It may be that I like Mary Eberhardt’s analysis of what has gone wrong with the world, The Zealous Faith of Secularism because it accords so well with what I have expressed myself. A lot of the culture war is about sex. It’s not anywhere near as much about race, wealth, education, and class as people like to pretend. The importance of those issues are heightened by sexual revolution issues. I was particularly intrigued by her thought that the identity politics of the day are driven by the fragmentation of society that has been largely caused by changes in sexual behavior.
There was the car, and there was birth control. I wish I could find again the research I read decades ago that attempted to estimate both the fact of premarital/extramarital sex, and the amount of it. The claim was that the increase in the number of people who had sex outside of marriage actually increased during WWII, not the 60's, and dipped only temporarily after it was over, rising again to similar rates in the 1950’s. The wartime numbers are not surprising, as this has been reported for centuries. Warfare activates procreation in both sexes. Choose your own explanation – there are many possibilities on the list. Yet the number of partners was very low. Often there was no increase at an individual level, because it was sex with a fiancé or a steady who later became a spouse. The second sea-change began not in the late 60’s, but the early 70’s, when the either-or of sex in and out of marriage went up only slowly, but the number of partners for those who engaged in it began to increase sharply, and continued increasing for 20-30 years.
You will notice that these two changes coincide first with more cars – either as mobile hotel rooms or ways to get to places of privacy – and later, availability of birth control. Religious groups point to the temptation provided by the values expressed in TV, popular music and art, and movies. I think the amount of unsupervised time is a bigger factor. It was for everyone I knew, anyway.
The newsworthy conflicts between (some) Christians (and some Jews) and the seculars seem to revolve around sexual issues – baking cakes, assigning bathrooms – and these are also the most emotional and disruptive to the whole society. As I have said before: the Christians and traditionalists are interested in sexual behavior – but they aren’t obsessed with it as their opponents are.
Back to Eberhardt. I don’t share her disapproval of sharing birth control information with women in poor countries, but I have to admit that she’s diagnosed correctly that this is a sexual behavior issue that does tie strongly with the behavioral mores of secularists in the west. Nor is she the first to note that the people they want to get this information are all suspiciously dark. It’s almost as if…nah, that’s impossible. I also concur with the worshipful attitudes toward Margaret Sanger and Alfred Kinsey defy what these secularists say that their real values are, suggesting that their real values are indeed closely tied to being able to have sex with who they want and enduring no criticism from anyone about that.
I overheard some of the ladies working in the cafeteria this week, young to middle-aged. They were talking to one of the youngest whose boyfriend had proposed to her, but she had turned him down. She wasn’t sure he was likely to be a good husband, and she wasn’t sure she is ready to get married yet. They were agreeing strongly, each telling her own story: of getting married at 18 (“I mean, how the hell do you even know who you are at 18, right?”); of finally doing better with a third husband, the first two not being very good fathers and how much that hurt the children; of finding out later that the husband was sleeping around. All had children, and two had grow children who had children of their own, also with unmarried parents. You have guessed by now that the first young woman is pregnant, and the boyfriend was proposing because he thought it was the right thing to do. How quaint. So it’s wrong and irresponsible to get married if you aren’t old enough, or don’t feel ready, or don’t think the mate is a good one. But having children is okay. No one asked my opinion, I didn’t give it.
Eberhardt offered the possibility that the growth of identity politics may be tied to the erosion of other identities. There is not a family to help define you, neither nuclear nor extended. If there is a church, it is now at the rate of twice a month or less rather than weekly, with friendships and co-working even more reduced. In this area, decreased church attendance is driven largely by children’s sports and other school activities. You know, those intense bonding experiences that last two-three months and are gone. Those do, however, tie one into a visible allegiance with the prevailing suburban culture, which is what they will really need to “get ahead” later. No village, no youth organisations lasting years, no pride of profession, because they change. Nor should we define ourselves by common Americanism. I hear that’s dangerous. With other identities eroded, race, orientation, and ethnicity taken on greater importance, not, as conservatives are fond of accusing, because being a victim is lazy and easier and more fun, but because they’ve got nothing else. It reminds me of the urban kids who join gangs as substitute families, because it’s the only show in town where someone will remember your name.