HHS mandate to thank for it.
Helen Alvaré is associate professor at George Mason University School of Law and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.