Consequences of the Sexual Revolution
In much of the world, long-held traditions about sexuality, marriage and preparing young people for family life have been severely challenged during the past several decades. Teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and other serious issues of our times were not major public concerns until the late 1960s, when a radical shift in attitudes and behavior began among Western youth. That tide of change went on to revolutionize the moral climate in much of the world, and the current prevalence of sexual imagery and language in popular culture continues to promote a permissive attitude toward sexual relations.
In some societies, religious and cultural influences have protected young people from some of the trends evident elsewhere, but as the internet, social media, and ease of travel transcend geographical and political borders, these religious and cultural factors may become less influential. There is an urgent need to understand and address the real-life challenges that young people face in regard to love and sexuality.
Sex education was not a topic of major concern before the sexual revolution began in the United States and Europe. The abandonment of traditional constraints on sexual behavior gave birth to the terms “free love” and “free sex.” The underlying expectation was that greater sexual freedom would lead to greater happiness. However, the sexual revolution has brought an avalanche of social and health problems.
The psychological and emotional scars resulting from uncommitted sexual relationships precipitate anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies, divorce, and family breakdown. Sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies raise concerns about public health and welfare.
-Development of the Sexual Revolution
The 1950s represented the height of family stability in the United States. Soldiers returned home to marry, build a career, and raise a family. Advances in medicine ensured better health and longer life. Post-war security meant greater freedom and prosperity. Two-parent families were the norm. People were expected to remain chaste until marriage, and most couples were faithful to their marriage vows.
However, as protective as these social norms were, there was a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about sexuality. People sometimes experienced low levels of sexual fulfillment in marriage. A façade of respectability could hide infidelity or abuse. As society became more mobile, couples were cut off from traditional sources of support and guidance provided by extended families and stable communities.
There was little premarital counseling, and few programs existed to help couples overcome difficulties in their relationships.
When people began to regard family obligations as mere formalities, they became attracted to the emphasis on individual fulfillment, growth, and autonomy popularized in the 1970s. In addition, developments in psychology, sociological research, and the entertainment industry helped discredit norms of purity and faithfulness.
In reaction to the failure of traditional values to deal with many of the challenges of the post-World War II era, an ideology espousing sexual permissiveness arose, largely based on the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud held that the sex drive was the strongest motive and, therefore, sexual repression was the source of mental illness. These ideas fueled opposition to self-restraint and traditional sexual norms.
The zoologist Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) lent a façade of scientific respectability to the notions of sexual license. Kinsey was able to promote his belief in the human need for frequent sexual outlets of any kind through his widely accepted studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). These had a significant impact on the development of modern Western culture by exaggerating the prevalence of premarital sex, infidelity, and homosexuality.
Investigation has revealed that Kinsey used small or unrepresentative samples, prejudiced interview questions, and skewed statistical methods. The 18,000 people he interviewed were not randomly selected, and they were not representative samples. For example, 25 percent of the men were criminals or former criminals, and up to five percent were male prostitutes. It is not surprising that high rates of homosexuality and perversion were reported. Questions about wide ranges of sexual behavior were phrased in ways to suggest a positive response. In addition, Kinsey presented data on the sexual activity of children based solely upon the reports of one pedophile's abuse of over 300 victims. Finally, Kinsey had a clear agenda to legitimate homosexuality, pedophilia, and promiscuous sex in general -- activities in which he and his colleagues participated.[i]
The sex entertainment industry pioneered by Hugh Hefner (Born 1926), founder of the Playboy business empire, popularized the ideas of the sexual revolution. Hefner's magazine glamorized recreational sex and pornography to an entire generation of professional men. Playboy Magazine portrays marriage and parenthood as restraints on personal freedom, and sex as purely a private matter between consenting partners. The sex trade burgeoned and promiscuity saturated the arts and entertainment industry.
The economic and social dislocations of World War II and the explosion of mass media and the entertainment industry challenged traditional views of life. The dramatic increase in birthrate after the war produced what is known as the baby-boom generation, which began to come of age in the 1960s. For the first time, significant numbers of American youth delayed marriage and employment in order to pursue a college education. They tended to reject many of the values of their parents and the assumptions of the Cold War period, turning instead to radical ideas. Advertising and the entertainment industry focused on the tastes of this large population group.
