If, for Francis Fukuyama the end of the Cold War marked “the end of history,” then, for conservative columnist Ross Douthat, the “sexual revolution” marked the beginning of it. Before then, in Douthat’s view, there was only the timelessness of the heterosexual, monogamous family. Commitment to this familial arrangement is what made both Europe and the Catholic church great. According to Douthat, we had it all, but then lost it.
Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, we had it all, and then it was taken away from us by a murky cabal of ne’er-do-wells known as “the sexual revolution.”* For Douthat, most bad things can be traced back to this cosmos-shattering event: for example, marital unhappiness; the unhappiness of women; the increase in the rate at which Catholic priests sexually assaulted teenagers; increased suicide rates; decreased rates of sexual activity; and apparently, the massacre in Toronto last week.
According to Douthat, the man who perpetrated that massacre may have used the wrong means, but he totally had a point. Even more, he is a prophet. His belief that men have a right to sex from women (or robots) is in fact the wave of the future. Sometime soon, Douthat concludes, everyone will think like this man does. Seemingly like those who knew the Iraq war was evil even before the first cruise missile lit up the Iraqi sky, this murderer ought to be numbered among “the extremists and radicals and weirdos [who] see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.”** Hey, some people are “extremists for love;” others are extremists for men’s right to sex with hot women.
(It is unclear whether Douthat also believes that certain women’s inability to have sex with the men of their choice also raises urgent socio-political questions so I guess we’ll just have to wait until the next time a sex-deprived heterosexual woman sets about on a murder-spree to find out.)
I’m being a bit facetious here. As Douthat clarified on Twitter, this piece “really isn’t about incel.”
I suspect that Douthat’s primary interest in writing this piece lies neither with last week’s massacre nor the misogynistic ideas that inspired it. He dwells upon this event because he believes it provides him an opportunity to point out how much the Toronto murderer’s ideas have in common with many of the ideas about sex purportedly promulgated by those on “the left.”
This intent makes Douthat very much on trend. Especially since the election of the current president, many conservative thinkers increasingly fixate on one end: showing that “liberals” are hypocrites who only appear to believe in the things they claim to believe in. If you believe that men who feel entitled to sex with women are wrong then you should also have a problem with the sex robot people but you don’t, so there.
This endless game of liberal “gotcha” aims to prove that all evils, especially those “liberals” most hate are the inevitable result of liberal beliefs. It delights in telling “liberals,” you have only yourself to blame.
If only you had not been so mean to people who live in “small towns,” we would not have had to vote for Donald Trump.
If only you had not called me a racist, I would not have become a racist.
If only you would have had sex with me, I would not have had to kill those people.
Douthat, of course, is neither a murderer, a misogynist, nor a Trump stan. But he traffics in this same Trump-era conservative logic. In this way, Douthat describes the sexual revolution as an instance of “neoliberal deregulation.” And, Douthat reasons, it was this sexual neoliberalism that would ultimately deprive men like the Toronto murderer of sex and drive him, however mistakenly, to commit mass murder. You guys hate neoliberalism so much but you love the sexual revolution which is the same thing, so there! ha! boo-ya!
Again attempting to turn liberal rhetoric against itself, Douthat implies that, just like political neoliberalism, sexual neoliberalism has “winners and losers.” The Toronto murderer found himself among the latter. Like the “coal miner” of Trumpian lore, who prospered until “Washington elites” conspired to put them out of business, the Toronto murderer is not just a loser in the new sexual economy; he is also its victim. I’m not a Trump fan, but he has a point, ok?
Rather than expressing loyalty to a long tradition of misogyny, the Toronto murderer commits a uniquely modern crime. Douthat’s column implies that, if it weren’t for the sexual revolution, then all of those people might still be alive.***
Douthat’s logic is horrifying, but it’s also silly. The diverse and sometimes cacophonous array of events comprising “the sexual revolution” did not destroy sexual regulation; it introduced new ones. Douthat likes to portray the pre-sexual revolution past as one of greater sexual restraint and decorum, but this comparative classification proves more self-serving than true. One need not even open a history book to realize this: after all, #MeToo Movement demands not greater license but greater restraint. It pursues one, simple goal: that everyone refrain from having sex with un-consenting partners. The Movement’s critics in fact accuse it of succumbing to a fainting-couch prudishness better left in pre-sexual revolutionary past. Lighten up, they say; don’t be so uptight.
But nuanced analyses of a phenomenon as complex and contested as the sexual revolution make it hard to cast as “heretics” all those who have turned their back on a sexual past that never existed.
