One of the saddest and most frustrating things about the aftermath of the sexual revolution is the heights of cognitive dissonance our society engages in about its effects. This cognitive dissonance is not just in evidence among the left, although certainly their application of, to take one example, abortion is increasingly rabid and eerie.
Cognitive dissonance about the sexual revolution is also in plain evidence among the right. The best our libertarian and corporate coalition partners have been able to muster in response to mass familial chaos has been the usual slogans such as “maximum freedom,” “the right to privacy,” and “not imposing morality.” Then of course the corporate types also advocate for expanding government to underwrite various effects of family instability, like taxpayer-sponsored maternity leave and daycare.
The plain truth is that private choices about sex have public consequences. There is no such thing as “what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom.” Innocent and helpless human beings are created inside those bedrooms whether their parents desire that or not, and these children are more likely to become wards of the state in some capacity if their biological parents are not married to each other and stay that way. (Not incidentally, this is one reason all functioning societies have put guardrails on sexual activities.)
Mary Eberstadt’s latest book, “Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics,” presents a fresh view of some of these major public consequences of private sexual choices. It presents in book form her argument that first arrived in a 2017 essay for the recently defunct Weekly Standard. It also extends her 2014 book, “How The West Lost God.”
Thus anyone familiar with Eberstadt’s work over the years now reading “Primal Screams” will be broadly familiar with her argument before reading. Yet it is characteristically interesting and well-sourced, and worth one’s time.
Eberstadt uses a particularly interesting frame for discussing the psychological effects of the West’s family disintegration crisis that helps lift it from readers’ individual experiences and biases to develop empathy for the broader problem. That is presenting new research of the effects of family separation on animal welfare. She points out the pain and suffering family separation inflicts on animals, even ones we’ve falsely thought of as individualistic animals, like “lone wolves.”
In fact, lone wolves do not exist — or when they do, they are essentially psychopathic. Wolves are pack creatures, and their packs are almost exclusively family members. For mental and physical health, wolves desperately need their families. And so do humans.
Humans’ need for their own families is one of the best-established observations in social science. Eberstadt seeks to link that truth to the rise in identity politics: “the diminution and rupture of the human family and the rise of identity politics are not only happening at the same time,” she writes. “They cannot be understood apart from one another.” She argues that the confusion over the key human question Who am I? brought on by broken and shrinking families today creates a void that people seek to fill with substitute answers of embellished sexual and ethnic identities.
To argue her case, Eberstadt connects a fresh variety of social pathologies to family breakdown, beyond the usual and better-known list such as higher rates of crime and depression and lower rates of academic achievement and income. Eberstadt’s list of sexual revolution-linked pathologies includes the Me Too movement and the underlying dysfunction in relationships between the sexes; white, black, and other forms of racially related nationalism and separatism; the growth in loneliness and mental health disorders; and “cancel culture” efforts to deplatform speakers on college campuses and social media.
Perhaps my favorite of her numerous interesting arguments is the one linking one’s number of siblings with one’s social skills, or the lack thereof, especially in regards to the opposite sex. She cites various studies that find having siblings increases one’s empathy, social interaction skills such as bargaining and taking turns, and available emotional support.
Eberstadt also argues that having fewer opposite-sex siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and so forth deprives people of more and better opportunities to learn about the opposite sex in a nonsexual context. This fuels an increase in bad romantic relationships and women’s self-identification with feminism and semi-political movements such as Me Too. These identity politics groups form a sort of familially poor person’s substitute for what a well-functioning family would provide naturally, akin to how welfare functions as an economically poor person’s substitute for the financial benefits of marriage and family.
The book is persuasive to any honest observer and makes an effort to welcome readers from the political left, including by hosting an essay response to Eberstadt’s argument from liberal Columbia University professor Mark Lilla (as well as from Peter Thiel and Rod Dreher). The biggest counterargument I have to Eberstadt’s thesis is this: If identity politics is fueled by family dysfunction, then why does identity politics seem to be strongest among the demographic more likely to come from married households?
I’m speaking of wealthy white liberals. Rich white people have the highest marriage rates in the country. Identity politics is strongest in wealthy liberal enclaves like Ivy League universities, and far less prevalent on campuses for people from humbler backgrounds, like community colleges. Yet the people most likely to support identity politics and political correctness are rich white activist liberals, according to the recent Hidden Tribes report.
So if family chaos fuels identity politics, why is it that the same demographic of people who have the highest marriage rates are also the most likely to support identity politics? It could be that the people among this more-married cohort who aren’t from stable homes are more likely to gravitate towards identity politics to express pain perhaps heightened by its abnormality among their peers. It could be that this group supports identity politics as a sort of virtue signal because of their unwarranted guilt over having both money and family when many other people don’t. It could be all kinds of things. But I’m still curious about this overlap.
Ultimately, though, after reading through this chronicle of human and animal suffering related to family breakdown, I’m left wondering how much more suffering our society will and can take before we break the cognitive dissonance about what we’re doing to ourselves and to American children. How many more generations must pay the emotional and financial price for our society’s refusal to require people to be fully responsible for what happens when they have sex?