Has the Sexual Revolution Undermined Women’s Happiness?

Has the sexual revolution wrought serious personal and social damage? Are women now less happy than they were forty years ago?

Mary Eberstadt, author of Adam and Eve After the Pill (Ignatius), believes that the answer to both questions is “yes.” In a recent interview with The Catholic World Report, she had this to say:

The revolution is like a big party that a lot of people initially looked forward to, but that’s now gotten out of control. So the people who had high hopes for the party, who have defended it against those who said it would go wrong sooner or later, are now in a difficult spot. Nobody wants to be the first to leave, and nobody wants to tattle on anyone else–but everybody know that what’s happening isn’t good. The word we commonly use for that kind of resistance is denial.

To support her contention that post-revolutionary women are less happy, Eberstadt points us to a recent sociological study on “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” Its authors, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, have indeed done a thorough job of analyzing data collected by the General Social Survey in a 40-year longitudinal study of American women (1970-2010). There has in fact been a slight decline in women’s happiness, both in absolute terms and in relation to men’s happiness.

While Mary Eberstadt readily attributes this decline to the availability of contraception, the study’s authors discuss a range of possible causes for the decline. One is that more and more women are now employed (outside the home) and are feeling the brunt of a new set of pressures. On page 28 of their paper, they state,

The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one’s life is not measuring up. Similarly, women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment. Or women may simply  find the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness.

Economic trends of the past forty years must also be factored in. Median family income has been stagnant while costs have been steadily rising. Minimum-wage jobs no longer cover basic living expenses, and the cost of raising a child has become prohibitive for more and more families.

There’s little doubt that Eberstadt—and Pitirim Sorokin, whom she quotes—are correct in recognizing the unparalleled importance of the sexual revolution. But it’s hardly like a big party that’s gotten out of control. Eberstadt may have mistaken increased volatility for worsening overall conditions. Shocks are usually followed by aftershocks, and then the tectonic plates settle down for a while. We may still just be at the beginning of a trend toward greater integration of freedom and responsibility. Enlightened public policy can be a driver for that trend.

If Eberstadt’s interview responses are indicative, she has succumbed to the  post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, where we judge x to have been caused by y only because y preceded x. The absence of a clear causal link between the sexual revolution and the malaise of 21st-century women doesn’t seem to bother her, however. She has a tonic to offer anyway: a re-reading of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, which reaffirms the Church’s traditional teachings about marriage and condemns the use of artificial birth control. 

Perhaps the most jarring part of Eberstadt’s interview is her claim that the Church holds men and women in high esteem and assigns them dignity and choice.

Well, which would anybody rather be—elevated and cared-for and cherished, someone whose choices actually matter in the world, or the opposite?

It’s so hard to see the Church constantly take the rap for being “bad on women,” when the moral and empirical truth is completely the reverse. It’s also hard because the Church has so much wisdom, developed over many centuries, about relations between the sexes.

These remarks seem curiously dissonant when we consider the Church’s relegation of women to second-class status, its pre-emption of their choices, its denial of a full range of reproductive care to them, its shameful treatment of homosexuals, and its egregious mishandling of the decades-long child sexual abuse scandals.  “Elevated and cared-for and cherished” does not describe these realities.


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