Has the sexual revolution come full circle?
That’s been the subject of several editorials in conservative publications of late, whose authors observe a marked shift in progressive rhetoric about the hookup scene, particularly on college campuses. Writers like Heather Mac Donald in The Weekly Standard note that censures and policy changes in schools around the country display a radically new attitude toward casual encounters between students.
Since the 1960s, the predictable slide of collegiate culture toward a bacchanal of sexual permissiveness has upended the old-fashioned view that men and women fill distinct roles in relationships. For generations, women played the pursued, men the pursuers. In a culture that placed a premium on virginity, a young woman needed no excuse to refuse sex. Her default answer was “no.”
“The sexual revolution threw these arrangements aside,” writes Mac Donald. “From now on, males and females would meet as equals on the sexual battlefield. The ideal of female modesty, the liberationists declared, was simply a cover for sexism. Chivalry was punished; females were assumed to desire sex as voraciously as males. … The default for premarital sex was now ‘yes’ rather than ‘no.’”
But progressive feminists are lately experiencing buyer’s remorse. Having achieved a level sexual playing field for men and women, many are apparently shocked to discover that men play the field like professionals — pressuring young women for favors, offering little commitment in return, and generally behaving as boorishly as they can. As University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus argues in his book Premarital Sex in America, economics offers a crass but accurate analogy for what’s happened. In fact, he says, it all comes down to supply and demand.
Once upon a time, Regnerus explains, women controlled the sexual marketplace. By collectively setting a high price on sex (marriage or at least long-term commitment), women ensured that men were willing to go the distance to earn their affection. This arrangement protected women, who have more to lose from an ill-conceived one-night stand than men do. But with the sexual revolution’s insistence on equality in the bedroom and access to contraceptives, pornography, and commitment-free trysts, women lost control of the sexual “market.” Now men, saturated by an inexhaustible supply of cheap sex, control the market. And with little incentive to pay the high price of marriage and commitment, droves of men opted for the playboy lifestyle.
It turns out many feminists resent this new arrangement, demanding men play traditional roles even while insisting on gender equality. A new California law, for instance, requires colleges to make sure students never hook up without “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” from both parties. Legislators intended the new rule to curtail what many feminists see as a burgeoning “rape culture” on college campuses — one for which Mac Donald says there’s little evidence.
On paper, California’s new law looks egalitarian. But in practice, it reverses decades of sexual revolution in universities, where progressives have long led the way in distributing condoms, encouraging experimentation, and dismissing traditional values.
Mac Donald illustrates this with a recent incident at Occidental College, where school officials expelled a male student for engaging in consensual sex with a female student. Both were drunk, and cell phone records show the students had planned their encounter beforehand. But when the young woman subsequently regretted her decision and charged the young man with rape, a college tribunal wasted no time in disciplining him.
In effect, says Mac Donald, feminists have rehabilitated the old view that men are responsible for saying “no” when a consenting but imprudent woman says “yes.” Had the young man at Occidental complained, it’s doubtful school officials would have expelled the female student for “raping” him. It is, says Mac Donald, a blatant double-standard.
But she actually finds it encouraging. Why? It shows that progressive feminists know men and women aren’t the same, no matter how often and loudly they insist otherwise. The sexual revolution’s decades-long experiment is failing, and increasing frustration among feminists over the hookup culture reveals cracks in the dogma that “free love” is good for everyone. And she says conservatives (not to mention Christians) should welcome a return to more restrictive sexual norms on college campuses, where the myth of safe sex has left a wake of heartbreak and chaos.
Believers can recognize here the truth of Genesis 1:27 — that God created us male and female. Marriage, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:4, is God’s intended and exclusive haven for sexual relations. And the brokenness that results from ignoring these truths might be the hardest lesson many American students learn in college.