Douthat’s “nah-na-nah-na-boo-boo” strategy of argumentation similarly transforms men like the Toronto murderer into “discontents of sexual liberation.” In so doing, he accords their discontentment moral standing. For Douthat, the Toronto murderer proposes an idea we ought to take seriously.
But he does not accord similar moral standing to the many discontents of Catholic sexual teaching–lesbian, gays, transgender people, and divorced and re-married Catholics. In his view, gay rights activists, for example, are not among “the extremists and radicals…[who] see the world…clearly” and anticipate a more humane future. No, they endanger and threaten the Catholic church. Their ideas must be defeated; their beliefs deserve not contemplation, but dismissal.
One imagines that if a disgruntled queer Catholic drove their car into a crowd in order to express their rage at repressive church teaching, Douthat would not write a column that argued, “hey, he has a point.”
Douthat portrays sexism as something that is obviously bad but never really the problem. If only this were true. Unfortunately, sexism, like the larger phenomenon of sexual violence, is a disease that requires its own cure. We cannot solve either evil by indirect means. We can end sexism only by ending sexism.
Douthat loves to cite the menacing example of Hugh Hefner as proof that the sexual revolution harmed women at least as much as it harmed them.
But of course the sexual revolution emboldened certain sexists. What else would we expect of a sexist country like our own? With Hefner, Douthat proves only that sexism must be confronted directly.
Men rape women regardless of whether they have wives-sometimes, they rape their wives. Men rape when they have been encouraged to get married and when they have been allowed to avoid it. Men rape when they have several wives and when they have only one.
Strengthening norms against extra-marital sex will not interrupt the habituating power of misogyny any more than loosening them did.
Marriage-friendly social norms prove equally irrelevant to the rates at which prison guards sexually assault inmates and adults sexually abuse children.
Douthat wants to make sex great again. But it was never great. For many of us, it’s still not great. But this proves no cause for nostalgia. Optimism would also lead us astray. Thankfully, faith in the God of Israel offers us another option: eschatology.
Unlike Douthat’s nostalgia, an eschatological approach to human history exalts neither the past nor the present. It clings to neither and is unsatisfied in both. The gift of eschatological hope renders us unable to feel fully at home in any time. It makes us appreciate the time that has passed.
Perhaps most importantly, it empowers us to work for that day when time will be up.
*Sometimes Douthat argues that he doesn’t want to cancel the sexual revolution completely; he just wants to rid it of its bad things. Its hard to know what to make of this because: (a): pretty much no one thinks that every single one of the many, sometimes contradictory events that can be counted as a part of “the sexual revolution” was good; (b): he only mentions the purported good when attempting to bolster the credibility of arguments he makes outlining its bad qualities; (c) I am unaware of his ever defending the “good” parts of the sexual revolution any time they have been under attack or called into doubt.
**It’s dangerously unclear whom this descriptor describes, the murderer, those who advocate for sex robots, or someone else entirely. Given that Douthat wants to present the ideas of the murderer and sex-robot advocates as deeply similar, it is hard to shake the sense that he wants his reader to at least wonder if this appellation applies to the murderer.
***It is unclear which sexual economy Douthat favors in place of the sexual neoliberalism he opposes: sexual Fordism? sexual Keynesianism? sexual communism? sexual mercantalism?
Well reasoned! Thank you. I had no idea where to begin with Douthat’s column–but you did.
Great to see Dr. Grimes in print here. Thanks for this article. As a Protestant and long-time pastor, I increasingly pulled back from addressing sexuality in all of its dimensions (marriage, gender roles, LGBT-issues, family values, etc.) I justified my neglect of these issues on several grounds, all of which receive scant attention. First, I believe that there is much less sex in the Bible than in real life. Notice that the Commonweal article revolves around one verse in Mark. The anti-gay crowd tweezers out a fragment here and there from Leviticus to justify its stance. As a point of comparison, the Bible devotes sustained attention to economic justice or the abuse of power. Second, I take seriously the titanic shift in the OT away from archaic fertility-based religion. Biblical faith, with its transcendent God, runs parallel with the more traditional views of human life. Third, a fairly strong case can be made (Stephen Barton) that the NT, in view of its apocalyptic outlook, de-emphasizes marriage. Fourth, the unmarried status of Jesus Christ contributes to a vision of full humanity as individual and not requiring a marriage partner. Fifth, the de-emphasis on family as liturgical center and the setting where the Messiah would be born.
I think that by de-absolutizing sexuality, Christian faith liberates, mostly women, from the abuses they can suffer from in a marriage structure which receives more support from the Church than it deserves. And as a second benefit, the differentiation of faith and sexuality deprives the racist thinking from rooting racial supremacy in family “values.” Racists tend to want to make dating, marrying, gender roles, procreating, family life great again.