Sexual “Liberation” and the Decline of Happiness

The UK Daily Mail has run a thought-provoking piece by A. N. Wilson, deploring the damage wrought by the sexual revolution (an assessment with which I agree, and about which I have written).  What I found interesting in the piece was the explicit linkage between polls finding a decline in overall levels of happiness since the 1950s and the “new normal” of sexual liberation.

The piece notes that in a recent survey, more than half the respondents answered that being in a stable relationship makes them happy. Obviously, the incidence of committed relationships has radically decreased since the sexual revolution’s onset.

The author argues that the rising generation of young people will behave “more sensibly” than the baby boomers did (a low standard, to be sure!). That’s probably true. Certainly, it’s devoutly to be hoped — because it won’t be long before  the moral codes that yielded a more traditional way of life completely fade from popular memory. It’s hard enough to re-establish more stringent behavior codes even when a society can remember them; it’s nearly impossible once they have faded from living memory.

So is it true, readers, that the sexual revolution succeeded in changing our behavior without changing our essential natures, and the decreased level of happiness is our natural response to that phenomenon? And do you think a more traditional moral code will ever again prevail?

  1. PsychLynne
    Carol Platt Liebau: And do you think a more traditional moral code will ever again prevail? · · 10 hours ago

    I think that young people, some at least, start to see the benefits and costs of making more libertine choices.  My concern stems from the belief that a “hook-up” culture develops skills that aren’t helpful in maintaining a more traditional moral code. 

    For example, to participate in hook-ups implies that you’re engaging in frequent sex without commitment or in relationships without a romantic attachment.  To do that effectively, you need to build emotional and relational walls (lower expectations, guarding your feelings, managing your emotions) that actually impede implementing the more traditional values you want. 

    I see lots of young women who want more traditional relationships and have no idea how to execute them.

  2. Crow
    Tom Meyer:

    that most of them will settle down and startincredibly bourgeois families within a decade.  I’ve observed this in my own life: the people I went to a secular liberal arts college with are filling my Facebook feed with engagement notices, wedding pictures, and sonogram stills… posted in that order, too.

    Anecdotal evidence, though this is my experience as well.

    It is largely true among the educated and those who live in relative affluence. The wages of sexual libertinism (which I do not conflate with all sex outside of marriage simply, but I do note that sexual freedom before marriage does tend in that direction if unchecked by other things) are being paid more among the relatively poor and uneducated [see Murray's Coming Apart].

    Among the reasons for this are that those who are educated, even if they participate in the hook up culture periodically, tend to have the sense to take precautions because of family or career pressures and desires. Those lacking these outside pressures (and the erosion of family is tied to the sexual revolution, especially among the poor) tend to fail to take the proper precautions–and society pays for the results.

  3. Crow
    PsychLynne

    I think that young people, some at least, start to see the benefits and costs of making more libertine choices.  My concern stems from the belief that a “hook-up” culture develops skills that aren’t helpful in maintaining a more traditional moral code….

    I see lots of young women who want more traditional relationships and have no idea how to execute them.

    To paraphrase John Podhoretz’s review of the HBO series Girls, whatever it is these young men and women want from one another, they don’t have the faintest idea how to ask for it and how to go about getting it in their relationships.

    One of the strengths of a stronger “courtship” culture–whether in the higher forms in earlier centuries or even the more democratic form that it took in America pre-sexual revolution–was that a set of expectations from both men and women was created and reinforced by society that helped channel natural human eros.

    Of course, in individual cases the rules of these expectations were often enough bent or broken, but the framework provided some common point of reference and departure.

    In large part, we lack that today.

  4. Frightened American

    People often marry because they don’t know how to break up.  I am paraphrasing David Mamet from his book “The Secret Knowledge.” And I agree.  What I see the sexual revolution has done is not given us “free love” but a commitment to a person we hardly know.  It has enslaved so many of us.  What seems at first as non-commitment backfires.  

  5. Crow
    Hartmann von Aue:

    …the Achean League and the Roman Empire both experienced periods of degeneration like that we are seeing now in the west before the old orders completely collapsed and were replaced by a new and more “traditional” (as defined in broad strokes in this discussion) code of morality. 

    Very true. It is possible to reverse moral and political decline, but it is no easy or simple task. Contemporary social democracies have it especially hard because egalitarianism always tends toward libertinism. If no one is better than anyone else, nothing is better than anything else; no “private” choice better than another. This equation is not strictly true as a logical proposition, but it does tend to be the way opinions in the public mind operate in practice in ages obsessed with equality.

    Also, the cities that you cite had a resource absent from contemporary societies: they viewed society as a unity–religion, morality, economics, informal mores and politics were all distinct portions of the same art. They could all be harnessed and brought to bear at once by a man with sufficient vision. The moral lessons of this world and the next were not divided against each other.

