This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. It has been a long time in the making.
One of the mistakes Christians tend to make is assuming that the sexual revolution was something that happened in the 1960s as part of the general loosening of conventional morality which that decade witnessed. In fact, it is of much deeper and longstanding origins. We can tend to miss this because we focus on the phenomena associated with the sexual revolution—for example, widespread changes in attitude to premarital sex, homosexuality, and abortion. What we often fail to realize is that these phenomena are actually symptoms of deeper changes in society, particularly those associated with what it means to be a fulfilled human being. The sexual revolution rests on the idea that fulfillment is a matter of personal, psychological happiness and anything which obstructs that—specifically traditional sexual codes—is by definition oppressive and preventing us from flourishing. And that psychological construction of human purpose stretches back at least as far as Rousseau and the Romantics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sexual revolution is simply one manifestation of a broader culture of what we might call expressive individualism.
2. It has complicated roots.
As implied above, the roots of the sexual revolution are complicated. First, we see the psychologization of the self in the hands of Rousseau and the Romantics. Then we have the sexualization of psychology—the notion that our sexual desires and their physical satisfaction are the most basic things about us—at the hands of Sigmund Freud and his followers. Next we have the politicizing of sex by the New Left whereby oppression is reconceived not so much in economic terms as in psychological terms. The stage is thus set for debates about sex, one of the most personal and intimate of human realities, to become the most public issue of our day.
3. It has long seen monogamy as a vice, not a virtue.
One of the hallmarks of the sexual revolution is the separation of sexual activity from the context of a lifelong monogamous relationship. From the trumpeting of promiscuity in the sixties to today’s open “marriages,” the basic idea is that chaste monogamy is a bad thing that actually prevents us from truly being ourselves and even fuels social evils. This is not a new idea at all. William Godwin, the eighteenth century English radical, argued precisely this in his famous work Political Justice, and the tradition was continued by artists, such as Shelley, and political theorists from Marx to Lenin.
4. It is not about expanding the bounds of acceptable sexual morality.
It is important for Christians to understand that the sexual revolution is not simply about broadening the boundaries of what is acceptable sexual behavior. A good example is the concept of modesty. It is not the case that sexual revolutionaries want to redefine modesty as did previous generations when matters such as the length of women’s skirts or the acceptability of bikinis were issues. No. They want to abolish the concept entirely. This is clear from the fact that our culture considers modesty in itself as an inherently ridiculous idea, worthy only of mockery.
5. It is not (only) about sexual behavior.
The previous point directs us towards another significant aspect of the sexual revolution: it is not only about sexual behavior. It is really about identity. Once sexual desire has been made the foundational element of human identity, then debates about sex cease to be debates about how we act and become debates about who we are. The Christian might therefore think that when they object to homosexuality they are objecting to certain sexual practices. What they are actually doing is objecting to certain identities.
6. It is of profound cultural significance.
Cultures are defined to a large extent by that which they forbid and, typically, many of these forbidden acts are sexual. The Old Testament law provides a good example of such and typically sexual taboos have played a large role in Western culture. Thus, when the sexual revolution sets about overthrowing these taboos and building its sexual morality on the wafer-thin foundation of consent, it is not only altering sexual behavior but changing society at a foundational level. It is reshaping the meaning of sexual activity and therefore reshaping notions of the family, of parenthood, and of the relationship between the sexes. Further, given the social significance of sexual activity as a rite of passage to adulthood, it is also dissolving a key difference between adults and children.
7. It is a serious challenge to religious freedom.
Because the sexual revolution is about identity and the legitimation of sexual behavior associated with identity, it presents a serious challenge to religious freedom. Societies which have been reshaped by the sexual revolution will regard Christians who refuse to grant legitimacy to, say, homosexual behavior as those who are opposed to the common good. And as religious freedom is not an absolute, unconditioned right, those Christians who hold firm on traditional sexual morality can expect their freedom of public exercise to be curtailed or even removed.
It is important for Christians to understand that the sexual revolution is not simply about broadening the boundaries of what is acceptable sexual behavior.
8. It connects to other forms of identity politics.
Sexual identity is simply one form of human selfhood which prioritizes psychology—our feelings, our inner sense of well-being. The same thing can be seen in the way other forms of identity are being constructed today. The recent hoohah surrounding comments by J. K. Rowling about transgenderism and what it means to be a woman has made very public a long-running conflict within feminism: Is being a woman at all connected to having a woman’s body or is it ultimately a psychological state? The new feminism is deeply rooted in the psychologizing of identities of which the sexualized identities of the sexual revolution are but one part. The same kind of questions are also now starting to occur in the matter of racial politics, and a group like Black Lives Matter makes it very clear on its website that it considers the matter of racial justice and of LGBTQ rights to be intimately connected.
9. It is not just about lust.
When Christians think about sex from a moral perspective, they tend to identify sin with inappropriate desire and lust. That is correct, but it is not the only problem with sexual activity divorced from the context of a lifelong monogamous relationship, as we find in, say, the hook-up culture or pornography—both of which have gained mainstream cultural cachet as a result of the sexual revolution. Such sex detached from a deep and meaningful prior relationship tends to at least two other immoral results. First, the purpose of sex is reduced to the selfish, personal pleasure of the moment. And second, the partner is transformed from being an end in themselves to being a means to an end. To put this another way, the purpose of a sexual encounter is not to cement a relationship with a particular person; it is to use another body for my own personal pleasure. It is fundamentally dehumanizing. And in pornography, this is taken to its logical conclusion: the persons do not matter, only the bodies do.
10. We are all implicated in it.
Finally, there might be a temptation at this point to look at the chaos and carnage of the sexual revolution and respond, I thank you Lord that I am not like other men. That would be wrong for the simple reason that we are all implicated in this revolution. That is not to say that we are all using pornography or living lies of sexual license. But we are all part of the culture of psychologized personhood of which the sexual revolution is a symptomatic part. We all tend to conceive of happiness in psychological terms today. We all bristle under any kind of external authority. We all like to think we are masters of our own identities. That is essentially what the sexual revolution is about. We may not choose the sexual idiom to express it. We may even use a religious idiom to do so by, say, choosing the church that makes us feel happy or which lets us be ourselves. But in so doing we too are merely symptoms of the culture of expressive individualism of which the sexual revolution is just one iteration.
Carl R. Trueman is the author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.
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