The past few weeks have seen multiple variation on the theme, “The Republican War against Women” trotted out by Democratic Party aficionados. The attacks would be laughable were the stakes not so high. Let’s leave aside the super-hypocrisy of crying “foul” over Rush Limbaugh’s language which was pristine compared to that which is regularly used against Republican and conservative women. That providing free (i.e. people other than those using it paying for it) contraception should be the critical issue of our day is of course, ludicrous. Setting up the straw man that any politician wants the government to make contraception illegal is demagoguery, not discourse.
But has the sexual revolution, which was facilitated by the easy availability of contraception, enhanced or damaged more women’s lives? Does even discussing this question make many people uncomfortable? Perhaps Rush Limbaugh would be more of a gentleman now if others hadn’t previously raced to erase the term ‘ladylike’ from our national dialogue.
One of life’s frustrating realities is that trying to solve a problem sometimes causes more harm than good. That doesn’t mean that the problem was trivial; it means that changing the status quo isn’t always beneficial or even benign. Early feminists were upset about a sexual double standard. In large parts of society, men who sexually experimented before marriage were given a pass while women who did the same were maligned. College boys were expected to sow their wild oats while girls who did the same were judged critically. Let’s focus on this for a few minutes.
If the problem here was inequality, then there were two ways to deal with it. The Democratic Party and liberals could have led the legislative charge to penalize certain behaviors as they as they did to reduce smoking, for example. For those of us less comfortable with legislation being the answer to all problems, society could have unleashed social pressure to disparage the undesired behavior. It is not really that long ago when dorms were all single sex and visitors of the opposite sex were supervised. If the male dorms had less rigid rules and curfews, more stringencies could have been placed on the men rather than loosening the rules on the females. Instead of promulgating the idea that living together before marriage was normative, society could have promoted the idea that men who slept around were irresponsible, untrustworthy and immature.
Instead, the path chosen was to challenge any social standards which suggested that there was a positive value in chastity, and to encourage young women to model their behavior after that of self-centered men. That certainly solved the inequality problem, even if it did so by assuming the superiority of the male paradigm.
Maybe the real problem was not inequality but the damage caused by separating sex and marriage? If the problem was actually the casual acceptance of improper behavior among men, then promoting equally promiscuous behavior among women made the problem worse not better. What if both men and women, but particularly women, are happiest in monogamous, long-term, committed relationships? What if the psychological and emotional health of many women is damaged by treating sex casually, a contention supported by mental health professionals who serve women rather than political ideologies? Part of today’s social gulf is between those who think that loosening sexual standards has brought greater happiness to all and those who think the cure caused more pain and suffering than it alleviated. Certainly, the utopian vision of joyful womanhood which was supposed to follow the unshackling of religious and moral chains has not materialized. It is easy and common today to mock moral positions which were normative only a few years ago. But there are millions of unhappy, hurt and suffering women, many of whom are on or have been on college campuses, who might well be leading happier lives today had those old-fashioned positions been strengthened rather than weakened.