Published March 21, 2023
Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited
by Mary Eberstadt, foreword by Cardinal George Pell
Ignatius, 199 pages, $19.95
Very early in her new book, Mary Eberstadt notes that a new kind of intolerance is “strangling open discussion across the West.” And as she argues in her text, this new brand of intolerance is linked closely with the sexual revolution. Now, at first hearing, that just doesn’t sound plausible. The sexual revolution was about an end to repressive moralizing. It was about greater tolerance for individual sexual freedom. It was about a healthier, more relaxed, less shame-infected attitude toward sexuality in general. And I know what I’m talking about. I was there in the late 1960s, and I thoroughly enjoyed its early stages.
But here’s the catch, which the author explores so persuasively in chapter 3. The new intolerance around sex is not an accident or “passing nuisance, but a full blown, quasi-religious substitute faith for Christianity. Its dogma both derives from and is designed to protect the sexual revolution . . . [and it’s] rooted in a rejection of the Christian moral code.” Thus, a virtue like modesty is not merely laughed at, but resented as a weed in the garden of sexual ecstasy. Celibacy is either incomprehensible, or seen as emotionally crippling. Normative heterosexuality has the unpleasant smell of a stable human nature; a nature that establishes one form of sexual behavior as normal, and others as wrong, unhealthy, and destructive.
So where does this lead; or rather, where has it led? I want to go back to the author’s point about the new intolerance “strangling open discussion across the West.” That word “strangling” in particular caught my eye. And the reason is simple. The University of Virginia social scientist, Bradford Wilcox, noted recently that one in three collegiate women now report being choked during their most recent sexual encounter. Research from the United States, the U.K., and Germany shows that choking is now prevalent among young adults in consensual sex, and women are disproportionately the target. Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but strangling one’s sexual partner doesn’t strike me as helpful to much intimacy—or even an especially fun time.
But it does make a perverse kind of sense. Beautiful things, removed from their intended purpose and misused, first become tiresome, then ugly, and then poisonous. The Marquis de Sade may have been a moral cretin and a thoroughly loathsome creature, but in his appetite for sexual deviance and violence, he was the logical end result of human sexuality without restraints. Sex, especially for men, has a strong undercurrent of aggression. In the biblical vocabulary, that aggression is a by-product of the fall. Becoming a mature adult male, instead of a drone or predator or Peter Pan, involves mastering and reshaping that aggression into an ability to protect and provide; to give and receive intimacy within the confines of a long-term, purpose-driven relationship.
In the C. S. Lewis story, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, the demons actually consume lost souls as a kind of cognac or elixir; in effect, hell feeds on the damned to satisfy its libido dominandi, its thwarted appetite to dominate. And something similar happens in a lot of today’s sexuality. Sex is about the self, getting and digesting what the self wants; taking and consuming satisfaction from the other sexually involved but entirely foreign self. The biblical ideal of “two becoming one flesh”—in anything but the passing instant—is definitely not the plan. But the really weird thing about the sexual revolution, sixty years on—and I never would have believed this when I was twenty—is that the frequency of sex between young adults has actually collapsed. And again, this is logical. It flows from fatigue, boredom, fear of effort, fear of failure, fear of disease . . . and pandemic pornography.
I’ve followed the author’s work for many years, and she’s simply a joy to read. You can’t finish Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited without coming away with a thorough understanding of how and why we behaved ourselves into our current sexual tar pit—and what the consequences are, as well as the implications for the future. Her chapters on the decline of the family and its effect on Western freedom, along with the bankruptcy of Christianity Lite as a solution to our problems, are especially strong.
But two chapters struck me with very personal force.
The first is chapter 7, “The Fury of the Fatherless,” originally published in First Things. I’m one of four children, and I was born when my parents were older. I was never really close to my dad. We had very different interests. But he was always there; always providing for us. We had great family vacations, and he clearly loved and supported my mother. I knew that he’d struggled with alcoholism earlier in their marriage. I didn’t know until I was in my twenties that he’d also been unfaithful to her for years before I was born. I’ve reflected on it many times, because there was no evidence of that infidelity in our family routine. And I’ve taken a couple of lessons from it: My father had the humility and courage to repent and change, and my mother had the mercy and courage to forgive and take him back. And both had the love to overcome the inevitable scars, to heal those wounds, and to give themselves wholeheartedly to their children.
In my life, the father I knew loved me despite our differences; modeled responsibility for his family; and loved the woman he married—my mother. Whatever had occurred in their past, I saw an example of married love lived out, day after day. And that witness of a husband and father trying to do his best shaped the direction of my life. The absence of fathers and father-figures in our current culture is one of the worst costs of the sexual revolution. And, as Eberstadt shows very powerfully, the social repercussions have been catastrophic.
The other chapter I need to mention is chapter 10, “The Prophetic Power of Humanae Vitae,” also first published in First Things. Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, has been a family friend for more than forty years. He’s also the godfather of our daughter Molly. During our child-bearing years, my wife Suann and I would routinely bicker about Natural Family Planning (NFP), and I would lose, and then I’d go looking for somebody I could whine to. So I did that once with Father Joe, and his answer was simply, “I know lots of couples who have no trouble at all with NFP.” So that was a mistake. For me anyway, NFP was never fun, and for years, it was a real pain in, well, the neck.
Now why would I share such personal information? It’s because I was wrong, and the Church was right. And I’m infinitely glad for it. Humanae Vitae forces a couple to talk to each other, again and again, about the most intimate thing in their shared life. Over time that conversation becomes a very strong bond of friendship, and the doorway to a constantly deepening intimacy. People who think marital romance will dry up in their fifties need their heads examined. It can—but not if you never stop cultivating the love. Having been there, take it from me: The fifties and sixties are great. And the seventies aren’t shabby either. But trying to communicate what I’ve just said to people thirty and forty years younger than I am is like whispering through three inches of bullet-proof glass. Mary Eberstadt does a marvelous job of showing why Humanae Vitae is not finally a burden. When lived with persistence and love, it’s a gift of sexual sanity and profoundly intimate satisfaction.
So buy the book. Read the book. And don’t share it. Make others buy it, too, because writers are inescapably poor, downtrodden, under-appreciated creatures. And they need the money.
This essay was originally delivered as a talk at a book signing for Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited in Washington, D. C.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.