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A Lot of Groping, Yes, but Not Much Happiness
By Meghan Cox Gurdon
WHATEVER ELSE remains a puzzle these days, Scottish researchers may have at last discovered the reason why, after 30 years of frantic coupling with multiple partners, women are still no closer to achieving the erotic liberation promised them by the sexual revolution.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh recently found that during sexual intimacy, a woman's brain releases a chemical "love potion" that alters her brain's hormonal reactions. Not only does the release of this chemical, oxytocin, create for her a bond with her mate but it appears that the more sex the couple has, the deeper her sense of commitment and love will become. Men's brains -- surprise! -- do not work the same way. Which suggests that if you wanted to devise a prescription for sexual misery and social wreckage, 30 years of frantic, indiscriminate coupling would pretty much be it.
And if the Scottish research doesn't persuade you, " Modern Sex : Liberation and Its Discontents" surely must. This slim volume, containing essays from The Manhattan Institute's quarterly City Journal, brilliantly catalogs the still-unfurling consequences of the sexual revolution. Along with the delights of unbridled eroticism, these consequences include rampant illegitimacy, adolescent motherhood, mass divorce and sexual sophistication among the very young. "The sexual revolution has been above all a change in moral sensibility, in the direction of a thorough coarsening of feeling, thought, and behaviour," writes contributor Theodore Dalrymple.
Just for a moment, think of America as it was before, as Philip Larkin put it, "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three." Most adults got married and stayed married; most children were born and raised in nuclear families. Teenagers dated, "necked" and went steady. If a young woman got pregnant, the fellow was expected to marry her, sometimes with her daddy's shotgun pointed metaphorically at the nape of his neck. No doubt countless libidos and long-term aspirations were thwarted by such conventions, but many of us exist today only because that is how things worked back then.
Unfortunately, apres nous, le deluge. Sex burst out of its tattered Victorian corsetry, and everybody began groping at everybody else as furiously, frequently and imaginatively as possible. Shame and guilt were over, banished by the ghost of Margaret Mead. In one of her several splendid essays here, Kay S. Hymowitz writes that "during the Seventies, when the novels of Anais Nin and Erica Jong were popular, promiscuity became almost a matter of principle for many women newly liberated from old-fashioned notions of what good girls could and couldn't do. Sexual variety and abundance did not merely promise pleasure; they asserted women's freedom and independence."
And, lordy, did we get independence, men and women both. Today we are free to grope madly. Women are also free of the expectation that sexual advances might lead to love and commitment. Men are free from any meaningful responsibility for the women they sleep with or the children their liaisons may produce. Couples can play house for a few years and then change partners, do-si-do, with no fear of censure. One no longer hears even the disapproving "tsk-tsk" of respectable middle-age matrons: They're all at Pilates classes trying to stay sexy lest their husbands replace them with younger models. In fact, for women, the sexual revolution offers history's most spectacular case of being hoist on one's own petard. "Women have been [sexual liberation's] principle ideological advocates, men its principal beneficiaries," writes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in " Modern Sex ."
The ardent bedhoppers of the 1960s and 1970s tried to convince themselves that sex was pure, clean fun, that it shouldn't be fraught with feelings of delicacy or squeamishness. Perhaps they believed this; it is a certainty that they convinced the generations that came after them. The trouble is that "liberation" can only be experienced by revolutionaries themselves. For those who follow, it's just what you grow up in. So while the hippies and hipsters congratulated themselves on expunging sexual hang-ups, they created a society in which young people think there's no link between bodily and emotional intimacy.
So thoroughly have tender feelings been shorn from sexual relations that, as we read in Ms. Hymowitz's essay "Tweens: Ten Going on Sixteen," oral sex is not uncommon among middle-schoolers. Meanwhile, promiscuous college students no longer commit even to a one-night stand. In today's argot, students "hook up" and then return to their respective dorm rooms. And in a wince-making piece about sex ed that will have parents considering home schooling, Wendy Shalit observes that "those in kindergarten are urged to overcome their `inhibitions' before they have a clue what an inhibition means. Yet embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signalling that something very strange or very significant is going on. Without embarrassment, kids are weaker: more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak."
For tender feelings will persist: love and hope, also sadness and jealousy and dismay. " Modern Sex ," in its many eloquent essays, will confirm what many conservatives already believe: that the sexual revolution did not make us whole by liberating our true erogenous selves, but taught us to carve precious little bits off ourselves, wasting away our capacity for lasting marriage and deep sexual bonding.
Dr. Gareth Leng of the University of Edinburgh says it's not so surprising that the brain should retain a chemical record of sexual sensations long after the night's last cigarette, however ziplessly inconsequential Erica Jong wanted sex to be. After all, he says, "This type of intense contact does change us."
©2001 The Wall Street Journal
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