Reflecting on the public discussion of sexual mores that has followed the disclosures of Harvey Weinstein’s depredations, Ross Douthat finds reason to hope that new restraints on personal behavior are beginning to replace those that collapsed in the social upheavals of the mid-20th century. He fears, however, that more than new restrictions will be needed to salvage what has been lost:
When the sexual revolution started, its conservative critics warned it would replace marriage with a divorce-go-’round, leave children without fathers, and expose women to more predation than before. Versions of these things happened, but over time various correctives, feminist and conservative, helped mitigate their worst effects. Divorce rates fell, sexual violence diminished, teen sex and pregnancy were reduced. In the last few years, even the out-of-wedlock birthrate has finally stopped climbing.
The cascade of revelations about powerful men is a continuation of this mitigation-and-correction process. But so far the process has not substituted successful marriages for failing ones, healthy relationships for exploitative ones, new courtship scripts for the ones torn up 50 years ago. Instead, as Weinsteinian or Polanskian excesses have been corrected, we’ve increased singlehood, sterility, and loneliness. We’ve achieved the goal of fewer divorces by having many fewer marriages. We’ve reduced promiscuity by substituting smartphones and pornography. We’ve leveled off out-of-wedlock births by entering into a major baby bust.
Part of the problem is economic: everything from student debt to wage stagnation to child-rearing costs has eroded the substructure of the family, and policymakers have been pathetically slow to respond. Last week’s struggle to get the allegedly pro-family Republican party to include help for parents in its tax reform is a frustrating illustration of the larger problem.
But there is also strong resistance to seeing a failure to unite the sexes and continue the species as a problem. If women are having fewer children, it must be because they want fewer children. (In fact most women want more children than they have.) If there are fewer marriages, they must at least be happier ones. (In fact they aren’t.) If the young are delaying parenthood, it must be that they are pursuing new opportunities and pleasures. (In fact the young seem increasingly medicated and miserable.) If men prefer video games and pornography to relationships, de gustibus non est disputandum. . . . [A]ny moral progress will be limited, any sexual and romantic future darkened, until we can figure out what might be rebuilt in the ashes.
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