“I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society,” wrote Edmund Burke. But what about a womanly, immoral, unregulated liberty? I have a feeling I know what the 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman and founder of modern conservatism would think.
His opinion would probably be something similar to that of Scott Yenor, professor of political science at Boise State University, who in his new book The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies condemns what he calls the “rolling” sexual revolution and its modern fruits, defined by attempts to radically recast society, especially in regards to sex, gender, and the family.
Recovery is an impressively ambitious project, manifested in a book separated into three sections with far-reaching, if overlapping objectives. The first is an extensive history and description of the rolling revolution as it relates to feminism, gender, marriage, and sexual repression.
The second is an analysis of the various problems with the rolling revolution, including ineradicable sexual difference, the faux neutrality and inevitable coercion of liberalism, and the ironic tyranny that follows overthrowing “sexual repression.” In the third and final section, Yenor offers a vision for a post-rolling-revolution world, defined by pro-family policies and social mores and a more consistent and coherent anthropology vis-a-vis gender and sexuality.
As a parting shot, the author offers a number of alternative rejoinders to the most popular slogans and aphorisms of the sexual revolution, for example rebuking the popular “biology isn’t destiny” with his own “biology ain’t nothing.” Although I have a few concerns, Recovery succeeds as an indictment of the sexual revolution and its fruits.
The Revolution Rolls On
Underlying the “Rolling Revolution” is a vigorous, aggressive individualism that is radically reshaping and undermining Western society. Among the most dominant manifestations of this paradigmatic trend, says Yenor, are feminism and sexual liberation. At its core, feminism — influenced by writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone — seeks to divorce sex from gender, promotes the belief that the body doesn’t shape or determine human identity; and valorizes the quintessential “independent woman.”
Yes, admits Yenor, many feminists don’t necessarily identify themselves with the movement’s most radical tenets (he calls them “retail feminists”). Yet these moderate adherents lack any limiting principle, and thus embrace each new cause célèbre germane to female freedom. For example, most feminists have endorsed transgenderism, even though it threatens female identity by granting men access to femininity and encourages womens’ daughters to reject their own biology in favor of a masculine identity.
This individualism has far greater social and political effects. If the goal is to maximize equality and freedom, then any institutions that confound these — say, via limits or hierarchy — will be increasingly viewed with suspicion and even animus. Yenor identifies marriage and family life as target No. 1 of the ideology of personal autonomy. This is because marriage by its very nature places boundaries on its participants, curbing sexual expression and professional ambitions.
Moreover, marriages inevitably create hierarchies, because participants must make concessions regarding the specifics of careers, family life, and relationships with those outside the family in ways that will favor one partner over another. This is compounded by the introduction of children, since it is nearly impossible to create perfect parity regarding parental responsibilities.
Thus we witness attacks on the traditional, natural limits and hierarchies of marriage and family life. Divorce becomes easier and more frequent; acceptance of mores that broaden the individual’s sexual aperture (e.g. promiscuity, pornography, open marriages, etc.) more common; and surrendering of parental duties to the state more widespread.
Or, as is the case for an increasing percentage of young Americans, marriage and children are simply spurned altogether. All of this reflects a vitiation of the family’s restrictive character for the sake of personal autonomy.
Despite the powerful forces at work in this “rolling revolution,” Yenor identifies some inalterable curbs on it. Feminism, for example, “runs up against the tough nut of the human body, which suggests sex differences between men and women.” Those pesky chromosomes result in many divergences between the sexes, among them physical strength, sexual desire, and tendency towards either nurture or aggression.
Besides the manifold genetic differences discerned by the quantitative sciences, I would add another: the teleological nature of the body. As philosopher Bryan Cross argues, human sex is oriented towards a certain end defined by one’s gametes (egg or sperm) that are determined by one’s biological sex.
Sexual liberation in turn, is obstructed by the reality that humans cannot help but interpret sex “within a larger horizon of meaning and that sexual desire is essentially different than other kinds of desires and human contact.” Sexual liberationists err in reducing eros to sex, when it is so often intertwined, if not a constitutive part of, deeper human yearnings for emotional, social, and even spiritual intimacy.
Yenor observes that understanding only sex as the ultimate realization of eros sells this human passion short, because men’s and women’s deepest longings require a far greater, transcendent object: namely, happiness. The human person is thus deprived if sold a lie that sexual pleasure or release is the highest good. “Erotic desire, so understood, is enslaved when it is contained only within sexual life,” argues Yenor.
A Better Vision
In the final section of Recovery, Yenor offers a guide to a “post-rolling revolution” world. He urges pro-family policies that protect and promote marital and parental duties and rights from an overbearing, coercive state, and that recognize the inherent biological and social differences between men and women.
He recommends a “new, new sexual regime,” that encourages procreation and family stability, including through such policies as more part-time work opportunities for women that would enable them to better manage family responsibility and the need for income. He advocates a clearer guide on what constitutes consent in sex and marriage in the hopes of reducing incidences of rape and divorce rates, among other goals. And he supports curtailing access to the plague of pornography via measures like obscenity laws that would further protect the family and children.
Yenor has many interesting and useful recommendations that will appeal both to individual conservatives and conservative policy wonks eager for fresh ideas to preserve and perpetuate the American family in the 21st century. For example, he suggests that courts consider awarding men custody in divorce disputes as a means of deterring women — who file for most divorces and for reasons of emotional fulfillment — from leaving their husbands. Alternatively, his suggested “slogans and aphorisms” to counter the platitudes championed by feminists and sexual liberationists are tailor-made for conservative pundits and politicians.
Is Liberalism the Problem, Not the Solution?
Nevertheless, I remain pessimistic that such measures will blunt the force of an ideology that has so profoundly and cancerously seeped into the American psyche. In part, this pessimism stems from the fact that I am even less sanguine regarding liberalism than Yenor appears to be. Indeed, the Boise State professor identifies contemporary liberalism — and specifically its errors and excesses — alongside radical feminism and sexual libertinism as combining to comprise a trinity of current evils, seemingly because he remains sympathetic to the classical liberalism of America’s founders.
Yet one might argue, as philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Patrick Deneen have done, that radical feminism and sexual liberation are actually manifestations of classical liberalism. If that’s true, the problems with our current ills run far deeper, perhaps to the very origins of American political identity.
The Recovery of Family Life is an important text for our times, if for no other reason than its effective diagnosis of the inherent contradictions and limits of the sexual revolution. Yet I do wonder if it might have benefited from some more rigorous editing: Yenor’s attempts to write sophisticated, academic socio-political analysis that is simultaneously accessible to popular audiences undermines readability. For example, one chapter is followed by a 15-page postscript which, while valuable, is jarring.
Style and structure issues aside, Yenor’s book is a welcome addition to the many recent critiques of contemporary liberalism and its self-destructive tendencies, and one, unlike others, that makes a reasonable attempt to offer solutions, and even hope. The latter, especially for conservatives, has been in short supply of late.