When people think of the sexual revolution, they generally imagine some time in the ’60s when drug-addled hippies at Woodstock were practicing free love, women were liberated from the home and entering the workforce, pornography and pornographic images were lining the newsstands, and abortions were legalized and frequent.
While this idea is not altogether inaccurate, the West has actually experienced multiple sexual revolutions, and each of them happened gradually. In his most recent book “Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist,” David Carlin charts the progression and logic of sex and its relation to Western society. The book is succinct, clear, and quite pessimistic. After one sees the big picture, it’s difficult not to conclude that things will get much worse before they get any better.
Ironically, the current confusion about sex that dominates the popular imagination bears some resemblance to the confusion of Ancient Rome, which is where Carlin begins his discussion. In the centuries before the birth of Christ, pagan Rome did at least adhere to some degree of sexual prudence and chastity. Carlin notes, “For centuries Roman women were as famous for their chastity as Roman men were for their courage. But toward the latter days of the republic, things had changed considerably — at least on the chastity front.”
To illustrate this, he cites the scandals of adultery with Julius Caesar, which still meant something in public life. His heir Augustus tried in vain to revive the virtue of chastity, outlawing adultery and even making an example of his own daughter who violated this law. However, right after Augustus’s reign, sexual chaos soon set in, starting from the top, as each successor indulged in increasingly disgusting and destructive sexual fetishes.
Although he makes serious points about Rome’s sexual decadence, Carlin has a sense of humor about it. When describing Augustus’s daughter Julia, he explains that she “had the bad habit of going to bed with men who were not her husband.” In his point on Emperor Claudius, Carlin writes, “The sexual improprieties of the Emperor Claudius were relatively tame. He married four times. He divorced his first two wives, and had a third executed. His fourth wife was his niece, a marriage Romans considered to be incestuous.” The levity works well to counterbalance the unbelievable darkness of these men and women.
In such an environment, Judaism and Christianity held a great appeal to disenchanted gentiles: “What attracted [Roman pagans] to the Jewish religion? Two things, especially, its monotheism and its sexual ethic.” Thus, many gentiles either became semi-Jews or Christians to join churches that actually set boundaries for promiscuity and abided by logic.
This in turn precipitated the first sexual revolution. As Christianity was becoming more established in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church adopted what Carlin calls an attitude of “hyper-chastity.” After all, this is what Christ commanded in the Gospels and St. Paul prescribed in his letters. Influential Christians doubled down on this message, best shown in the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo who traded away a life of sexual dissolution for strict celibacy.
According to Carlin, this fixation on chastity that placed strict regulations on marriage and recommended an ascetic way of life partially led to the popularity of Gnosticism, a heretical belief that condemned material pleasure and extolled the spirit. It wasn’t so much that the arguments of gnostics were persuasive, but a general feeling they tapped into: “It was an attitude that held, or rather felt, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the material world — and hence with our bodies.”
Even after Gnosticism disappeared, the commitment to hyper-chastity and a rigorous sexual ethic continued well into the Middle Ages, playing a key role in how the church and Christendom developed. Then came the second sexual revolution that happened with the Protestant Reformation.
Because Luther and other Protestant leaders believed that much of the Catholic Church’s corruption stemmed from their hyper-chaste dogmas, they sought to remove these restrictions. In practice, this resulted in ending monasticism and priestly celibacy, permitting remarriage and divorce, and legitimizing private judgment among believers. Thus, the sexual culture of Protestant kingdoms transitioned from hyper-chaste to relatively chaste, influencing adjacent Catholic cultures to have a similar mentality.
This broad agreement on chastity and Christian sexual morality breaks down in the final sexual revolution that happened in the ’60s. Carlin considers this an atheistic revolution, explaining how prominent atheists and atheistic ideas laid the groundwork for this last sexual revolution. He remarks from the outset, “just as the Protestant sexual revolution of the 1600s was an anti-Catholicism revolution, so this modern sexual revolution has been an anti-Christianity revolution.” This was what drove the modern forces of feminism, popular entertainment, public intellectuals, and the social sciences.
Carlin recognizes that though the claims made in these domains have all been largely discredited, they nevertheless had their effect. Hollywood may have been all fake, but the stories they told made sexual dissipation quite real. Alfred Kinsey was a dishonest pervert, but he successfully normalized what was formerly considered “deviant.” Margaret Mead basically fabricated a sexual island utopia in “Coming of Age in Samoa,” but professors continue assigning it, making promiscuity not only normal but natural and good. Feminists continue preaching abortion as empowering, even though this rewards irresponsible men, traumatizes mothers, and kills innocent children — most of them girls.
Today’s world is the natural result of these influences. The structures that brought about stability in households and civilization at large are quickly breaking down. Whereas chastity and marriage were the general expectation for men and women, Carlin lists what has come to replace them: premarital sex, cohabitation, promiscuity, unmarried parenthood, abortion, homosexuality, and homo-conformity (actively endorsing homosexuality), and transgenderism. In such a climate, the idea of marrying and having children becomes not only unusual, but even hateful and judgmental to those who have alternative lifestyles.
As sexual morality has given way, so too has religious practice. The argument of Carlin’s conclusion mirrors the memorable quote from Fulton Sheen: “If you do not live what you believe, you end up believing what you live.” Religion, which set up limiting principles to sexual behavior, is waning. Because of this, there’s no reason to see sexual conventions change trajectory or diminish. Carlin foresees a continued disintegration of religion and the home, with the lingering remnants of Christianity uniting in “the cultural and political struggle against atheism.”
To call Carlin’s analysis sobering would be something of an understatement. Rather, it’s profoundly dour with little hope of redemption. His tone is one of a jaded man who has seen it all and can see all too clearly the inevitable doom to befall a fallen civilization. And while he’s done his part to explain why this is so, it would have been nice to have some kind of solution or way forward. Instead, he simply concludes that he’ll be long dead before there’s any change on the horizon.
Then again, perhaps this is a challenge for the reader to take on after reflecting on the history given in “Three Sexual Revolutions.” True, it certainly seems like Western civilization is reverting back to its ancient past where so many varieties of relational dysfunction brought about the decline of great empires. And it may be the case that today’s decadence will do the same.
However, if tomorrow’s leaders can heed the warnings of today, it’s only reasonable to have hope that they can ignite a fourth sexual revolution in the future by adopting the Christian values that ultimately redeemed Rome and ultimately restoring some semblance of order and virtue to families and communities.