National Post

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Thursday, March 18, 1999

Freedom, baby
Only someone blissfully ignorant of history could believe the sexual revolution has done the average woman more harm than good

Donna Laframboise
National Post


At the beginning of the sexual revolution, men and women reveled in each other's beauty, sharing their bodies lavishly.

It is fashionable in certain circles these days to declare that the sexual revolution was a mistake. According to this perspective, when society adopted more liberal views toward sex, men were the winners and women the losers.

In What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, Danielle Crittenden insists the old adage still applies: Men won't buy the cow if they can get the milk for free. She says that while the sexual revolution gave women more options, it has brought them "less happiness, less fulfillment, less dignity" and "less romance."

Ms. Crittenden believes women want marriage and children, but that men just want to sleep around. Convinced that the domestic aspirations of many young women are being hindered by the current state of affairs, she thinks all women should refuse men sex until their wedding nights.

F. Carolyn Graglia, the author of the 1997 Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, holds similar views. She argues that women have exchanged "the magic and mystery of romance" for casual sex that has left them feeling "demeaned and degraded."

Misled by "feminist sexual revolutionaries," Ms. Graglia believes young women have "been convinced to play the whore for their male peers."

In A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, author Wendy Shalit blames sexual liberation for undermining rules that protected women from male aggression -- including harassment, stalking and rape. In her view, traditional feminine modesty, including no sex before marriage, "is a guarantor of a very old-fashioned kind of romantic love."

The sexual revolution has, indeed, had unintended consequences. When pre-marital sex between adults lost its social stigma it was perhaps inevitable that more adolescents would engage in sexual intercourse earlier. For any society that believes children deserve the best possible start in life, this is no cause for celebration.

Despite the ready availability of birth control, one in 20 Canadian teen girls and one in 10 American ones still become pregnant each year. Many of the babies born to these mothers spend their early lives on social assistance in bad neighbourhoods, surrounded by demoralized individuals. A mountain of reputable data tell us that children of single parents are at significantly higher risk of a long list of social ills, including behavioural and psychiatric problems, school dropout, delinquency, and suicide.

Responsible advocates of sexual liberation, such as author Nancy Friday, acknowledge that these children are casualties of the sexual revolution. Ms. Friday, who has chronicled female sexual fantasies in books such as My Secret Garden, now urges teens to refrain from sex until they are older.

Adamant that every child deserves two involved parents, Ms. Friday also believes that full-fledged sexual relationships interfere with crucial adolescent development. In The Power of Beauty she writes: "I'm not saying don't fall in love in your teens. I'm not crazy. It is intercourse . . . that a 14-year-old simply isn't prepared for . . . Believe me, young girls, believe me in this if in nothing else. Adolescent sex isn't worth what is being forever lost."

If these were the kinds of arguments being presented by Ms. Crittenden and her colleagues, their views would be compelling. But their main preoccupation is something more ethereal: female happiness. Sounding much like the feminists they frequently criticize, these authors insist contemporary North American women -- the most privileged females in the history of the world -- are wallowing in misery.

In the words of Ms. Shalit: "I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously . . . A lot of young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy: unhappy with their bodies, with their sexual encounters, with the way men treat them on the street -- unhappy with their lives."

But even if we accept the premise that women today are less content than their predecessors (a tenuous one for which these writers offer little persuasive evidence) only someone blissfully ignorant of history could believe the sexual revolution has done the average woman more harm than good.

"People accuse me of wanting to go back to the '50s," 23-year-old Ms. Shalit told a journalist recently. "I always say, 'The 1850s.' " But those old enough to remember the 1960s beg to differ. In 1962, Bonnie Johnson was an 18-year-old nursing student in a Winnipeg hospital. At the time it was still a Criminal Code offence to distribute birth control, as well as to disseminate information on the subject.

Those being the days before universal medical coverage, financially well-off women were able to pay for doctor's visits where they could potentially secure prescriptions for the Pill -- so long as everyone pretended the drugs were being used to correct menstrual irregularity. Poorer women, on the other hand, were forced to use clinics located in hospitals -- institutions unwilling to subvert the law.

Ms. Johnson, who is currently the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada, says she was compelled to turn away women who came to the hospital clinic where she worked pleading for help in preventing further pregnancies. Regarding an occasion in which she and a medical intern assisted a particular woman by determining what size of diaphragm she required, Ms. Johnson says: "I would have been kicked out of training if anyone had found out." (Condoms and diaphragms were available in pharmacies, but only to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.)

Incredibly, most doctors were themselves ill-prepared to assist their patients. As late as 1960, not a single medical school in the country taught students about birth control. Percy Skuy, then a sales representative for Ortho Pharmaceuticals, was a member of the audience in 1961, when the late Prof. Douglas Cannell of the University of Toronto made history by delivering the first formal lecture on contraceptives to Canadian medical students.

"Ladies and gentlemen, today I'm going to give you an illegal lecture," Mr. Skuy remembers Prof. Cannell declaring, "And if I go to jail, you're all coming with me."

