I grew up in an era when sexual freedom first intoxicated a generation. It made a perfect match between individualism and technology, loosening the communal ties that bound us.
Thanks to technology we had learned how to have sex without making babies, and we had learned to cure diseases passed on through sex. Liberated from nasty side-effects, people could pursue pleasure without fear. And, many did.
These developments attracted a lot of media fascination, and many denunciations from pulpits. It was a dramatic time, but in the end less confrontational than you might think. The culture mainly groaned and made room for the new ways. Unsupervised coed dorms became the norm. Playboy became the winking bad boy of mainstream culture.
I don’t think it occurred to many people that marriage would really change–only the double standards and hypocrisy of relations leading up to marriage. There had always been hanky panky. Now it was normalized.
So the second wave of the sexual revolution came as a surprise: a dramatic increase in divorce. That wasn’t planned. Again, though, society groaned and rolled over. Experts opined that it was probably good for the children not to be raised in unhappy circumstances; and certainly good for the unhappy partners to leave each other behind.
Simultaneously a revolution was occurring in homosexual behavior: out of the closet, defiantly out of the closet, for a time engulfed in extraordinary displays of promiscuity, eventually settling down, almost, into happy domesticity.
Abortion also became mainstream: often grieved in private, but widely practiced and accepted in public.
We had, by the end of the eighties, generally accepted premarital sexual activity and an unprecedented divorce rate. But in most people’s minds, the fundamental structure still hadn’t changed. Eventually most people got married. Children were produced by married couples.
However, the revolution kept rolling, and it is rolling still. Divorces continued, and the children of divorce were even more prone to divorce, or never to marry in the first place. The scandal of out-of-wedlock babies gradually disappeared. First those young mothers were treated with sympathy; then with admiration. Today, fathers are optional and babies come through many avenues. Test-tube babies, surrogate mothers, lesbian couples producing babies with the help of artificial insemination–once the province of science fiction these choices are all absolutely mainstream today. Young couples not only have sex without a thought of marriage, they live together not as a prelude to marriage but simply as a state of preference or convenience. Weddings are a possible event in the life of a couple, but marriage and partnership are now only loosely connected.
It goes further. The very nature of male and female has come under question. People can and do change gender.
Since my college days alarmists have been predicting that the dominos will continue to fall. They have been consistently proved right. What seemed impossible a generation back–gay marriage? gender transformation?–has come true.
And Christians, while still serving as alarmists, really don’t have much to say. For one thing, by most measures Christians behave much like everybody else. More importantly, nobody much cares what Christians think. We can perhaps scare and shock the believers, but we can’t even get a faint rise in the pulse rate of anybody else. The culture has moved on.
I sometimes used to think the pendulum would swing back, but we’ve lived with some pretty horrendous consequences of the sexual revolution– millions dead of AIDS, a fatherless generation–and there’s not the slightest sign of retreat. What I foresee is more. Whatever structures remain are on shaky ground.
The chief remaining taboos–rape, sexual harassment, child sex abuse, child pornography, man-boy relations–have in common that there is a youthful or non-consenting victim. Maybe that reservation will hold. We’ll see.
I’m not trying to scare anybody. I’m past the alarmist stage. I am just waking up and asking myself: how does one live as a Christian in a truly post-Christian society? In some areas–human rights for example–there is reason for encouragement that post-Christian society has continued to advance Christian values. But sex is pretty basic stuff. Fidelity has some appreciation. Chastity has very little.
My question isn’t finally about sex. It’s more about identity. Do we abandon traditional mores and adapt our expectations to a new situation? Do we become “anonymous Christians,” as I understand is common in Sweden? Do we form strict, isolated counter-cultural colonies, as the Amish do? Do we preach an unrelentingly unpleasant message on the streets, as Jeremiah did?
I’m asking myself, “What would Jesus do?”