Since Freud opened the door to the bedroom with his psychoanalytic theories, major shifts in attitudes, behavior, and regulations about sexuality have emerged. Sexual liberation became the central axis of many radical movements of the 1960s. Authors such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich opposed the ethics of self-restraint, hard work, and fidelity that were promoted as the family norm. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was an icon of the counter-culture revolution who coined the term sexual revolution. He advocated abolition of traditional sexual morality, viewing the family as a repressive institution that had to be undermined and overthrown. Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) offered a radical critique of existing society and its values. He called for a non-repressive society featuring, among other things, free and open sexuality, in the expectation that it would bring greater happiness and freedom. His former colleague, Erich Fromm, critiqued his views for being nihilistic and promoting pleasure as the chief goal in life. The ideas of Reich and Marcuse became a major intellectual and political influence on the counterculture revolution.
During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, student protests, counter-culture movements, and new contraceptives combined to create major breaks from traditional values. The revolutionary ferment of those years promoted needed changes in many areas, including civil rights, decolonization, women's liberation, and environmental protection. On the other hand, the permissiveness of that era is linked to rising pornography, divorce, single-parent families, welfare dependency, drug abuse, and youth crime. Attitudes and laws upholding marriage and the family shifted in favor of individual values and personal choice.
There is no denying the catastrophic effects of the sexual revolution. In the 1950s, before the onset of this revolution, there were two notable sexual diseases worldwide: syphilis and gonorrhea. Various other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were known only in the world of prostitution. Doctors have now identified more than 25 kinds of STDs. According to the World Health Organization, “More than 1 million people acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) every day,” and “Each year, an estimated 500 million people become ill with one of 4 STIs: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and trichomoniasis.”[ii] The effects of these diseases range from minor discomfort to chronic pain, infertility, and, in some cases, death.
Of all the sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS has raised the greatest concern and has received the most attention from the media. An obscure disease discovered in 1981, AIDS (acquired immune-deficiency syndrome) has affected millions of people. There are currently (2013) over 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Even with the medical advances, an estimated 1.5 million people died from AIDS related causes. 3.2 million children under 15 years old are living with HIV -- most of them contacting it from their HIV infected mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.[iii] The mother's greatest joy is to give life, love, and nourishment to her child. Such children, and the orphans of parents who died of it, are the most innocent victims of the disease.
Although HIV (human immune-deficiency virus) can be transmitted by sharing drug needles or receiving contaminated blood, by far the greatest number of infections has been caused by sex with an HIV-infected partner. Both common sense and scientific studies tell us that the more sexual partners one has, the greater the risk of contracting the virus. The breakdown of monogamous relationships has left people extremely vulnerable to AIDS and other STDs.
The AIDS epidemic is related largely to lifestyle, which means conscious choices. AIDS is not merely a medical or health crisis, as it is usually portrayed in the media, but also a moral problem that requires a moral solution. Even if an effective vaccine or cure were to be found, AIDS would still not go away. Cures exist for many serious STDs, yet they persist. AIDS thrives because of a climate of sexual promiscuity and illicit drug use.
In mentioning any statistics, we must remember that these are only what has been officially reported, which may be merely the tip of the iceberg. HIV has a long latency period of five years or more, during which its victim, although infected, shows almost no symptoms. Even if the victim should find a reason to be tested for HIV, the infection may not register its presence for up to three years. For this reason, there are probably many millions more infected people around the world. Those who are unaware of their infection may be leading a lifestyle in which they continue to infect others. In the later stages of AIDS, normally curable diseases such as pneumonia or tuberculosis set in and do not go away. These and other ailments such as skin cancers overcome the person's weakened immune system and cause death.
AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases spread in proportion to the decline in moral values and faithful relationships between men and women. Although sexually active people may escape contracting a sexually transmitted disease or having an unwanted pregnancy, there is more at risk than these physical consequences. The psychological impact of sexual relationships outside of marriage can sometimes be even more profound and long-lasting than the physical results. In addition, there are social consequences -- such as pornography, prostitution, and children born out of wedlock -- that have serious implications for the wider community. These aspects are rarely addressed in most sex education programs.
Countless developmental psychologists agree that adolescents are emotionally and psychologically unprepared for sexual relationships. Both Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg concluded, on the basis of considerable research, that teenagers tend to think in concrete terms focused on the present. This means that they often pay little attention to the long-range consequences of their actions. Piaget wrote that adolescents are generally self-indulgent, unable to delay gratification, and likely to have short-term relationships. Kohlberg came to the conclusion that adolescents need guidelines set by society because of their inability to make wise decisions for their best long-term interests.[iv]
Adolescents frequently find that a warm and caring relationship is tainted by the introduction of sex. Friendship involves many dimensions of communication and shared experiences and interests, but sex at a young age can override everything else, causing infatuated teens to focus only on themselves and their partner of the moment. They can become selfish and possessive. They expect to receive their fulfillment through each other and avoid the effort it takes to reap fulfillment through other relationships and activities.
