How Feminists' Happiness Pill Made Beasts of Men

As a father, filmmaker Don Johnson saw the massive objectification of women in our culture, along with the alarming data on sexual assault and harassment, even among children, and asked, How did we get to this place? In researching the history of the sexual revolution, he found a major answer to that question lying at the intersection of three feminist icons from the last century. He traces their ideological lineages in the opening segment of his new film, Unprotected: A Pope, the Pill, and the Perils of Sexual Chaos.

A Feminist Trifecta

In the years following World War II, Betty Friedan, a married mother of three, took issue with the portrayals of happy homemaking women she saw in popular media. The so-called "American Dream" was not making her happy, and as best she could tell, it wasn't making other women happy, either. Real satisfaction, she decided, was to be found in a professional career, serenely away from the chaotic, day-in-day-out demands of home and children. About this same time, Helen Gurley Brown, author of Sex and the Single Girl and up-and-coming editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, was preaching a salvation message of women "having it all" by forgetting all that traditional morality bunk and going for career and casual sex, in whatever combination a girl might prefer.

Friedan saw Brown as an "anti-feminist" and thought Cosmopolitan quite "obscene" and "horrible," but Brown's message nevertheless overlapped with hers, and the timing was such that both of their messages converged with the fifty-years-running crusade of Margaret Sanger, whose lifelong mission of implementing fertility control had recently culminated in the introduction of the Pill in 1960.

At first, Johnson thought all this was just an interesting coincidence, but then he realized that the Pill was actually an essential component to all three women's respective goals. In their eyes, by severing the inherent link between having sex and having children, the Pill would free up women to pursue happiness—whether that lay at the office, in casual sex, or anywhere else. Although Friedan was not given to promiscuity as Sanger and Brown were, access to contraceptives became one of the establishing principles of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which she founded in 1966.

Sex Without Babies

From our twenty-first century vantage point, it's hard to grasp how radical a concept contraception was at the time. Up until the 1930s, nearly all churches had held that contraceptives were morally problematic, but it wasn't just the churches sounding cautionary warnings. T. S. Eliot had said that widespread contraceptive use would be "an experiment upon civilization that was bound to fail," while Theodore Roosevelt characterized it as "the one sin for which the penalty is national death." Birth control "made beasts of men," said Mahatma Gandhi, because it enabled men to use women for their own purposes. And even Sigmund Freud (no moral paragon) observed that "the abandonment of the reproductive function is the common feature of all perversions."

Nonetheless, at the behest of this feminist vanguard, women did indeed begin entering the workforce in higher numbers. There's nothing inherently wrong about that, but then some curious trends emerged. Studies began showing significant declines in women's happiness relative to men's. Fifty years into this revolution, the most stressed-out demographics in America, according to the American Psychological Association, were the millennials (the generation following the shift) and women, particularly working mothers.

Might there be a connection? Hold that thought.

Babies Without Sex

Ironically, after sex without babies became a thing, a new trend emerged: babies without sex. Growing up, all Alana Newman knew about her biological father was that he had been donor #81. Clearly, he had no interest in her. Was it strange, she wondered, that she felt a deep interest in him?

She looked for him in her teens to no avail, but later learned from her mother that he was Catholic and of Polish descent. Overnight, she became sensitive to these new identities. She started reading Catholic writings and found herself drawn to Pope John Paul II, the pope at the time. She even started to think of him as her father.

In The Sexual Revolution: 50 Years Since Humanae Vitae, another recently released film, Alana takes a look at the post-sexual-revolution years through the lens of her life story—not out of parental concern like Don, but because of the void in her own life where a parent should be. She covers some of the same social data he covers. Divorces are up, and abortions are up—both of which can be devastating in themselves but both of which can also leave unsettling aftershocks for others. Porn use, furthermore, is nearly pandemic, producing addicts and distorting the relations between the sexes, and college campuses have become veritable minefields for incoming freshmen.

Is it any wonder, then, that women, the more sensitive and vulnerable of the two sexes, are feeling the effects of stress? If free love meant sex without babies, Alana says, the free love movement has led to a generation of people looking for real love. Though drawing lines connecting causes to effects gets complicated when we're interpreting social data, as a woman and a mother of daughters, I think it takes a benighted ideologue to call the sexual revolution a win for women.

