The Context for the Sexual Revolution


When we look at the sexual revolution, we must honestly ask, how did all this happen? As noted in previous essays, the sexual revolution did not emerge in a vacuum. Modern societies created a context for moral revolution that had never before been available. In other words, certain cultural conditions had to prevail in order for the revolution to get the traction it needed to succeed. Let’s consider a few of the cultural factors that led to our current situation.

Urbanization, Technology, And The Weakening Of The Family

Modernity and modernization brought urbanization such that increased numbers of people were now living in cities, and the cities shaped the culture. Many observers of the sexual revolution point to the fact that, from the very beginning, this was a cosmopolitan revolution—emerging first in cities and then spreading out to the rest of the culture.

Technological advances also fueled the sexual revolution. Pornographers, for example, have taken advantage of every new technology from the printing press to the latest digital advances. Of course, the most essential technological achievement for the new sexual morality was the arrival of contraceptives and antibiotics. Put bluntly, so long as sex between a man and a woman implied the likelihood of pregnancy, there was a certain check on extramarital sexual activity. Once the birth-control pill arrived, with all of its promises of reproductive control, a biological check on sexual immorality that had shaped human existence from Adam and Eve forward was almost instantly removed. The sexual revolution could not have taken place without the arrival of effective, cheap, and widely available contraceptives.

Whereas many scholars recognize the importance of new contraceptive technology in the sexual revolution, fewer scholars have noted that the sexual revolution would not have progressed at the same speed without the emergence of antibiotics. This is because another major check on sexual immorality throughout human history has been disease. As Emory University economist Andrew Francis has observed: “The evidence . . . strongly indicates that the widespread use of penicillin, leading to a rapid decline of syphilis during the 1950s, is what launched the modern sexual era.” Clearly, we do not want to go back to an age without antibiotics. We are thankful for lifesaving drugs and medical technologies. We certainly do not reject all that modernity has brought. At the same time, Christians must recognize that every new technology brings new ethical and moral challenges—and often unintended consequences as well.

Science And The Sexual Revolution

The sexual revolution could also not have taken place without the fundamental intellectual change that would lead Americans to believe that a revolution in sexual morality was inevitable and right. The most important figure in this aspect of the revolution was Alfred C. Kinsey. In two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1948 and 1953, respectively, Kinsey became one of the major agents of moral revolution.

As we now know, Kinsey’s research was fraudulent from the start. For one thing, he drew his research sample from those who eagerly volunteered for his studies, including a sizable percentage of men in prisons. No credible researcher would give any credence whatsoever to the statistical claims Kinsey made concerning sexual behavior, but the media does. Nevertheless, the actual text of Kinsey’s book was far less important to the sexual revolutionaries than its cultural effect. Those who read the book carefully would have come to the horrifying recognition that Kinsey was tilting his research toward the population most likely to be living outside of what both Christianity and the larger society understood to be proper sexuality.

The Withering Of Vice

Philosopher Philip Kitcher makes the very important observation that the sexual revolution could not have happened without what he calls “the withering of vice.” What Kitcher also understands is that the withering of vice could not have happened without the withering of theism that came before it.

The modern or postmodern quest for sexual emancipation cannot be neutral when it comes to the teachings of the Bible and the moral witness of historic Christianity. It must not only be revised, as was the claim at the midpoint of the twentieth century and even into the 1960s, but it must be supplanted.

In terms of understanding the challenge we now face, I began my book We Cannot Be Silent with a quotation from Flannery O’ Connor, who says, “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.” To understand what we are up against is at least part of the challenge. Understanding the roots of the moral revolution requires some very careful thinking and the acknowledgment that the sexual revolution could not have happened without secularization and that secularization could not have progressed without producing the sexual revolution.

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