Lacking things to talk about and interests outside the relationship, they can suck the relationship dry, eventually short-circuiting it.[v]
Teenagers who become absorbed in such intense, exclusive relationships are turning inward at the very time in their lives when they should be reaching out and developing new friendships, augmenting their social skills, and taking on greater responsibilities. Rather than working on developing their character and growing as individuals, teenage lovers swept up in a whirlwind of emotions have eyes only for each other. Relations with family and friends tend to suffer. The challenges of study and accomplishing goals may be forsaken for the easy pleasures of sex. When the passion fades, they may become angry or depressed. People have committed suicide because of a broken love relationship.
Educator Allan Bloom asserts it is natural for both boys and girls to be romantic idealists during adolescence as a prerequisite for higher intellectual and moral functioning. The desires for romantic and sexual love, intertwined with the yearning for insight into themselves, fuel the hunger of the “physically and spiritually virginal” to learn. They are “excited by the mysteries to which they have not yet been initiated.”[vi] The best protection for adolescent idealism is the ethic of purity.
A former advocate of the sexual revolution now critiques approaches to adolescent education which simply socialize youth into the prevailing ethics of the sexual revolution. In her book, Wendy Shalit shows why modesty is not a hang-up that we should set out to cure, but rather a natural instinct to be celebrated.[vii] The ethic of purity projects the fulfillment of romantic ideals -- and dreams of sexual intimacy -- into the future marriage. This projection fuels anticipation and hope, rather than tainting them through disappointing relationships based on immediate gratification. Hope is a necessary component of resilience; it helps people keep focused on their goals. Sexually experienced youth have been called “flat-souled,” impoverished in ideals, hopes and imagination.[viii]
Sociological research confirms that there are numerous negative social consequences associated with adolescent sexual relationships. Among sexually active American girls aged 12 to 16, there are six times as many attempted suicides as among virgin girls of the same age range. They are 18 times more likely to leave home prematurely, 9 times more likely to be arrested by the police, 5 times more likely to be suspended from school and 10 times more likely to abuse drugs.[ix]
The sexual revolution claims that mutual consent is all that is needed to legitimate a sexual encounter. Rather than boys being challenged to elevate their view of love, sex, and girls; girls are being pressured to give in to the impulses of the moment.
Girls are particularly at risk, since premature sex can stunt the development of their identity. As one American psychiatrist remarks, “A girl who enters into a serious relationship with a boy very early in life may find out later that her individuality was thwarted.”[x] She became part of him and failed to develop her own interests or her sense of identity. A breakup is usually harder on the girl than on the boy. This is because girls tend to become more emotionally involved than boys. Only later, as a boy matures, may he realize the hurt he caused through uncommitted sex.
Feelings of regret and guilt can haunt people for years afterwards. Studies also show a definite correlation between premarital sexual activity and failed marriages.[xi] Promiscuity before marriage can lead to infidelity and divorce after marriage. Sexual habits established during adolescence are not easily changed simply by reciting a wedding vow. Those who have engaged in premarital sex often find themselves distracted, if not haunted, by the images of past partners, even in the marriage bed. The involuntary comparison of previous lovers to one's spouse can be especially disconcerting to the spouse, if it is discovered. Scars caused by the breakup of premarital affairs may seriously limit a person's capacity for intimacy.
According to a study in 2008, “the impacts of teenage parenting accumulate throughout generations, imposing an estimated $27.8 billion in social costs in the United States each year.”[xii]
-Negative Impact on Society
An intricate connection between sex and the forces of love, life, lineage, and conscience extends the influence of sexual behavior far beyond its effects upon the two individuals involved. Complex issues arising from promiscuity have a negative impact upon families, communities, and nations as well as the physiological and psychological health of sexual partners.
Many people consider pornography to be a way to obtain harmless pleasure. But a U.S. Attorney General's Report[xiii] and several independent studies have shown conclusively that this is not the case. There is a correlation between the increase in pornography and the increase in rapes and sexual violence. Long-term exposure to pornography creates an emotional withdrawal, greater acceptance of violence toward women, less sympathy toward rape victims, and desensitization to violence.[xiv] Such images of easy sex with willing women and children are linked to soaring sex crime rates. There is evidence that pornography often correlates with organized crime and drug trafficking.
