"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Pill at 50

Today, I'm told, is the 50th anniversary of the Pill. More precisely, the 50th anniversary of the FDA's announcement that it was going to approve the Pill for general use. Given all the news stories, editorializing, and blogging—Meghan Duke's post at First Thoughts is a good guide—I surmise that people can no more wait to talk about the birthday than the government could to talk about the birth. Which is good, since the Pill was and is that important.

I have long argued, and I'm far from the only one, that the Pill was the catalyst for one of the greatest social revolutions since the invention of agriculture. Along with antibiotics for STDs, the Pill reduced the costliest of the potential costs of fornication for enough people to make fornication socially respectable. It then took no more than a decade for fornication to become almost de rigeur. Nobody bats an eyelash anymore about people who are unmarried at 30, but the few singles who are virgins at 30 have very good reason not to be open about it. Of course, the social degeneration did not stop with fornication. As many Catholic writers have noted, all of the nasty things that Pope Paul VI predicted would result from the contraceptive mentality have come to pass. Mary Eberstadt is perhaps the pithiest chronicler of that; see her "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae" in the July 2008 First Things (the article is available online only to subscribers.) But she writes partly for effect, so that the scoffers can always dismiss her as an insufficiently careful sociologist, even though sociology tends to confirm her hardly original point.

Lest one think the insight limited to Catholic writers, the quintessential sex symbol of the sexual revolution, Raquel Welch, is now inclined to agree. She concludes:
Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it's gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it's precisely because of the sexy image I've had that it's important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We're capable of so much better.
Are the girls going to pull up their socks? Not if the guys have anything to do with it.

The culture of contraception has been a godsend for tomcat males. But it's no bargain for women, whose sexuality is more commodotized than ever, and who feel they have no excuse not to "put out" in order to land a man. Sure, they can "have sex like a man," to use the famous injunction of Helen Gurley Brown, the founding editor of Cosmopolitan. A rather small minority of women like that, and a somewhat larger minority actually do it. But all it means is that more women become as crass as men than otherwise would have, while many more women blame themselves if they're not happy with the relatively new social reality. Anybody who says that the sexual revolution has contributed to greater happiness for the greater number must think that fornication is so transcendent an experience that its ready availability compensates for the explosion of things that nobody says are good. I don't believe many people think that. They just don't want to seem uncool.

There are of course worse things than not wanting to seem uncool. As birth rates continue falling around the world, it's tempting to imagine that the worst long-term effect of the Pill will be the end of the human race. But that would be apocalypticism, of which I'm generally skeptical. No, the worst thing about the Pill—worse than the culture it has catalyzed, worse even than its often abortifacient effect—is that people no longer assume that sex and procreation are supposed to go together. Besides making same-sex "marriage" inevitable, the loss of that natural assumption has lent great force to the basic illusion of secular liberalism: what I call "radical autonomism."

I mean the ideology that human beings can remake themselves into whatever they please, given enough technology and imagination. On that ideology, there is no "human nature" whose inherent telos defines the limits of what we can become without destroying ourselves. The problem with radical autonomism was prophetically detailed by C.S. Lewis in his 1947 classic The Abolition of Man. He discusses contraception as part of that unwitting project. But our society is perhaps too sex-crazed to listen. Ultimately we have hell, and ourselves, to blame for that. But the Pill really did grease the skids.

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