  6. KC Mulville
    Carol Platt Liebau: And do you think a more traditional moral code will ever again prevail? 

    God isn’t going anywhere. 

    Forgive me for oversimplifying, but the basic quality that contrasts traditional sexual morality from “revolutionary” sexual morality is commitment. The revolution thinks we can get along without it, and the traditionalists think we can’t.

    I’d argue that sooner or later, even if commitment isn’t enshrouded in taboos, people will see its utility and virtue, and will turn to it. If not in America, then in whatever society becomes culturally dominant … and then they’ll wonder if there’s any correlation between cultural success and marital and family commitment. Hey, maybe one leads to another?

    Our celebrity, mass-media society deludes itself into believing that “culture” can only be achieved by “alternative” lifestyles and anti-traditionalists. But since culture is the transmission of essential values and common sense, a society that depends on the self-appointed avant garde to transmit basic social information (instead of relying on stable families) won’t be able to pass on the full range of social learning that future generations need.

  7. Nick Stuart

    Probably it is the rising generation (the Millenials) that will make the decision about returning to a traditional moral code vs. continuing on the current glide path. Their apparent support for same-sex marriage doesn’t give me much confidence though.

    The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet (Damon Runyon).

    My bet is that the moral codes that yielded a traditional (stable) way of life will continue to disappear, partly because there’s very little in the way of extrinsic support. Nobody in the culture, from media to parents, from church to state, is providing support for traditional morality.

  8. Xcheesehead

    Great question, Carol. My answer is in the lyrics of the wonderful song sung by Tony Bennett, The Good Life:

    “Oh, the good life, full of fun seems to be the ideal Mm, the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel You won’t really fall in love for you can’t take the chance So please be honest with yourself, don’t try to fake romance It’s the good life to be free and explore the unknown Like the heartaches when you learn you must face them alone Please remember I still want you, and in case you wonder why Well, just wake up, kiss the good life goodbye”.

    We may never recover “the way it used to be”…but I believe that our children’s children will never completely abandon the hope of a relationship like described in the song.

  9. tabula rasa
    Carol Platt Liebau:  

    So is it true, readers, that the sexual revolution succeeded in changing our behavior without changing our essential natures, and the decreased level of happiness is our natural response to that phenomenon?  And do you think a more traditional moral code will ever again prevail? 

    I say yes to the first question.  Much as we delude ourselves otherwise, humans, I believe, crave love, stable connections to others, and a desire for meaning in their lives.  We do our best to undermine these principles, but they abide–and when we ignore them we create unhappiness.

    I must admit that I’m pessimistic about whether we’ll ever return to a more traditional moral code.  But, like most others, I lack historical perspective. When we make ourselves sufficiently miserable, we’ll seek a way of life that makes us happier: when we do, we’ll learn that freedom and license are not the same thing.  I fear that it won’t be any time soon.

  10. Rawls
    KC Mulville

    Carol Platt Liebau: And do you think a more traditional moral code will ever again prevail? 

    Forgive me for oversimplifying, but the basic quality that contrasts traditional sexual morality from “revolutionary” sexual morality iscommitment. The revolution thinks we can get along without it, and the traditionalists think we can’t.

    This might be a misrepresentation of the sexual revolution. The revolution was more about women gaining more control over their body (access to birth control), the liberation of the two genders from their typical relational roles, etc. “Free love” sans commitment was in there too, but it wasn’t necessarily prescriptive as a permanent lifestyle choice. Looking back, I see the casual sex element as more of a ‘try before you buy’ situation. The revolution I don’t think prescribed commitment or non-commitment. Instead, it was about being able to choose either one, as well as change one’s mind about either choice after choosing it.

  11. KC Mulville
    Rawls

    The revolution I don’t think prescribed commitment or non-commitment. Instead, it was about being able to choose either one, as well as change one’s mind about either choice after choosing it. 

    But isn’t that the essence of “non-commitment?”

  12. Blog Goliard

    Well, one thing traditional sexual morality has going for it is that it is something. It is fully-articulated, has philosophical and theological heft and depth.

    Sexual libertinism does not. (Or at least the structure supporting it has eluded my efforts at detection.) It is not morality but the rejection of morality (as if sex, of all things, could be of no moral consequence!); not a system but the destruction of a system; not an enduring stable thing but the restless progressive drive for the next advance, the next frontier, the next barrier to break.

    Like so much of modernity, it is essentially parasitical upon that which it says it rejects. Where it rejects traditional mores, it depends on those mores being there to provide a frisson of taboo-breaking and liberation as motivation; and where it isn’t yet prepared to reject traditional mores, it depends on them being there even more, so it doesn’t have to justify the next demolition project (“don’t be silly! this will never lead to x! nobody is saying that!”) until the time is ripe.

    It cannot last; but cleaning up the chaos it leaves behind will still be a Herculean effort.