Like pornography, the business of prostitution and the practice of sex outside of marriage feed upon each other. Prostitution reduces whole persons to the economic value of their sexual organs. Prostitutes themselves are often unwilling victims, trapped in the trade by force, shame, poverty, or addiction. The clients of prostitutes contribute to the destruction of other human beings. The sex trade multiplies disease among both prostitutes and clients.
Prostitution is responsible for the enslavement of millions of girls, boys and women. The International Labor Organization (2012) estimates that there are 4.5 victims dealing with forced sexual exploitation globally.[xv] They are often doomed to a short life of degradation, violence, disease, and despair.
Children Born Out of Wedlock
A child born outside of marriage presents a host of challenges to the mother. The impact of unwed parenthood on mothers can be grave. Girls who become pregnant are likely to leave school, limiting their potential for educational advancement and economic security. Unwed mothers generally find it difficult to get married, because few men are willing to take care of another man's child. All these factors contribute to poverty. In 2013, 3.5 thousand babies were born to unmarried teenagers.[xvi] 63% of unwed teen mothers in the U.S. receive government aid within the first year.[xvii] Taxpayers paid 9.4 billion dollars just in the year 2010 for costs associated with teen childbearing in the United States.[xviii]
Sex apart from marriage is associated with increased domestic violence. Far more violence occurs between unmarried partners than between husband and wife. For instance, cohabitating couples are more than three times likely to have their fights escalate to shoving, hitting, and throwing things compared to married couples.”[xix] A couple of reasons why this happens is because cohabiters tend to be less connected to their network of kin and peers so there is more isolation and anonymity. Another reason is because “people entering cohabiting relationships show greater tendencies toward individualism, leading to a strong desire for self-autonomy within the relationship.”[xx] Although the attractiveness of more freedom and less responsibility encourages cohabitating, as a study by David Popenoe revealed, the downside is that couples view their relationship in much different ways. For instance, the woman may see their relationship leading to marriage while the man may see it as a sexual opportunity without any long term commitment.[xxi] These differences provide strong causes for emotional conflicts.
Extramarital affairs strike at the very heart of the family -- the marriage vow. Infidelity unravels all the bonds of love and obligation. It causes upheaval in the families of both partners, including the betrayed spouses, children, relatives, and friends.
In overturning traditional values and authority, the sexual revolution promised freedom from restraints. The products of modern technology offer imperfect protection from disease and unwanted pregnancy. There are no condoms to shield the heart from pain. After several decades, the psychological and social consequences are becoming apparent.
-Sex without Commitment
The media glorified this new immorality, since it boosted sales of products, movies, and music. The public could be manipulated through sexual arousal. In an effort to outdo each other, entertainers have been constantly pushing back the limits of acceptability.
Thanks to the entertainment industry, which has become the primary agent for promoting the values of the sexual revolution throughout the world, young people are growing up in a highly sexualized environment. Every day they are bombarded by sexual messages via TV, movies, videos, advertisements (especially on the internet), books, magazines, and music, most of which promote the physical pleasures of sex and downplay any element of responsibility. Premarital and extramarital sexual relations are depicted as glamorous, exciting, and generally without negative consequences. Young people are being fed a never-ending diet of unrealistic portrayals of the sexual experience.
The growing power of the media overshadows the influence of family and school in the lives of too many young people. The media's constant propagation of sexual images outside of the context of marriage has given rise to the notion, even among many parents, that it is unrealistic to expect young people today to postpone having sex until they are married. Young people in turn perceive the adult expectation that they will fail to restrain themselves. As adults witness the rise in sexual experimentation among the young, they are losing the will to guide adolescents to remain abstinent until marriage. Such a vicious cycle of expectation leading to increased sexual activity has influenced some adults to believe that young people simply cannot be expected to control themselves.
In such a social environment, the sexual revolution continued unhindered. Sexual restraint was viewed as unhealthy. Moral relativism -- where traditions are considered irrelevant and values are individually defined rather based on universal, transcendent principles -- increasingly characterized the popular culture. This is how premarital sexual activity became justified and deeply entrenched in American society.
The deepest desire of men and women, both young and old, is to love and be loved. However, when the desire for love becomes a tool for manipulation, it distorts the character and heart. The feeling of being used is debasing, and the effects can be long-lasting.
There is a danger that predatory sex will become the norm: boys using girls for pleasure and girls using boys for security. To consider sex as a casual vehicle for satisfying one's impulses for personal pleasure has always been a temptation to youth. Young men are especially inclined to disconnect sex from commitment and love.
