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Department: Collateral Damage
Article originally appeared in
In the Laws, Plato linked the biblical ethic of keeping sex inside marriage to the well-being of individuals and whole societies.
This law . . . confers innumerable benefits. In the first place, it has been made according to nature; also, it effects a debarment from erotic fury and insanity . . . it makes men truly affectionate to their own wives; other blessings also would ensue, in infinite number, if one could make sure of this law.
This sexual ideal held sway in Western civilization for more than two millennia.
The sexual revolution that upended it is usually placed chronologically in the 1960s, but it had its forefathers and foremothers without whom things might have played out differently. In the early 1920s, Wilhelm Reich, a disciple of Freud who had cut his psychoanalytic teeth in Freud's outpatient clinic the Vienna Ambulatorium, began combining a Freudian fixation on sex with the fashionable Marxist thought of his day to concoct what he called Sex-Pol counseling. It was, according to Elizabeth Danto, author of Freud's Free Clinics, a mixture of "psychoanalytic counseling, Marxist advice and contraceptives."
Like Freud, Reich believed that sexual repression caused all manner of neuroses, but he amplified and politicized Freudian sexualization by asserting that bourgeois morality kept people from accepting revolutionary change. Unless the people's sexual energy was released, he said, the world would never achieve progressive political or social reform. In other words, uncaging sex was the key to utopia.
In 1930, he published Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf ("Sexuality in the Culture War"), in which he took umbrage with "the fiasco of compulsory sexual morality" and called for "the abolition of the family" in favor of the "sexual collective." The book was later published in English as The Sexual Revolution. In 1931 he launched SEXPOL (the "German Society of Proletarian Sexual Politics") as an official subsection of the Communist party of Germany. Its platform called for unfettered abortion and homosexuality, free birth-control advice and contraceptives, and the overthrow of marriage, divorce, and laws pertaining to sex education.
A Woman Rebel Finds Her Cause
While Reich was in the early stages of hashing out Sex-Pol, Margaret Sanger, the self-proclaimed "Woman Rebel," on the lam from U.S. law enforcement, took up with Henry Havelock Ellis, a British "sexual psychologist" for whom sex was "the chief and central function of life." Though not a card-carrying Communist, Sanger was nonetheless, like Reich, out to destroy capitalism, bourgeois morality, and organized religion. Ellis, more than two decades her senior, mentored her and attempted to channel her indiscriminate agitating. Consider the science of eugenics, he suggested. Focus on the economic peril of population growth. Contraception, he pointed out, had the potential to counter that threat while (conveniently) making the world a sexier place.
Sanger began to envision a world in which sex was disconnected from childbirth. Freed from the bondage of marriage and family, individuals would be loosed to do whatever they liked, however, whenever, and with whomever came along. This would change the world. She had found her mission.
The Quest for a Sexual Silver Bullet
Sanger turned to science to make this sexual Shangri-La a reality. The quest began in Manhattan, late on a winter night in 1950, when she called at the Park Avenue apartment of Gregory Goodwin ("Goody") Pincus, a biologist of checkered renown. She sought an inexpensive, easy-to-use, and completely foolproof method of contraception, preferably a pill, she explained amid long threads of swirling cigarette smoke. Could it be done?
"I think so," Pincus answered from across the coffee table.
"Well," she said, "then start right away."
And so the project was on. Social historian Jonathan Eig chronicles the decade-long effort in The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. The central figures were Pincus, the scientist seeing fame in his future; Katherine Dexter McCormick, the childless elderly heiress who bankrolled the project; Dr. John Rock, the telegenic Boston physician whose Catholicism and paternal demeanor lent a Marcus Welby-like imprimatur to the ostensibly medical undertaking; and Sanger, the initiator and driver. Fellow comrades included fraudulent researcher and pedophile Alfred Kinsey, and Playboy magazine founder Hugh Heffner, who, Eig says, saw himself as "a kind of Paul Revere in silk pajamas, a messenger of truth and freedom." It was a monumental project that might, if one were to stretch charity, be commended for its leaders' dogged perseverance. For the four crusaders kept their eyes on the goal and never wavered.
Soulless Science, Soulless Sexuality
But they didn't, by any stretch of charity, deliver truth. Though a champion of their cause, Eig matter-of-factly reports copious instances of shady science, duplicity concerning project objectives and practices, and dishonest coercion of test subjects. Sadly, he doesn't seem to be bothered by any of them.
As for whether they brought freedom, well, that answer would depend on how you defined freedom. Consider these events covered by news reports from recent years:
Is this freedom? Or might it be, recalling Plato, "erotic fury and insanity" passing for freedom?
Humanae Vitae Vindicated
Eight years after the Pill received FDA approval in 1960, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae. It predicted four ramifications of widespread contraceptive use: an overall decline in moral standards, a rise in infidelity, a decline in male respect for women, and the coercive exertion of reproductive control by governments. Reactions to the encyclical ranged from polite disregard to outright contempt.
But time has proved Paul VI dead right on all counts. "Forty-plus years after Humanae Vitae," writes Mary Eberstadt, "there are more than enough ironies, both secular and religious, to make one swear there's a humorist in heaven"—at least, she noted soberly, for those who take their humor dark.
Social sensibilities, if not vicarious embarrassment, might cause us to avert our gaze from singing vaginas or shirtless dancers shuttling coeds to the polls. But no conscience should sit in peace while fifth-graders are taught anal sex. In The Sexual Revolution, Reich wrote, "The senses of the animal, man . . . are awakening from a sleep of thousands of years." If this is the awakening, the world would be better off keeping the Reichian animal man caged. •
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