  13. Lucy Pevensie

    My husband likes to point out that English society had a pretty drastic reverse sexual revolution between the 18th and 19th centuries. I googled for references on the subject and found a nice short article.  At any rate, it gives me hope that we can perhaps see the same kind of reversal again.

  14. Rawls
    KC Mulville

    Rawls

    The revolution I don’t think prescribed commitment or non-commitment. Instead, it was about being able to choose either one, as well as change one’s mind about either choice after choosing it. 

    But isn’t that the essence of “non-commitment?” · 10 minutes ago

    The vast majority of people go from non-committed relationships to committed ones over time—meaning that nowadays people can solidify their position and commit to a relationship whenever they’d like. Before the sexual revolution many people got married to people they didn’t know that well—conjugally or otherwise—and for women the choice was often made for them. The sexual revolution was about birth control, and the ability to date around and learn about relationships before committing to one. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.

    Perhaps it’s also led to more divorce (the essence of non-commitment you mention, KC) but ultimately I’m ok with this trade off for a number of reasons. One, it brought us the dating scene that I mention above and also reduced the number of people locked into bad marriages that will only grow worse.

  15. Robert E. Lee

    The Victorian Era’s stricter moral code was in response to the excesses that came before it.  The pendulum will swing the other way eventually.

  16. Captain Red Beard

    I realize most people that would agree with this article are religious and those that would disagree are not.  I just wish more non-religious would be more like Allen Bloom and seek “the good” rather than the mediocre.  I have trouble accepting that the sexual revolution gave us anything but shallow people, shallow relationships, sky-rocketing abortions, and shallow marriages that most of the time end in divorce leaving the children with the baggage.  

  17. Blog Goliard
    The sexual revolution was about birth control, and the ability to date around and learn about relationships before committing to one. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.

    It’s a bad thing if one believes that abortion is the taking of innocent human life, because that’s the only form of birth control that’s truly comparable in effectiveness to abstinence. At the very least, it’s necessary as a failsafe to prevent the whole sex-without-consequences mirage from being completely dispelled.

    It’s also a bad thing if one believes that uncommitted and sorta-committed sex gets in the way of “learn[ing] about relationships” and truly getting to know the person one is dating, far more than it helps that process. (My strong conclusion is that it does; your mileage may vary.)

    And there’s no “perhaps” about it–it has led and does lead to increased divorce. Whether this is an acceptable “trade off” thus depends entirely on whether one sees much benefit, and whether one believes the divorces on the other side of the ledger are only moderately regrettable or horrific catastrophes (thinking of the children involved, I believe the latter).

  18. Hartmann von Aue
    Lucy Pevensie: My husband likes to point out that English society had a pretty drastic reverse sexual revolution between the 18th and 19th centuries. I googled for references on the subject and found a nice short article on the subject.  At any rate, it gives me hope that we can perhaps see the same kind of reversal again. · 38 minutes ago

    Thanks for pre-empting the point I was about to make. I am glad someone else thought of it. There are other historical precedents, as well- the Achean League and the Roman Empire both experienced periods of degeneration like that we are seeing now in the west before the old orders completely collapsed and were replaced by a new and more “traditional” (as defined in broad strokes in this discussion) code of morality. 

  19. Daniel Jeyn

    I’ve mentioned to my super-left friends that trends can be reversed — and shockingly so.  As Mark Steyn has pointed out, demographics is destiny, and 200 years from now, most of the population in Europe and NAmerica may be either Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, or Fundamentalist Christians, because they’re the ones who are reproducing, and us “Libertines” will die out like the orgy-mad Romans giving way to the Christians.

    That being said, the sexual genie won’t be back in the bottle.  Simply because there NEVER was a golden age.  In less technologically oriented times, we did not have sexuality paraded before us on portable screens.  But abusive marriages, white slavery, hushed-up affairs, and sexual intercourse that was nasty, brutish, and short, was also common.

    Free, Western women won’t give up birth control.  Homosexuality has always been around and won’t go back in the closet so long as women are also free.  And so long as humans have longer lifespans and long and expensive education, people will not be so quick to make permanent connections as young as in the past. 

  20. Tom Meyer
    Crow’s Nest

    Anecdotal evidence, though this is my experience as well.

    It is largely true among the educated and those who live in relative affluence. The wages of sexual libertinism [snip]… are being paid more among the relatively poor and uneducated [see Murray'sComing Apart].

    Among the reasons for this are that those who are educated, even if they participate in the hook up culture periodically, tend to have the sense to take precautions because of family or career pressures and desires. Those lacking these outside pressures (and the erosion of family is tied to the sexual revolution, especially among the poor) tend to fail to take the proper precautions–and society pays for the results.

    Agreed on all points.

    Again, I’d like to plug Red Families v. Blue Families as a  companion to Coming Apart.  Without contradicting Murray — indeed, the points of agreement with him outweigh the differences, at least in the two chapters I’ve read so far — they focus more strongly on these kinds of issues than he did.