Human history is a story of sexual restrictions. Across the world and down through the centuries, humans have strictly controlled their sexual activity. There are no exceptions: in all cultures a freewheeling primal instinct has been seen as too great a threat to human emotional and physical flourishing to leave unchecked.
When medieval European men violated women they sometimes were punished by the raped women’s family members—even through castration (e.g., Abelard and Heloise). In nineteenth-century America, the shotgun wedding was the frontier custom when the arm of the law was too weak. Homosexual activity was seen for generations in China as a mortal threat to procreation and was punished via public executions. For centuries, in the English-speaking world one referred to sexual acts via distancing euphemisms; the words “sex” and “sexual” did not become widely used in Europe until the early twentieth century, and “making love” was still preferred in Hollywood into the 1970s.
Since sexual acts are so often secretive, the way in which cultures have typically restricted them has been by targeting their consequences. Biologically, these consequences fall more heavily upon women, leading to the double standard prevalent in so many cultures through the centuries. Women who became pregnant were sent away or cast out, whereas their male partners received only the proverbial wrist slap.
Why has sexuality been so restricted throughout human history? In short, because it has had to be. The emotional and procreative consequences of a freewheeling sexual appetite have been too terrible for cultures to allow. For this reason, as I will argue in this essay, a conservative victory in our sexuality wars is inevitable: although the devastation produced by our loosened sexual standards may take generations fully to manifest itself, once it does people will come to their senses and recognize that the age-old restrictions are a necessary condition for their sexual flourishing—that human flourishing will not be possible until the restrictions return.
Mysterious and Primal
Our sexuality is our most mysterious and primal facet. Ever changing, ever baffling, it drives us to engage in startling thoughts and behaviors. Imagine our sexuality as a mighty river, and our history of restrictions as a dam and embankment strategy to channel that river into its proper uses. At times, our sexuality has overwhelmed our dams, embankments, and channels. Japanese soldiers abused and raped thousands of Chinese women during the occupation of Nanjing in 1937. Soviet soldiers likewise raped hundreds of thousands of women in the lawless chaos of 1945 Germany. And today, people who could never have imagined themselves doing horrible things to their fellow human beings are indeed driven to do such things by their consumption of pornography.
The long history of human sexual restrictions changed suddenly in the West in the mid-twentieth century. In short order, the development of oral contraceptives severed the link to procreation and erased the most immediate consequence of deviant sexual activities. No longer would unwanted pregnancies be a threat to the welfare of consenting adults. At the same time, the need for offspring was erased in a dramatic stroke by the invention of government-run entitlement systems. No longer were children a necessary part of a comprehensive retirement plan. Now, for the first time ever, our retirement plans could be facilitated by other people’s children. Astounding innovations in food production enabled us finally to conquer the threat of starvation, and no longer to need to produce another generation in order for our family farms to succeed. No-fault divorce offered a novel way out when couples were struggling with emotional and sexual hang-ups. And a final blow to traditional sexual norms occurred in the ’60s and ’70s through the rise of safe and legal abortion: at last, it was possible to clean up the mistakes that fell through the cracks.
These twentieth-century technology and infrastructure changes enabled our species to do what we had always wanted—to indulge in a time of probing and wide-open sexual exploration, without immediate consequences. And they made inevitable the rise of the dramatic ideological changes of the last decade.
Technology and Sexuality
Karl Marx once asserted that life determines consciousness, and that consciousness does not determine life. He meant that underlying technologies and infrastructures produce corresponding worldviews, at a conscious level, in the minds of people. People might think that they are the ones who are forming their opinions. But, for Marx, the stories that people tell themselves about how they are directing their lives at a conscious level are just-so stories. In fact, people’s conscious opinions are being determined—inexorably and subconsciously—by the deep social infrastructure.
I am not a Marxist. But when it comes to the sexuality wars, I think Marx might have been on to something. It probably was, more than anything else, these mid-twentieth-century technology and infrastructure shifts—that “life” that determines consciousness—that produced the rapid and dramatic opinion shifts we have seen in the last decade.
We humans were the ones who created these changes in technology and infrastructure. But once created they took on a life of their own, with massive and unintended opinion-formation consequences. Who in FDR’s era could possibly have foreseen the subconscious role entitlements would play in the 2000s in discouraging family formation? Could Gregory Pincus possibly have anticipated the revolution in sexual activity that was facilitated by his invention of oral contraceptives? The dramatic sexual liberalization that has occurred in the last several years has been brewing for decades.
Humanity’s primal sexual instincts are incredibly deep and malleable, and, given the right setting, they can take on numerous different shapes—attraction toward adults of the opposite sex, adults of the same sex, attraction to children, or even attraction to corpses or animals. Human sexuality has, for centuries, sought a way around its restrictions. And through the “explorations” of twentieth-century people it found it.
Within this story of an infrastructure-driven sexual liberalization, there are the seeds of an ultimate conservative victory. To be sure, our technologies have now done away with the immediate consequences of deviant sexual acts. But at the same time, the larger and longer-term consequences have not been done away with. In the end, a conservative victory is assured, because they simply cannot be done away with. Our culture cannot escape these devastating emotional and social consequences: the broken homes and families, the emotionally distant marriages, the collapsing birthrates, the epidemic of human trafficking, the confusions about marriage’s definition, the absent fathers and mothers, and the disordered sexual appetites that are being shaped at younger and younger ages by pornography.
In ancient Greece, the story was told of a girl who was given a box. And, although warned against it, she was curious and chose to open that box. But—to her horror—in doing so she released the many evils that we have since that time experienced in our world. Today, the full force of the primal Pandora’s box of human sexuality is falling upon us and our children. But while the Pandora story finished with the demons being loosed and never returning, I am confident that this will not be the future of our own sexual explorations.
The human sexual story has always been, and must necessarily be, a story of restrictions. Cultures need these restrictions to survive. The emotional and physical devastation produced by the collapse of traditional familial bonds may take decades to fully manifest itself. But, once manifested, its consequences will be substantial. And at that time the trends in the social infrastructure will once again cause persons’ conscious opinions to change. The devastating long-term consequences of family breakdown and sexual “liberation” will cause them to see the need for and the benefit of restrictions. Human flourishing will quite simply demand it, just as it has always demanded it in the past.
In short, it might be possible for a generation or two to do away with the short-term consequences of our great sexual adventure. Yet the larger and more destructive long-term consequences will certainly remain. And these consequences will be too destructive for the society to stand. Conservatives can circle the wagons, wait out the storm, and pursue the Benedict option if they are so inclined. But their victory in the sexuality wars is inevitable.
Jeremy Neill is an assistant professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University.