Which Is Worse For The Family? Sexual Freedom Or Capitalism?
“Western culture now celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, family redefinition and abortion right as part of a sexual revolution that can tear down old patriarchal systems,” [Russell] Moore told a global gathering of leaders from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths as part of the “Complementarity of Man and Woman” conference convened by Pope Francis. – Josephine McKenna, “Sexual Revolution Is Destroying Families, Russell Moore Tells Vatican Conference”, Religion News Service, Nov. 18, 2014
The church continues to be divided, and therefore powerless, in the face of this reality. On the one hand is the racial and class divides that create what are, for all intents and purposes, antithetical ethical and social practices. On the other is the refusal to consider the reality of human sexuality, that it isn’t just a personal moral matter, but also has social implications, including how sexual acts are and are not regulated depending upon one’s social status. – Me, “Technotopia, Social Horror Stories, And The Holiness Of Sex: A Response To Christy Thomas”, No I Has Heard, Nov. 18, 2014
After my post yesterday, I was intrigued, to say the least, to find two prominent American social conservatives speaking at an interfaith gathering at the Vatican. Ostensibly about human gender complementarity – something that seems to excite conservative religious types no end; they love contemplating our physical and physiological differences – it appears it became an excuse for Russell Moore and Rick Warren to continue to beat the drums against changing gender roles, sexual mores, and the ever evolving nature of the family. Like most American conservatives, religious or not, Moore and Warren seem to think the bourgeois and petit bourgeois cult of the family, which has existed at most for only about a century and a half, was somehow handed down from God if not in the Garden of Eden, then certainly to Moses at Sinai. Like most American conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, the idea that women might enjoy the benefits of exploring their sexuality without having to face the possible consequences of pregnancy and childbirth is unbearable precisely because of that whole “complementarity” thing. For people such as these, that’s precisely the point of sex, and women should just remember that. Never mind that men, regardless of social class (at least to a certain extent) have always enjoyed the freedom to have sex with as many partners as possible without either social approbation or having to bear the physiological and interpersonal consequences. What people like Moore and Warren continue to call “the sexual revolution” is little more than opening opportunities for women to explore their sexuality that was solely the province of men prior to the invention of the birth control pill.
Except, I’m starting to wonder if there was a “sexual revolution” at all. One of the things historians and others who deal with the past are taught is to consider events and texts “in context”. The problem with this mantra is it’s too simplistic; there are always multiple contexts, some of which work against one another, others that work in tandem. Socioeconomic relations and how they structure relations among and between members of social classes is an important context; yet, so, too, are transcultural contexts, the most important of which to consider in this instance is patriarchy. There was the rise of the feminist movement in the United States, beginning in 1848, working through various causes from temperance to women’s suffrage to granting women equal status before the law and finally the desire on the part of women to join the work force on an equal footing with men. The church’s attempt to create some kind of theology around sex, human sexuality, marriage, and gender has been going on in multiple socioeconomic and historical and cultural contexts across nearly two thousand years. How these various contexts work against and with each other is a vital consideration when we listen to Church leaders, appointed or self-appointed, discuss matters of sexual morality.
What has been called the “sexual revolution” was really a series of events that can be understood in various ways, against a variety of backdrops and within a variety of contexts, none of which fully flesh out the social and political and cultural and even technological events we call “the sexual revolution”, but all of which, when brought together, shrink to meaninglessness what has been for nearly fifty years now a target of rage from social and religious conservatives. Which is not to say that there have not been changes in gender relations, in sexual mores, sexual practice, and marriage. It is only to say that these changes do not constitute a “revolution”. Rather, they are part of larger social and cultural and economic changes in late capitalist society that are sometimes opposed, sometimes complementary, and are on-going. To blame certain effects of socioeconomic changes and the demand for more labor as the post-World War II economic boom began to slow in the late-50’s as the cause of the decay and breakdown of marriage and the family is to miss the mark on what is actually happening.
