Senate Democrats recently blocked a bill that would have banned abortion after five months of pregnancy. Their defense of our nation’s exceptionally permissive abortion regime is part of their enthusiastic support for the sexual revolution. Is it worth it?
Earlier that same day, a pair of Washington Post writers discussed the question: “Why are Americans having such bad sex?” The authors meandered around the topic, half-admitting that they may lack the conceptual framework to address the point.
They did note that the bare legal standard of consent makes for a terrible sexual ethic and that much of our sexual culture is awful, particularly for women. This is why the spotlight being shone on sexual assault and harassment keeps straying onto our broader sexual ecosystem, which many women find degrading and harmful even when it is not criminal.
The sexual revolution promised that hookups, casual encounters, and short-term relationships would be enjoyable and liberating, but they often result in misery and exploitation. As exemplified by the Washington Post discussion, there is uncertainty about what caused this or how to fix it. How did we end up with a culture in which “women are having a lot of sex that they don’t really want to have, that they don’t even necessarily really enjoy, that they feel bad about afterward”?
Our Assumptions about Sex Are Making Us Unhappy
Something went wrong on the way to the glorious future the sexual revolution promised us, but it is hard to diagnose the problem while thinking within the conceptual boundaries of the sexual revolution. This is because it is the assumptions and necessities of the sexual revolution that are making so many of us unhappy about sex.
Casual hookups and cheap sex are not a recipe for lasting human happiness (or, in many cases, even short-term pleasure). Maximizing the pursuit of pleasure while minimizing commitment and obligation will not lead to genuine human flourishing, which is relational and spiritual, not an amalgamation of pleasurable physical sensations.
Furthermore, the ways the sexual revolution ameliorates and avoids its unwanted consequences tend to poison, rather than protect, happiness. Our radical regime of abortion (even late-term abortion) on demand is the darkest manifestation of this. Not only are sexual partners disposable, so are the lives created through intercourse.
Everyone knows abortion is a horrible deed, which is why even many people who favor unrestricted, taxpayer-funded abortion on demand tend to shy away from the “pro-abortion” description. But abortion has no shortage of defenders and advocates, primarily because the sexual revolution is unthinkable without it.
A Devil’s Bargain
However, from outside the framework of the sexual revolution, abortion looks less like liberation and more like a devil’s bargain in which we do not even get what we think we were promised. Tales of our miserable sexual landscape call to mind Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ fictitious devil, who gloated over a damned soul who had spent his life doing neither what he ought nor what he liked.
Selling one’s soul is not worth it even to gain the whole world—but for bad sex? It is not as if sexual pleasure was unknown before the sexual revolution, or is now impossible without conforming to it. Has the sexual revolution increased personal or aggregate sexual pleasure enough to be worth the price, which includes the tens of millions of abortions committed since Roe v Wade? Is it worth it?
The widespread sexual and relational misery of our culture suggests it is not worth it, especially for women. The pleasures, pains, and risks of sex are never equally distributed, of course, but the sexual revolution particularly favors male gratification at the expense of women.
Sexual Consent Is Dependent on Violence
In hookups and uncommitted relationships, it is universally understood that, if intercourse fulfills its biologic purpose, it is the woman’s responsibility to deal with it by having the child growing within her womb killed. It may be the last resort, but the prospect of deliberately ending a human life is there, lurking—if the condom breaks, if the pill fails, then there will be violent death.
Women know what the men they hook up with, or by the boyfriend who is just “not ready for that yet,” expect of them. Sexual pleasure becomes intertwined with violence because abortion—the intentional, targeted killing of a distinct, developing human being—is a necessary backstop to a culture of sex without consequence or obligation.
Thus, a sexual ethics theoretically based on consent is in practice dependent on violence; abortion makes force, domination, and the subjugation of women’s bodies central to our sexual culture. Women’s natural fertility is violently subdued by destroying developing human lives, primarily to serve men’s interests and immediate sexual gratification. Abortion does not liberate women so much as liberate men from their obligations to women. These beneficiaries are not the patriarchy so much as the fraternity—all the bros who want to have a good time and get laid with no strings attached.
This Is the Real Toxic Masculinity
If we really want to address “toxic masculinity,” we must reject a culture in which violence is intrinsic to male sexual satisfaction. Why are Americans having such bad sex? It is because our sexual culture was created for short-term male sexual satisfaction and relies on violence to sustain itself.
Men are encouraged to let nothing, except the bare legal boundary of consent, come between them and orgasm, and told they incur no duties or obligations in the process. It should surprise no one that men are especially selfish when told to pursue pleasure without relationships, obligations, or commitment. Of course, men who view their progeny as disposable in the pursuit of sexual pleasure will disrespect women, especially women they know only in the biblical sense.
As politicians, pundits, and judges offer their excuses for why America needs the legal violence of abortion on demand until birth, we should look at the culture abortion enables and ask a simple question: Is it worth it?