down to roughly my grandparents' generation, the vast majority of people in the Western world believed without question that masturbation, pre-marital sex, and promiscuity were wrong, that out-of-wedlock pregnancy was shameful, that adultery was a serious sin, that divorce should either be banned or allowed only in the rarest of situations, and that homosexual desires were gravely disordered and worthy of severe (often violent) punishment. . . .That's not really right; European attitudes toward sex varied a great deal over that 1600-year period. But I do find this is acceptable as a description of something quite important that has happened over the past 150 years. Only as a description, though -- as an analysis it misses much that is crucial. While sexual liberation has for many people been mostly about fun and freedom, for others it has been about something more serious: overthrowing the patriarchal order responsible for violence, war, and the oppression of most of humanity by a small ruling class. I know that sounds strange in our cynical, post-modern ears, but in the nineteenth century bohemian sexuality really was put forward as a part of a broader Revolution that would lead to freedom for all of humanity. Sexual repression, the bohemians said, was both a key element of the repressive political order and a manipulative tool, used to make people feel guilty about their innate impulses toward liberation. The creation of a grand moral order centered on sexual sin kept us downtrodden in both psychological and political senses. Women especially were manipulated and controlled in this way, convinced that the only escape from their innate sexual sinfulness was to submit to the rule of men. For people like Margaret Mead, freeing women from the sexual control of men was the first step toward a just and peaceful world.
For an ever-expanding number of people born since the mid-1960s, the sexual world is radically different. Sex before marriage is the norm. There is comparatively little stigma attached to promiscuity. Masturbation is almost universally a matter of moral indifference. . . . More recently, we've also witnessed the rapid-fire mainstreaming of homosexuality and the transformation of the institution of marriage to accommodate it. . . .
Welcome to sexual modernity — a world in which the dense web of moral judgments and expectations that used to surround and hem in our sex lives has been almost completely dissolved, replaced by a single moral judgment or consideration: individual consent. As long as everyone involved in a sexual act has chosen to take part in it — from teenagers fumbling through their first act of intercourse to a roomful of leather-clad men and women at a BDSM orgy — anything and everything goes.
The problem with sexual liberation in the nineteenth century was that it led to babies, which are a way of controlling people (especially women) even more effective than preaching about sin. People with lots of children don't have time for revolution. Not until the spread of effective birth control in the twentieth century could sexual liberation become a more practical route to freedom.
That happened in the 60s, when the pill overturned the old sexual world. But for the people who led this trend and tried to articulate its meaning, sexual liberation was only one piece of a broad revolutionary program that included civil rights, economic equality, women's equality, peace, child-rearing without violence, and more. Part of the reason our memories of the 60s focus on sex and drugs is that most of the other goals no longer seem radical. Who now is defending wife-beating as a key pillar of the social order? Whites only hotels? Separate want-ad sections for men and women? The communes are mostly closed, the minibuses scrapped, but the culture was changed in profound ways.
So now what? I think about this all the time. Like Damon Linker I am ambivalent about the rampant public sexuality of our world and nervous about the collapse of marriage among the poor. But I have a strong sense that Victorian sexuality was connected to all the other oppressions of the nineteenth-century world, and to the extent that it wasn't just hypocrisy it worked only because of cruelty. I'm just not willing to shun a pregnant girl abandoned by her lover, let alone her family. I am also not willing to hush-up the sexual abuse of children to preserve the facade of a well-ordered moral world, or to wink at the sexual harassment of servants as an outlet for the pent-up desires of upper class men.
Sexual freedom has been woven through all the other transformations of post-World War II society -- equality for women, the end of legalized racism, the creation of non-patriarchal families and partnership marriage. I go back and forth in my own mind all the time about what this means. Was this inevitable? Is sexuality so fundamental to human life that every order is in large part a sexual order, every society defined by its attitudes toward sex? Some days I think this is silly; sex is just sex, with no more political importance than cuisine or bathroom habits. Other days I wonder if maybe sex really is fundamental, as both the old moralists and the bohemians said. If it is at the core of things, I wonder what the future holds for a people who seem to understand its power as little as we do.