The “free love” movement of the 1960’s has proven to be anything but liberating. Rather, the legacy of the revolution has led to a society held in bondage to its sexuality as gender confusion, objectification of the body and the decline of intimacy affect daily life in profound ways.
Medical technology allows women a great deal of control over when and if they will have children, which in turn leads to greater opportunities for formal education and high paying careers. Prior to the 60’s, it was largely unpractical for women – whether married or single – to take this route as the culture was designed for men to generate the necessary incomes to support their families. Married women attended to the home and single women worked low-status jobs. On the whole, the fabric of society was devoted to the permanence of the family.
But all societies naturally fall short of the ideal. Not all men were as committed or faithful to their families as they ought to have been. And women were often trivialized; their voices were largely viewed as irrelevant in matters of religion, politics, economics and business.
While it’s no wonder that the brief post-war rigidity didn’t last long, I think it would be a mistake to suggest that the model of life offered in the 1950’s best represented the fullness of the sexual revolution that western society has benefited from over the past two millennia in the form of Christianity. Even so, for all the social shortcomings of the mid-twentieth century, I believe it’s impossible to regard the past 50 years as a time of sexual freedom. I will go so far as to say that for all of the boredom, hypocrisy and closed thinking of the 1950’s, both men and women were far happier then than they are today.
The consequence of the breakdown of sexual norms, gender roles and family stability is that without clear boundaries our desires and appetites remain unchecked. We allow ourselves to be dominated by the passions, and it becomes all too easy a victory for the advertisers, marketers and entertainment experts. The fact that our public schools expect and encourage 14-year olds to be sexually active perfectly illustrates how overwhelming the battle to reclaim goodness is.
No parent holding a newborn baby would hope for their child to be “experimenting with their sexuality” by their early teens. Nor would they want that child to experience broken or commitment-free relationships. But it seems that on account of recognizing how fragile and heartbreaking life can be, we collectively abolish all standards. The ideals espoused in the Christian view of marriage, family and sexuality easily expose our shortcomings, but instead of pressing on to the higher goal, we have abandoned the Christian ideal altogether while groveling in the mud of indecency. This, I believe, is a classic case of insanity.
What was supposed to be a great step forward towards liberation has instead amounted to mass disillusionment. Both women and men live with much higher financial instability today than when it was normal for marriages to last. And the extent to which women (and increasingly men) are sexually objectified can only be classified as disturbing. I can’t believe that I’m out of line in suggesting that most people today would not rank their sex lives as being “very good”. Of course, it’s fashionable to regard oneself as a sex goddess, but this is undoubtedly the facade that seeks to compensate for the void.
It seems to me that the prime factor motivating the feminist and gay rights movements is revenge. But beating something as crude as male chauvinism at its own game is hardly a victory worth claiming. Rather, we need to go back to the triumph of Christianity and look at the ways in which the Gospel brought unprecedented freedom on a large-scale social level.
In the Greco-Roman empire, attitudes towards sexuality and gender were quite similar to what they are in our secular world today. Children were used as sexual playthings, men commonly bought the services of prostitutes, no real distinction was made between homosexuality and heterosexuality and women used sex to advance their social status.
Cosmopolitan Athens or Rome in the first century was comparable to cosmopolitan New York or London today. No one was going to tell you what you could or couldn’t do with your body. But this manner of living proved to be less than enlightening. Life was cheap and it was difficult to find a sense of fulfillment in an existence in which everything was permissible. All one could really hope for was good karma and better luck the next time around.
But Christianity changed everything. It rejected the traditional conventions of social status as being related to money and sex and instead offered a paradigm of existence that showed how true joy is found through humility and purity of heart. Women no longer needed to be sex symbols in order to pursue personal gain, for the Kingdom of Heaven was found within. And men learned that the human body was not merely a device by which to obtain pleasure, but a vessel through which Christ lived and renewed the soul.
Firmer distinctions were recognized between the sexes allowing for healthier boundaries and a higher regard for the unique needs and responsibilities that must be met in order for both male and female – and subsequently the family – to thrive. Sex itself was no longer a selfish act, but done out of love and care for the spouse. One cannot underestimate how revolutionary this approach towards marriage and commitment truly was.
And it would be an oversight to ignore that Christianity introduced an ascetic impulse into the world whereby Christians (not just monastics) learned the importance of forgoing pleasure altogether. It is not that pleasure was regarded as inherently wrong, but there was a realization that spiritual wholeness trumped material desires. The discipline of fasting became an important way of remembering that joy is never found in the pursuit of indulging.
With Christianity, women and men from every position of society came to find true liberty in Christ. Mary the Mother of God serves as the purest illustration of this. She was a woman who was of low status, but purity of heart. She was chosen to bear and nurture the Son of God. Her blessedness was not found in the pleasures of the flesh but in the illumination of her soul. The Mother of God gave birth to the wellspring of Life who toppled over the world as it was known.
But it seems that today we are opting to return to the pre-revolutionary days: a time that was upside down and backwards, a time that favored objectification and cheap thrills, a time that did know the power of restraint. The last 50 years has represented a catastrophic regression into an abyss of perversion and mind numbing pleasure. There is no question that the Christian ideal is difficult to attain but to allow for the standard to erode is to concede that we are striving after nothing. I think the fundamental problem facing our world today is our loss of belief in ought. Disillusionment is inevitable when we leave ourselves to justify and normalize the messes that we are all too prone to make. And freedom, it seems, can only be attained when we choose to favour the light of day over and against the dimness of the cave.