How often have you heard people say something like, "I'm sure glad I'm not part of today's dating scene. What a terrible way to find a life-time mate." Or, "Who wants all this 'new freedom' and the sexual expectations that come with it?"
Granted, we are not of the younger generation or participants in the new sexual scene. Nevertheless the panorama is hard to ignore. Whether you turn on your televisions set, open the newspapers or go to the movies, our new sexual freedom is "in-your-face." There is little doubt that the discovery and marketing of the contraceptive pill changed our manners, our music and how we live our lives. Like most drugs, the pill, too, has its side effects. Besides the physical ones, there are the more costly social consequences.
This revolutionary drug profoundly changed our attitudes and customs about marriage, family and children. The pill has ushered in an era of no-consequence sex, promising to bring a cornucopia of happiness. Wise minds from Aristotle to Pope Benedict XVI tell us that the purpose of life is human happiness.
But are American women and men happier? Not according to data from the General Social Survey, the sociologist's bible. Despite women's substantial advances over the last 35 years in education and in the work force, women's happiness has declined. More than 1 in 4 American women took mental health medication for anxiety and depression and related problems last year. In the last 10 years alone, researchers found the use of drugs for psychiatric and behavioral disorders rose to 29 percent of all adults.
What of the pill's promise to lessen "shot-gun" weddings and make for more solid families? And, of course, fewer out-of-wedlock births? In 2009, 41 percent of all births (about 1.7 million) occurred outside of marriage, compared with just 11 percent of all births in 1970.
Wasn't the pill supposed to reduce births to unmarried teens? Non-marital births to teens rose from 30 percent in 1970 to 87 percent in 2009. Non-marital births to women ages 20-24 rose from 9 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 2009.
And how about the pill's promise of fewer back-alley abortions? While the back-alleys have given away to tax-supported abortion mills, the number of abortions has skyrocketed. Since 1973, when the sexual revolution was just warming up, over 50 million legal abortions have been performed in this country. Many health insurance plans pay for abortions and as Catholics we should anticipate the bill for this service any day now.
How about the guys? Currently our country has 40,206,000 unmarried men, the largest percentage of marriage-shy males in our history. Arguably America has never seen such a density of baby-men, afraid of authentic relationships with women. The fact that 40 percent of U.S. males regularly watch porn has provoked the once-upon-a-time sexpot, Raquel Welch (now 71!) to comment, "Poor babies. They can't control themselves. I just imagine them sitting in front of their computers, completely annihilated. They haven't done anything, they don't have a job, they barely have any ambition anymore."
Where is Clark Gable now that we need him!
One of the less "countable" effects of the pill-inducted-sexual revolution is the near-death of romance. Our erotica soaked media and "new normal" sexual climate has short-circuited what not long ago was the slow-dance of the boy meets-girl experience. Gone are the days of "A kiss is just a kiss." Now a kiss is understood as a free gift card to imminent bedding. There are few intermediate steps between seeing a stranger "across a crowded room" and, as they quaintly say now, "getting it on." These transient liaisons are the antithesis of romance.
A recent novel, "The Marriage Plot," about a triangle of Brown University students offers a graphic picture of the new no-consequences rules of the game. Most poignant is the portrayal of a bright, beautiful girl who chronically weeps and feels used after her various sexual explorations. Thomas Hobbes' 17th Century description of human life as "nasty, brutish and short" seems a more appropriate description of our impoverished hook-up culture.
A ruling cliche informs us that it is impossible to turn back the clock. Maybe so, but it is difficult to look at the social scene we are passing on to our children and not be saddened. And not simply to lament the loss of that innocent era, but also the exhilarating dating world which existed before the sexual revolution kicked into high gear.
As opposed to the current recreational sex sense, the earlier generation's slow-dance world of romance had a sweet intensity: the high anxiety of the hesitant telephone call for a date; the sheer delight of being able to hold hands; the nervous fretting about that first, brief kiss; the wanting to be better, to "put our best foot forward," to be worthy of the other.
While it may seem quaint, the big question among Catholic teenagers and young adults was, "How far can you go?" And the answer that came back was, "Not very far." Nevertheless these rules provided a climate for romance and a safe dating arena in which to learn about those delightful creatures of the opposite sex.
Not long ago, the Church -- both clergy and laity -- was confident in teaching rules of sexual behavior. Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a recent interview lamented, "I am not afraid to admit that we have an internal catechetical challenge -- a towering one -- in convincing our own people of the moral beauty and coherence of what we teach." Further, he admits "we have gotten gun-shy...in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality."
Perhaps we need to find our moral voice again.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.