Putting the sexual revolution genie back in the bottle — it can be done

James Taranto says that the Left has ceased to be a revolutionary movement.  Instead, it is a monolithic institution that spends its time trying to preserve the changes it has already wrought in society.  The two big changes Taranto mentions are the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, and the sexual revolution of the 1970s and 1980s.  With regard to the latter, he points to Ann Patchett’s defense of the modern sexual status quo in America.  Patchett contends that a revolution, once done, cannot be undone.  Says Patchett:

Here’s the thing about revolutions–there is no taking them back. . . . If you feel that the sexual revolution destroyed the American family by giving women power over their reproductive choices, and that power turned daughters and wives, by and large, into a bunch of wanton hussies, well, stew over your feelings all you want, but you might as well give up thinking that it is possible to herd us up and drive us back into the kitchen. . . .

For those who remain bitter about the revolution and wish it had never happened, join hands with the likes of me, who see the rights and freedoms of women as the only possible outcome for a thinking society.

Taranto points out the obvious fallacy in Patchett’s rather naive belief that you cannot put the genie back in the bottle (or, more prosaically, reverse historic trends):

The presumption that history inevitably moves in one ideological direction is reminiscent of Marx, just as the determination to defend decades-old revolutionary gains echoes the Brezhnev doctrine.

In one sense, of course, Patchett is right. Time moves only in one direction, and events that have happened cannot unhappen. The consequences of the sexual revolution will always be with us, just as the consequences of the Russian Revolution still are. But just as in the Soviet Union, that does not preclude the possibility of some sort of counterrevolution. The intellectual frailty of today’s defenses of the sexual revolution is one reason we think a sexual counterrevolution may be in the offing in the coming decades.

Apropos the sexual revolution, and the fact that sexual mores are anything but irrevocable, think about this:  The Victorian era, one of the most sexually staid periods in modern Western history, followed swiftly upon the heels of the extraordinary licentiousness that characterized the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  (For more on that pre-Victorian sexual revolution, check out The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, by Faramerz Dabhiowala. I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know if I’ll agree with its ultimate conclusions, but I do know that it provides detailed evidence about the social debauchery that existed side-by-side with Jane Austen’s refined world.)

It was no coincidence that the restrained Victorians immediately followed the Georgian rakes.  The Victorian era was a direct response to the social decay and upheaval of that earlier sexual revolution.  It was, to use Taranto’s word, a Counter-Revolution, one that took place, not in the streets, but in drawing rooms, parlors, and bedrooms.  As much as anything, a social revolution can result from a sense of repugnance.  Society may feel that it has reached a point of almost no return, and withdraw, much as a snail does when it senses a killing amount of salt in its environment.

I do not believe that our society will revert to barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, just as the Victorians didn’t revert to wimples and witch-burning.  I do believe, however, that an increasing number of American people feel that they are staring into a moral abyss, and that they need to draw back before they (and their children) are pitched into the darkness below.