The recession at the end of the Eisenhower Administration indicated there was a limit to how much growth the American economy could absorb, especially as previously destroyed economies in Europe and Asia began to revive and compete with the United States in the global market. What Noam Chomsky has called “military Keynsianism” – propping up the economy through enormous military expenditures – also had an upper limit. With more and more women agitating to join the work force – the post-WWII education boom included not only men but women among those who could now afford to attend college – the one impediment was childbirth and childcare. With the introduction of the birth control pill, there was now an enormous new pool of potential workers as well as consumers; women entering the work force in large numbers not only meant expansion could continue, it also meant these women would earn money for themselves, propping up the consumer economy through spending their own earned money.
Militating against this shift toward women entering the work force en masse was not only centuries of patriarchy that defined women’s roles as home-maker and child-rearer; this ideology was propped up in the Christian West by a theology that defined these social roles not only as “natural”, but particularly natural due to a doctrine of Creation and Humanity that viewed the genders as occupying distinct, separate, and incommensurate roles. Women entering what had been traditionally male-dominated spheres of work violated not only the whole history of western assumptions about gender roles, but what God had decreed about the proper extent and limits of the different sexes.
An incidental outcome of the introduction of the birth control pill was that single women could now explore their sexuality without fearing an unwanted pregnancy. This had been a perquisite of men, particularly men of power (although certainly not limited to them), from time immemorial. Women who enjoyed their sexuality with a variety of partners had always been disparaged and ostracized from polite society (except during the decadent late-Victorian and Edwardian eras in Great Britain; among the upper classes and aristocracy, sexual promiscuity was both common and unspoken; one of Winston Churchill’s biographers lists his mother’s sexual partners at above 30 and offers as an aside, “she was hardly promiscuous”, a statement with which most moralists would disagree). Men never faced serious consequences for having multiple sexual partners. Among the ruling classes in the West (outside the United States), it was expected that men of power would often have more than one mistress along with a wife.
That opportunities such as these were now open to women as well was a shock to a social and cultural matrix that demanded women fulfill particular roles even as late capitalism demanded they enter the work force in large numbers so that economic growth, and therefore profits, could continue to rise. That women could be paid less than men, with a variety of excuses on offer, was an added benefit; the wage gap still exists, with women earning roughly $0.79 for every $1 men earn. Another change that was needed in order to allow women easier access to the work force was to make divorce easier; since most men would object to their wives leaving their homes for the factory or the office, the creation of “no-fault” divorce opened up opportunities for women to separate themselves from men legally as well as economically. Women could now work without having a husband complaining, earning money for themselves.
The one thing the United States has not developed that Western Europe considers the norm is cradle-to-school child care that is either partially or completely subsidized by the state, as well as generous parental leave policies for both parents with pay and the guarantee of a return to one’s previous status once the parental leave is over. This indicates that the countervailing social and cultural pressures against the capitalist demand for more workers are stronger here than in Europe. Although not strong enough; the drive for more generous parental leave time, for better and state-supported child care, for altering school hours to accommodate one or both working parents (or, alternately, to keep schools open longer or provide after-school programs for children and youth that are similar to pre-school and day care) are all on offer as “progressive” solutions to the problems of the family. Even many mainline churches support efforts to enact such policies.
This is done, however, without looking at the larger arrangement of productive relations in which all these things have been happening, and continue to happen. For everyone from Pope Francis I to Rick Warren to insist that “the sexual revolution” and changing gender roles and relations are to blame for the “collapse” of the western nuclear family ignores the reality that these changes are incidental, unrelated to one another, and certainly do not constitute a “sexual revolution”. They are, rather, the by-product of late capitalism.
What does this mean for those particularly Christian ethical thinkers and teachers who want to speak and write about human sexuality within the context of the Christian proclamation of the Good News? It seems to me that a good place to start would be to protest the destructive nature of a socioeconomic relation of productive forces not only upon the natural world in which we live. It should also protest the destructive nature of these same relations upon the very real God-given social nature of human beings, the desire of two persons to bond with one another, perhaps even to raise children. Any sexual ethic that blames “the sexual revolution” and takes a simplistic moralistic stance against particular gender and sexual practices is not only missing the forest for the trees. Those folks can’t even see the forest, and insist it’s a desert.