It is noteworthy that prior to the sexual revolution, American college men were socialized to value chastity before marriage, look forward to becoming a husband and father, and associate sex with emotional intimacy.[xxii] In that era, there was a resemblance between the natural orientation of girls towards love, intimacy, and commitment and the attitudes and expectations of boys.
There are essential emotional and biological differences between males and females. These differences imply distinctive but complementary ethics. In the West, the code of male honor calls for men to use their superior strength to help women and never to take advantage of their susceptibility to promises of love and security. There is a corresponding code among women not to take advantage of men's vulnerability to visual arousal and emotional manipulation. These ethics recognize the unique moral influence each gender has on the other.
However, Playboy magazine mocked purity and family life by promoting sex apart from commitment and love. By 1968 it was the most popular magazine among college men. Within four years it reached half of all male professionals in the United States. The magazine legitimated young men's tendencies to seduce women and then discard them. It glorified bachelor pleasures over preparations for a responsible and unselfish partnership with a wife.[xxiii] This predator mentality fueled a growing discrepancy between masculine and feminine expectations regarding sex and marriage.
In reaction, feminism advised women to avoid victimization by lowering their romantic expectations and enjoying casual sex as much as men. Plus it encouraged women to compete with men in using sex for dominance.
[i] Shalit, Wendy, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, New York: Free Press; Anniversary Edition, May 20, 2014. p. 26
[ii] “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)”.World Health Organization. Fact sheet N°110. Nov. 2013.
[iii] The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic," Global Statistics, Aids.gov, Nov. 2014.
[iv] Kristine Napier, The Power of Abstinence, New York: Avon Books, 1996.
[v] Lickona, Thomas, "The Neglected Heart," American Educator, Summer 1994, pp. 34-39.
[vi] Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished The Souls of Today's Students, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987, p. 134.
[vii] Shalit, Wendy, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, New York: Free Press, Anniversary Edition, May 20, 2014.
[viii] Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished The Souls of Today's Students, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987, p. 136.
[ix] Orr, Donald, "Premature Sexual Activity as an Indicator of Psychosocial Risk," Pediatrics, 87(2), pp. 141-147.
[x] Lickona,, Tom. "10 Emotional Dangers of Premature Sexual Involvement." The Fourth and Fifth Rs Respect and Responsibility 13.2 (2007): p. 5.
[xi] National Survey of Families and Households, quoted in Family Circle, July 15, 1997, p. 45.
[xii] Maynard, R.A., and Hoffman, S.D, “The Costs of Adolescent Childbearing.” In Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs & Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy, edited by S.D. Hoffman and R.A. Maynard. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2008.
[xiii] U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese released a 1500-page document entitled,
"Attorney General's Commission on Pornography: Final Report," Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986. The document compiled research reports and challenged many assumptions about pornography.
[xiv] Donnerstien, E., "The Effect of Exposure to Violent Pornographic Mass Media Images," Engage/Social Action, Jul/Aug, 1985. Cited in Archibald Hart, The Sexual Man: Masculinity Without Guilt, Nashville, Tennessee: Word Publishing, 1995, p. 90.
[xv] New ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: 20.9 Million Victims." ILO Newsroom. International Labor Organization, June 2012.
[xvi] Martin, Joyce A., Hamilton, Brady E., Osterman, Michelle J.K., Curtin, Sally C., & Mathews, T.J., “Births: Final Data for 2013,” National Vital Statistics Reports, 64:1, January 2015, Table 2 and Table 15.
[xvii] The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Why It Matters: Teen Childbearing, Education, and Economic Wellbeing, July 2012, p. 1. (Information was derived from the Census Bureau’s published analysis.)
[xviii] The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Counting It Up -- The Public Cost of Teen Childbearing: Key Data, December 2013
[xix] Tyree, Jenny. "The Truth About Domestic Violence in Marital Versus Cohabitational Relationships | CitizenLink." Focus on the Family, June 2010
[xxi] Rhoads, Steven E., Taking Sex Differences Seriously, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004, p. 113.
[xxii] Kronhausen, Eberhard & Phyllis, Sex Histories of American College Men, New York: Ballantine Books, 1960, p. 20. Cited in Judith Reisman, Soft Porn Plays Hardball, Lafayette, Louisiana: Huntington House, 1991, pp. 28-29.
[xxiii] Reisman, Soft Porn, pp. 69-81.