Published May 1, 2023
Editor’s note: Below is a lightly edited transcript of Alexandra DeSanctis’s response to Mary Harrington’s talk, published here yesterday. Their remarks were part of panel discussion on Harrington’s new book, Feminism Against Progress (Regnery 2023), co-hosted by Public Discourse and the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. The panel also featured responses from Christine Emba and Leah Libresco Sargeant, whose remarks will be published at Public Discourse later this week.
There’s a lot to appreciate about what Mary Harrington offers in her essay, “The Three Principles of Reactionary Feminism.” As she shows, one of the most interesting things about her argument is how she’s managed to, as she puts it, “reverse-engineer” such clear ideas and principles from her own long and winding ideological and personal journey.
I found a lot of things striking about both her book and essay, but for the sake of brevity, I want to focus a bit more on what her work has in common with a few other books in a similar genre. Last year I read my co-panelist Christine Emba’s book called Rethinking Sex, and a book by Louise Perry, called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. I think all three are fascinating, and we shouldn’t conflate them because they’re all quite different projects.
But what I found most striking in all three were their similarities, and their common insights are helpful for our discussion. I want to focus on just one of those commonalities in particular. All three books range from fairly to severely critical of much of the Sexual Revolution and the cultural landscape it created, and most striking in all three is this deep sense of underlying discomfort with the possibility that our current sexual norms are causing us to treat one another as objects rather than as persons.
None of these books pursues that argument especially explicitly. Nor do I suggest that the authors were trying to make that point in the first place. But it became apparent to me in reading all three of them: even with their unique arguments and distinct styles, they all exhibit this deep discomfort with sexual interactions that objectify human beings—which is to say, much of what we witness in the sexual landscape today.
If there’s something lacking in these newer diagnoses of the Sexual Revolution’s dysfunction, it’s not that they don’t go far enough; it’s that they don’t go deep enough. Much of the discussion around the Sexual Revolution focuses on its ideological problems or its obvious harms, especially for women. Mary’s book in particular was quite radical, in a good way, on both these scores.
But none of these accounts, in my view, is radical enough. They mostly focus on identifying these harms and their origins and then constructing various proposals and solutions for mitigating those negative effects. Many of their ideas are very good ones. But I think that rejecting the Sexual Revolution, ultimately, requires more than mitigating its ill effects. It requires rejecting its foundational assumptions: the assumption that human beings aren’t anything special; that just about anything and everything is okay in pursuit of pleasure as long as everyone consents; that we can treat each other and, indeed, ourselves, as objects if doing so brings some kind of temporary emotional or physical satisfaction.
Mary’s book does a good job of that. But my sense is that we can’t fully or coherently reject that flawed foundational assumption unless we also have a positive vision of what in fact is objectively true about human beings. A contrary view, in other words, would not only aim to identify and ameliorate the problems created by the Sexual Revolution, but would also assert that human beings are persons and not objects. It would assert that the fact of being human persons has great meaning for how we ought to treat ourselves and one another.
This framing would revolutionize our diagnosis of the Sexual Revolution’s failures. It would mean, for one thing, that we would no longer be stuck in this zone, where we have to come up with potential solutions by relying on various subjective metrics such as consent, power dynamics, historical practice, the factual record, or even a gut sense of “ickiness” to try to determine and prove which behaviors are right and which are wrong.
We can firmly identify some behaviors as right and others as wrong if and only if we have a positive understanding of the objective reality of what it means to be a human being—and, more than that, a human person. In other words, we need a coherent morality, grounded in the fact that human beings are persons, ends in themselves, and not means to an end. We’ll only get so far in critiquing the Sexual Revolution until we find some way, not only to reject its vision of human nature, but also to replace that vision with a coherent understanding of what a human person is, and of what that knowledge requires of us.
I would take this one step further and say that, at the end of the day, we’re struggling to see ourselves and one another as human persons rather than as objects, because we’ve lost sight of the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. A philosophy of personalism is certainly accessible to the secular mind, but ultimately, if we can’t operate from any objective belief about who we are and what we were made for—what it means to be a human person defined by something or someone other than ourselves—we’ll only ever have ourselves and our subjectivity as a reference point. Without God, we set ourselves up as the sole creators of our own universe, our meaning, our morality, our purpose—indeed, our identity. Without the notions of creation and givenness, without the knowledge that we were created out of love and for love, all we have is ourselves—and the notion of being a person as an end in oneself rather than an object will remain at least somewhat unintelligible or inaccessible.
By contrast, a coherent account of creation, givenness, human nature, and personalism is directly responsive to each flaw and harm generated by the Sexual Revolution ideology. The notion of being a human person means something substantive about who I am, how I should act, how I deserve to be treated, and how I must treat others. The fact of being human persons created male or female means something substantive about what sex is for, what is problematic about gender ideology, what marriage is, what men and women owe to one another, what parents owe to their children, what communities owe to families. The fact of being human persons—ends in ourselves and not means to an end—informs our understanding of what’s destructive about sex outside of marriage or about contraception, of why prostitution and pornography are antithetical to human dignity, of why abortion is a grave evil.
In short, the idea that we were created on purpose, out of love, as creatures with an objective identity and nature, as human persons with intrinsic dignity, is the most holistic rejection of and replacement for the Sexual Revolution’s ideology.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-author of Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing.