The sexual revolution is often identified as the place where it all began.
For some, the sexual revolution is the birthplace of modern liberal sexual ethics. From this perspective the revolution was a positive event that lead to freedom and autonomy not only for sexual minorities, but for all people. For others, the sexual revolution is the beginning of a steep decline of sexual morality. The revolution precipitated the erosion of society’s moral conscience.
We can say that the reception of the sexual revolution is polarised: it represents the day society lost a moral compass—or found one.
This summary treats the sexual revolution simply as a cause. The two perspectives represent two sides of the same coin: on one side, the revolution has caused sexual liberalism, which for the other side, is an end of particular forms of moral sexuality. Regardless of which side of the coin one finds his or her own view, the sexual revolution is surely, in some sense, a cause of the present.
Yet by definition the sexual revolution is an effect. A revolution is a revolt against something, a sudden change in how people live. A revolution points beyond itself to the conditions from which it springs, against that which it revolts. This means that the sexual revolution does not emerge ex nihilo, but is a contingent event and therefore an historical effect.
When we think of the sexual revolution as an effect, we are pointed not to the present, but to the past. We are provoked to think of the conditions that lead to the revolution, rather than dwell principally on the transgressive behaviour that typically characterised it.
In the 1964 Riddell Memorial Lectures, which were published three years later as Secularization and Moral Change, Alasdair MacIntyre traces the destruction of community life as a result of the industrial revolution. His analysis is illuminating for thinking about the sexual revolution as well. One must not think mistakenly that the industrial revolution neatly maps onto the sexual revolution. Rather, MacIntyre’s analysis of the industrial revolution presents us with a frame for thinking about the sexual revolution first as an effect.
According to MacIntyre, the industrial revolution marks a revolt from, and rapid destruction of, older forms of community. This is not a claim that an agrarian community is morally superior to the community that appears as a result of the revolution. A more basic claim is being made: revolutions destroy older forms of communities.
This basic claim is important to note because the destruction of the traditional community leads to the loss of features of that previous community, which MacIntyre claims Christianity gave symbolic expression. MacIntyre notes three features that are destroyed: a ground or natural order that orders all lives, stability that results from the continuity between order and nature, and finally, norms that justify the prosecution of transgressive behaviour.
These losses, MacIntyre argues, underwrite the erosion of moral unity and the rise of autonomy of the secular life. In sum, when people were stripped of their traditional structures, “they were finally torn from a form of community in which it could be intelligibly and credibly claimed that the norms which govern social life had universal and cosmic significance, and were God-given. They were planted instead in a form of community in which the officially endorsed norms so clearly are of utility only to certain partial and partisan human interests that is impossible to clothe them with universal and cosmic significance.”
The reaction of church folk appears more instinctive than rigorously thought through. In May 1818, there was a debate concerning the merit of building more churches to discipline the masses. Having given examples of attempts by the church to intervene in society’s moral situation, MacIntyre remarks, “Thus the presentation of Christianity is too often, and too publicly, a device to secure the class interest of the ruling classes.”
If you smell a rat, then your senses might be on song. MacIntyre’s reading of the industrial revolution in these lectures is along Marxist class wars lines. His thesis is that the industrial revolution precipitates conflicted social relations in which the church is caught up. The decline of church influence (church attendance) correlates with its loss of touch with the worker, which has to do with the migration of people from the village community to a context of isolated autonomy in the city. In this urbanised setting the swelling working class finds itself outside of the narrative power of the church’s message. More critically, the message served the interest of those who worked the workers.
The church’s message, MacIntyre argues, ceased to have critical purchase in one’s experience of life. With this waning influence, new narratives are created to vindicate lives. Here we find the secular life and a changing moral milieu.
The Sexual Revolution
MacIntyre is very aware that he paints a fairly reductionist and homogenous before and after picture. Nonetheless, he thinks the broad brush strokes frame the social context of the time accurately enough to get a glimpse of the rise of secularism that results from the church losing contact with the experiences of everyday lives. The industrial revolution first did not undermine the church’s voice and sway, rather, the moral landscape that characterised the industrial revolution first was the result of the church having lost those she desired to hear her voice and to be swayed. The industrial revolution was not the beginning of the end, but the consummation of it.
I wonder whether such an interpretation of the industrial revolution can illuminate our thinking about the sexual revolution? Why hasn’t the sexual revolution first pointed us to the prior conditions that lead to the sexual revolution?
MacIntyre’s account leads us to consider whether the sexual revolution first is not to be understood as precipitating a change in the social landscape and therefore the undermining of the church’s ability to affect the social conscience. But rather that the sexual revolution was, at least in some sense, an effect of the church’s inability to theologically narrate sexuality and gendered lives in light of not only Adam and Eve, but also the fall, redemption, and our future glorification in Christ? Did post-war social conservatism co-opt Christianity (or were they in bed together?) to proffer notions of sexuality and gender that were deeply incongruent with wider society’s experiences and thinking about sex and gender?
It is easy to point the finger at the sinner—the gunja toking, acid tripping, braless hippie, rocking out to Jimmy under the sun—that got us on this slippery slope in the first place... if that is indeed the case. It’s much harder to take seriously the sexual revolution as one event that emerged, in part, as a result of the church’s poor sight and inarticulate voice.
Such a reading of the sexual revolution understands that society at the time had already revolted against the status quo as narrated historically by the church, and that what was to follow was the outworking of that widespread disquiet. In other words, society had revolted against the narrative of “right” sexuality and gender that structured society, and the revolution was merely an attempt to install a new narrative or social structure that better represented (and regulated) their experiences of gender and sexuality.
And so in the 1960’s sexual revolution, sex came of age. It lost its purity. Sex was no longer sacred because society re-narrated sex as secular. This means that the sexual revolution was not the beginning of the end, but the consummation of it. The sexual revolution is now society’s boast, like the conquered subject of footy change-room banter.
But to be clear, the point of this post is not society’s conquest of sex, which is the disenchantment of sex—I take this as given. Rather, it is the confronting inglorious realisation that its foundation is one that we cannot wholly disown. However causal the sexual revolution/secularisation of sex is, the church must realise that the sexual revolution/secularisation of sex was first an effect that emerged from a context of disquiet.
The disquiet that wracked post-war sexual conservatism names the personal revolt against the status quo that seeks social vindication through revolution. Herein lies the mistake: not realising that the quiet was in fact disquiet.