Humanae Vitae

But feminist ideologues still exist, and they would probably be dumbfounded to discover that all of the above had been predicted by one of the unlikeliest (to them) of figures—Pope Paul VI. Here's how that came about.

By the 1960s, most churches, but not all, had dropped their criticisms of contraception. The Catholic Church established a commission in 1963 to look at the matter, and Catholics were divided. When word got out that the pope would issue a statement, many people assumed the Church would fall in line with the rest of the world.

And so, when Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, reaffirming traditional Catholic teachings on marriage, sexuality, and artificial contraception, it was met with shock and criticism in both secular and Catholic circles. It was "the most derided, mocked, ignored, unread thing that ever existed," said Patrick Coffin, author of The Contraception Deception. People read Cosmo instead, Johnson quipped drily.

But Humanae Vitae was not just restated doctrine. According to Janet E. Smith, author of Why Humanae Vitae Is Still Right, the season of deliberation over the matter was a very agonizing time for Pope Paul VI. He reflected deeply on the meaning of embodied human life ("humanae vitae" means "on human life") and on the created context and natural processes by which human life is transmitted. He also reflected on the long-standing teaching that God loves babies and that the created order was such that sex and babies went together. Would it be wise to artificially break that connection? The answer, he concluded, was no.

Humanae Vitae opens on these themes, and then goes on to forecast certain consequences that would follow widespread use of contraception in a society:

• Prediction 1: There would be an increase in marital infidelity. "[H]ow wide and easy a road would thus be opened to conjugal infidelity."

• Prediction 2: There would be "a general lowering of morality."

• Prediction 3: There would spread an overall devaluing of women in the eyes of men, resulting in men using women as objects for their own pleasure. "[M]an . . . may in the end lose respect for his wife, and no longer caring about her physical and psychological wellbeing, will come to the point of considering her a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion."

• Prediction 4: The world would see a rise in coercive government action to control people's fertility. "Consider also the dangerous weapon that would be placed in the hands of those public authorities. . . . Who will prevent rulers from favoring, and even imposing upon their people, the method of contraception they judge to be the most effective, if they should consider this to be necessary?"

Newman points out an additional warning that touches on complexities relevant to her as a donor-conceived child. "He warned that people would develop a notion of total dominion over their own bodies, and even the bodies of others. [And with] transgenderism, euthanasia, and reproductive technologies, you can see how right he was." "The way I was conceived," she continues, "corrupted my entire understanding of marriage and family and human sexuality—because I was taught that you use people to get what you want, that people are disposable. You can just throw them away and never see them again."

It would appear, then, that respect for the human body and its natural functions calls us to recognize certain limits on the power we exercise over them. We transgress those limits at our own peril.

Joyless Vindication

Take a moment to ponder how one man predicted (fifty years out!) exactly the trends we are seeing (and suffering) today, right down to forced abortions and #MeToo. It's a joyless vindication, to be sure, but honestly, could he have been more right?

Many of the reasons why Pope Paul VI was able to predict these outcomes so presciently can be found in the writings of one of his successors, Pope John Paul II, whose Theology of the Body grew out of a series of lectures begun in 1979. The upshot of both works and both films (which are well worth seeing) is that, when sex becomes untethered from procreation, it also becomes untethered from relational continuities, from families, and from commitments to anything "weighty" that might place demands on us. In short, sex becomes selfish. And selfish sex hurts people.

It is precisely that natural link between having sex and having children that makes sex so weighty and binding. Rightly entered into, natural sex accords deep respect to the constitution of the woman's body. It carries with it an implicit statement saying, I'm willing to have a forever connection with you; I'm willing to have a child with you.

The feminist trifecta said infertile sex would make women happy. Now women just want their bodies to be respected and not treated like infertile playgrounds. As it turns out, says Newman, "the right order of things was good. We'd have a much better chance at happiness if we'd just go along with gravity—gravity meaning, love lead[ing] to marriage, marriage leading to sex, sex leading to babies, and then babies leading to more love."

Isn't it ironic that two Catholic men spoke clearer truth and gave deeper respect to the unique beauty and dynamics of the female body than the feminists did? It's ironic, yes, but not surprising. An accurate worldview gives one just that kind of vision.

has a BS in Computer Science and worked as a software engineer with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, IN, and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #47, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2020 Salvo |