Mr. Skuy says he smuggled contraceptives into hospitals in his pockets, fearing he would be refused entry if he carried them in his bag. If he met a doctor who wanted to learn about them, their discussions took place behind closed doors. It was not until 1969 that the Criminal Code sanctions were finally scrapped.

Ms. Crittenden and her colleagues are highly critical of the sex education that is currently provided in schools, and it may be true that some children are being exposed to too much too early. But while she and others of her generation lucky enough to come from liberal, affluent, literate households can claim that "most of us had avidly read the copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Sensuous Woman that we'd come across on our parents' (or friends' parents') bookshelves," the fact remains that their own mothers were denied rudimentary information about their bodies as teenagers.

Ms. Crittenden and her colleagues believe securing a suitable husband is so critical that women should place their long-term aspirations ahead of their short-term ones and deny themselves sexual gratification prior to marriage. Some women might agree. But let us not forget that it is only in the wake of the sexual revolution that this half of the population has been permitted to acknowledge that it even has a sex drive.

Contemporary magazine covers advertising "Ten Ways to Drive Him Wild in Bed," may strike some of us as both trivializing and tiresome. But by ignoring sex back in the 1950s, these same magazines reinforced the guilt women felt merely because they possessed a libido.

Since the Garden of Eden, there has been a tradition of blaming sex -- particularly sex enjoyed by women -- for all manner of social problems. Ms. Shalit's contention that it "is no accident that harassment, stalking, and rape all increased" when women became more equal participants in the sexual arena is an odious twist on that old canard.

Whether sexual violence has increased -- or is merely being reported more frequently -- is a highly debatable point. But even if Ms. Shalit is correct, there is always a price to be paid for freedom, including sexual freedom. If it's safety that we value above all else, we may as well imprison ourselves within sterile bunkers and throw away the key. According to Ms. Shalit's logic (she claims modesty "gives women freedom from harassment and rape"), we would then be free of all sorts of misfortunes -- from flat tires on our bicycles to fiery deaths in plane crashes.

There are moments when all of us think we might prefer clear-cut codes of conduct to an endless succession of messy choices. But while the life of a serf is infinitely less complicated than that of a fully enfranchised citizen, most of us consider the rewards of liberty to be worth the "mire of indeterminacy and insecurity" Ms. Shalit so decries.

Presented in their best light, the concerns of Ms. Crittenden and her colleagues have some validity. These writers are deeply troubled by the fact that loyalty and permanence now appear to be in short supply in male-female relationships. They are understandably concerned that young people who aren't ready for sexual intercourse receive precious little explicit support from the larger community. They legitimately worry that some young women are choosing badly where sex and love are concerned.

But while they talk a great deal about love and romance, their approach to these matters is unlikely to produce much of either. Rather than encouraging men and women to embrace one another with mutual honesty, trust and respect, Ms. Crittenden ultimately reduces marriage to a financial transaction. In her view, sex is a bargaining chip -- one that women should exchange for nothing less than a wedding ring.

If women persist in believing they "are every bit as sexually free and nonchalant as men," she says, they shouldn't complain that men "show less inclination to stay with us, or that sex generally feels more meaningless. After all, when something becomes widely and cheaply available, its value usually goes down."

Yet although Ms. Crittenden is convinced females cherish commitment more than males, every available study indicates that women walk away from marriages twice as often as men. As Cathy Young writes in Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, "Despite the talk of male flight from marriage due to an abundance of free milk," in a 1990 public opinion poll, 70% of both single men and women said they hoped to marry. Ms. Young further reports that, in 1994, four out of 10 teenage girls, but only three out of 10 boys, told pollsters they "thought they could have happy lives if they didn't marry."

Together with Ms. Crittenden, Ms. Graglia and Ms. Shalit, Ms. Young is a political conservative. But perhaps because she spent the first 17 years of her life in the former Soviet Union, she is far less receptive than they to the idea that "women must be denied [sexual] freedom for their own good." She knows that liberty is worth having for its own sake, and harbours no naive expectation that happiness should automatically follow.

Ms. Young also rejects the offensive subtext found in the work of Ms. Crittenden and her colleagues: that "the male . . . will be a pig if given half a chance and was given such a chance by feminism and the sexual revolution."

At the beginning of the sexual revolution, a truce was declared in the gender wars for a few brief years -- at least among some segments of the population. Rather than being used as leverage, sex was freely enjoyed. Men and women reveled in each other's beauty, sharing their bodies comfortably and lavishly. The 1997 film, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, captures the spirit of those times admirably.

At one point in the film, the male protagonist defends the sexual revolution: "If we'd known the consequences," he says, "we would have done things differently -- but the spirit would have remained the same." The point, he insists, was "freedom, baby."

Freedom from appalling ignorance, senseless guilt, and needless fear. The views of Ms. Crittenden, Ms. Graglia and Ms. Shalit notwithstanding, none of that is bad for women.

Copyright Southam Inc.