As rock music got domesticated and (after years of denial) the real dangers of drug use were reluctantly acknowledged, the Sexual Revolution has survived as the lasting achievement of “the Sixties” (actually the period roughly 1966-73), the principal area of life where the transgression of moral boundaries can be repeated over and over again.
In the 1950s society still officially disapproved of sex outside marriage—even in secular colleges, students could be expelled for engaging in it. But boundaries were being pushed, mainly by asking whether sex might be legitimate between two unmarried people who genuinely loved one another and intended a permanent commitment.
Given the subjectivity of the experience of “love,” this soon came to mean any strong attraction between two people, and by the end of the Sixties sex had come to be understood as “recreational,” up to and including intercourse between people who had met only casually.
Quite revealing was the new approved attitude towards pornography (often considered a necessary ingredient in casual sex), as liberals moved from defending the civil liberties of those whose actions might be thought morally despicable to insisting that pornography is psychologically liberating and has its own redeeming social value.
Although there was some agitation for “open marriage,” adultery was still thought to justify divorce, so that the continuous rise in the divorce rate seemed to testify to the increasing prevalence of adultery; ironically, however, the divorce rate eventually slowed because of another major achievement of the Sexual Revolution—fewer people were getting married.
Living together outside of marriage was often a defiant public statement, usually by celebrities, against the bourgeois idea of marriage—“we don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love.” But even as the lovers claimed to have a relationship higher and purer than conventional marriage, their relationship belied that claim—people lived together without marrying precisely in the expectation that it was a temporary arrangement that could be dissolved, often unilaterally, with minimal trouble or obligation. Some married people envied this ease of dissolution, which led to “no-fault divorce,” a term that conveyed the moral agnosticism of the age—who could be said to be at fault over anything?
Thus in a matter of a few years the entire Judeo-Christian ethic of sexuality, in which sexual activity was legitimate only in marriage, had been swept aside.
While Roe v. Wade is widely acknowledged as one of the most specious decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, the Griswold case of 1965, where the Court discovered a “right to privacy” in the Constitution justifying the sale of contraceptives, stands as the most perfect example of a judicial ruling based not on the Constitution itself but on the justices’ sense of the needs of the time.
The Sexual Revolution was getting underway, and the use of contraceptives had become an imperative. At almost that exact moment the invention of “the Pill” was announced; since then its availability has been routinely cited as the chief enabler of the Sexual Revolution. But the promised liberation from unwanted pregnancy through contraception proved illusory. The movement to legalize abortion began almost simultaneous with the Griswold decision and the marketing of the Pill.
It was imperative to the new sexual freedom that no firm line be drawn between contraception and abortion. The easy availability of contraceptives merely ratified the definitive separation between sex and procreation, and abortion had to be seen as merely another form of birth control.
Back in the middle of the Sixties, even liberal opinion for the most part accepted the claim that homosexuality was a psychic disorder, a judgment confirmed by the authority of Sigmund Freud himself. But it was a taboo simply waiting to be assaulted, since the definitive separation between sex and procreation left no basis for it.
The moral avant-garde had long considered the family to be an oppressive institution, and militant feminism was an inevitable unfolding of the spirit of the Sixties, as women were defined as the ultimate oppressed group because their oppression had the deepest roots of all—in biology itself.
Feminism required nothing less than a revolution in the relationship between mothers and children and husbands and wives. Motherhood was no longer to be considered natural but a social construct. The childless marriage was extolled, and the contraceptive revolution, especially abortion, came virtually to define feminism.
Paradoxically, the very dogmatism of the pro-abortionists demonstrated their moral insecurity. A pragmatic, common-sense attitude might conclude that abortion is permissible, even advisable, under certain circumstances, while remaining troubled by the moral issue. Instead its proponents require the complete suppression of the moral sense, a massive deadening of conscience.
The moral atmosphere of the Sixties was a tangled web indeed, and it set in motion a series of deceptions that show no sign of abating.
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James Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University. His History of the Catholic Church has just been published by Ignatius Press.