The Consequences of Contraception
When it comes to good PR, 2012 has been a great year for Christian sex. Between Mark and Grace Driscoll's new book Real Marriage and Ed and Lisa Young's Sexperiment, married sex has assumed a central place in the public spotlight and in our daily conversations. It is affirmed by visible evangelical pastors and exalted as the glue that holds our marriages together.
These books and others have encouraged candid conversation about sex. Younger Christians now talk about sex openly and in a way that might make their grandparents blush. Yet with all this talk about sex, with all the teaching and writing about sex, are we really getting to the core issues of Christian sexuality? Does the sheer volume of conversation necessarily entail substance?
Mary Eberstadt's new book, Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius Press), addresses these questions, though indirectly so. Throughout the book, Eberstadt pieces together the societal fallout of the sexual revolution. Examining the consequences of sexual liberation for women, men, and children, she systematically catalogues a whole host of social ills ranging from out-of-wedlock pregnancy, to divorce, to addiction to pornography. The result is a concrete set of "empirical evidence" with which the culture must reckon.
Eberstadt presents the data in a short and digestible format that will hopefully equip more lay Christians with the sociological arguments for biblical teachings on sex. Because she chose this more accessible format, Eberstadt (admittedly) sacrifices the time and space that a comprehensive study of the sexual revolution deserves. At times her summaries seem reductionist, giving only a nod to complicating factors such as affluence, individualism, and narcissism, all of which arguably contributed to the collapse of the American family and rampant female unhappiness. Sexual libertinism cannot be the sole culprit in our nation's moral failures.
What's more, Eberstadt frequently critiques an unidentified group that she labels the "academic elite" or the "enlightened," a vague category of people who deny the sexual revolution's negative consequences. Her persistence in accusing this unclear group of Americans comes dangerously close to a kind of anti-intellectualism. Her broad-brush condemnations also take aim at "modern feminism," a term that is about as precise as "evangelicalism" and therefore runs the risk of demonizing an entire movement of diverse voices who surely cannot be categorized so narrowly.
These issues aside, Eberstadt mounts a compelling case. The book includes a wide spectrum of consequences wrought by the sexual revolution, and is therefore a terrific one-stop shop for anyone interested in understanding the big picture of American sexual mores.
Returning to the opening question of Christian discussions about sex, Eberstadt's final chapter is a major contribution. It is her argument's coup de grace as she pinpoints the moment when Pandora's Box was first unlocked: the creation of the Pill.
Eberstadt's lead-up to this final point is both smart and masterful. Each chapter carefully builds a case against sexual liberation, often echoing popular evangelical litanies against non-marital sex. As she critiques secularism and its handmaidens, she stokes the concern of evangelical Christians, and perhaps strokes our egos in the process.
Until, that is, the final chapter, which is undoubtedly an indictment of current Protestant teachings on contraception. In this chapter she considers Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968), a prophetic warning against contraception that not only represented historical Christian thinking on the topic, but proved to be devastatingly accurate in its predictions.
Since the publication of Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church has adhered to its reproductive ethics despite the Western ire it has incurred. Protestantism, on the other hand, has not fared so well. For Eberstadt, the 1930 Lambeth Conference, in which the Anglican Church "abandoned its longstanding Christian position on contraception," signified the beginning of a gradual unraveling of a coherent sexual ethic in the Protestant tradition. It was the moment when the Protestant church conceded all grounds for telling Christians what to do with their bodies.
As a result of this fateful decision, Eberstadt is not surprised at the sexual inconsistencies we now see in Protestant churches. Again looking to Anglicanism and its recent decision to ordain practicing homosexuals, Eberstadt believes this development makes perfect sense: "Once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals [by engaging in sterile sex], it would not be long before homosexuals started claiming the rights of heterosexuals."
As Eberstadt sees it, the contraceptive pill has launched us into a new age in which responsibility has been divorced from sex. And while it is easy to point fingers at the secular world for embracing this reproductive technology, Christians are complicit in its hold on our culture. Most Christians do not want to be told what to do with their bodies any more than non-Christians, and the Pill has made that freedom possible.
Eberstadt's final chapter sheds a different kind of light on current evangelical conversations about sex. As often as these discussions are taking place, and as important as it is to affirm sex in marriage, there is a distinctly individualistic flavor to these teachings. While church leaders should encourage marital intimacy in the bedroom, married sex (and the teachings behind it) can still have negative social ramifications. Using contraception is not a private act, nor is it a neutral one. Eberstadt's book is Exhibit A of this reality.
Knowing this, pastors cannot address the widespread sexual brokenness in our culture simply by encouraging married sex. They must also address the ideology and theology behind the brokenness, and contraception is Ground Zero for those discussions.
Although Eberstadt's primary aim is to present the empirical evidence of the sexual revolution's fallout, her research serves an additional purpose. It also presents the empirical evidence for thinking carefully and soberly about embracing contraception. In this day and age, such a suggestion will seem ridiculous to Christians and non-Christians alike, but the data is undeniable. If we want to think seriously and Christianly about sex, then we need to think seriously about contraception.