My husband and I have a private joke. When we find ourselves in conversation about shifting social norms or the tribalism of contemporary politics, invariably his eyes begin to twinkle. I know that he’s silently counting the minutes until I utter the words: “Well, you know, it all comes back to the sexual revolution.” Upon reading Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, I imagine author Mary Eberstadt having similar moments with her husband, Nick (to whom the book is dedicated), and I feel entirely justified.
Eberstadt is a writer and senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute whose previous books trace themes of western secularization, religious freedom, and sexual ethics. In Primal Screams, she follows a similar path, making the case that the liquidation of family in the wake of the sexual revolution is a primary driver of today’s identity politics.
While Eberstadt’s conservative bent reveals itself in her framing and word choice, she does attempt conversation across the political spectrum and maintains that regardless of affiliation, we can all agree on two things: first, that the American polis is deeply divided and second, that identity politics is among the most powerful forces of our time. But unlike some of her fellow conservatives, who might simply blame progressives as fomenters of identity politics, Eberstadt seeks to understand what drives victim-based identity in the first place.
Identity politics, she argues, answers the question “Who am I?” for a society that lacks traditional sources of identity and purpose. The “Great Scattering”—her term for the social and familial fallout of the sexual revolution—magnified our need for connection while simultaneously stripping us of a natural mechanism for belonging and protection. The loss of family also means fewer opportunities to learn how to build common trust in the pursuit of the common good.
Still, Eberstadt acknowledges that the “Great Scattering” is not the only driver of identity politics. “Real crimes and injustices,” she writes, “have been committed against real sexual and racial and other minorities—wrongs that have naturally driven many people to group identities in hopes of preventing more wounds.” We cluster in special interest groups because we find ourselves alone in the world and believe that the only ones we can count on to meet our needs and protect us are those who have similarly suffered. In this sense, Eberstadt understands family fragmentation not simply as the loss of traditional values but as the loss of society itself.
The most compelling part of Eberstadt’s argument is her explanation of identity politics as a survival mechanism. She frames feminism, for example, as a necessary social adaptation in a sexual ethos that privileges male promiscuity. Contra fellow conservatives who might posit feminism or queer theory as the cause of familial breakdown, Eberstadt sees them as the result of a world that is increasingly dangerous for women and children because of the loss of marital norms. She calls readers to distinguish between the presenting symptoms and the deeper systemic ailment: “However unconsciously,” she writes, “feminism is in fact expressing an overlooked truth here: today’s women have reason to feel concerned.”
In parsing the #MeToo Movement, she continues
The sexual revolution reduced the number of men who could be counted on … the ethos of recreational sex blurred the lines between protector and predator, making it harder for women to tell the difference. Simultaneously, the decline of family has reduced the number of men offering affection and companionship of a non-sexual nature—fewer brothers, cousins, uncles, and others who could once have been counted on to push back against men treating [women] badly.
Citing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a founding document of contemporary black feminism, Eberstadt pinpoints the appeal of feminism: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.”
After Eberstadt’s roughly 100-page argument, Primal Screams shifts to commentary from other thinkers: conservative Rod Dreher, liberal Mark Lilla, and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Each interacts with Eberstadt’s thesis, offering affirmation, counterpoint, and logical extension. Dreher predictably turns the conversation to religious communities. Lilla accepts that family fragmentation is linked to identity politics but asks whether it is in fact rooted in the sexual revolution. Thiel wonders aloud about the effect of economics on family formation.
I, too, found myself wrestling with several unanswered questions. While Eberstadt makes a point to acknowledge the suffering that often drives identity politics, she fails to trace her thesis of familial liquidation back far enough, particularly as it relates to our history of racism. While we often frame race-based injustice as a failure to extend “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to people of color, the evils of slavery were perpetrated against families, not just individuals. If Eberstadt is correct that the willful dissolution of family leads to social breakdown and tribal clustering, what is the inheritance of a society that forcibly and intentionally dissolved families for hundreds of years?
What is the fallout for a civilization that kidnapped people and stripped them of their genealogical heritage? What does it mean that their God-given familial identities were then exchanged for law-encoded identity markers like “slave” and “negro”? What if families could be legally dissolved on the auction block, with husbands, wives, mothers, and children torn from each other? How are we to understand that bi-racial children, conceived through sexual assault, were then abandoned by their white fathers and that such abandonment was not only overlooked by society but expected?
The difficulty isn’t that Eberstadt’s thesis is wrong; it’s that it is very, very right. Precisely because there is a strong link between family and identity, we must wrestle with the degree to which America’s original sin continues to shape our modern political landscape. While Eberstadt does not make this connection in her book, her thesis, if taken to its logical end, tests whether conservative and progressive alike are willing to face our history of destroying families in the name of capital gains and personal consumption. It tests our willingness to see the social fallout for those who endured not only the Great Scattering but the Great Crossing and the Great Migration, as well.
Whither the Church?
As a practicing Catholic, Eberstadt argues from the context of faith without making direct appeals to Christianity or calling for an institutional religious response. Still, churches and religious leaders have a lot to learn from her work .
First, Eberstadt offers a model of engagement. She recognizes the importance of differentiating between root causes and presenting symptoms. While we may disagree about the long term effectiveness of a survival strategy like identity politics, we must honor the true pain, hardship, and oppression that drive it. It is not enough to reject victim-based advocacy if we are simultaneously unwilling to help victims when they cry for help.
Second, Eberstadt explores one of the fundamental questions of modernity: “Who am I?” And to this question, Christianity offers a clear and compelling answer: You are a child of God, made in his image, destined for glory through Jesus Christ. To a world desperate for stable identity, such news is good news indeed. But this news does more than give us a stable sense of identity. It also gives us a family to belong to.
“The most remarkable thing about each of us,” Mark Galli writes,“is that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ dwells in us and we in him.
We are unified ontologically, that is, at the core of our being. We are not unified because we’ve agreed to adhere to certain doctrines and behaviors, nor because we have a lot in common culturally ... We are one because of Jesus Christ’s indwelling presence in each one of us.
Applied to Eberstadt’s thesis that identity politics is driven by deep pain and social isolation, our oneness in Christ then demands that we take up the cause of others when they cry out under the weight of earthly injustice. We hear them and respond, not because we share common cultural or sociological identities but because we share a common hope.
If Eberstadt is correct in her assessment of the weakness of modern familial bonds, the church must become a place for those who find themselves alone in the world. For it is here in the family of God that we find true, deep connection and remember that we’re not alone. It is here in the family of God that we learn how to seek the common good. And it is here in the family of God that we learn to care for our brothers and sisters, even as our Heavenly Father cares for us.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul (Moody). You can find more of her writing at sometimesalight.com, hear her on the weekly podcast Persuasion, or follow her on Twitter @sometimesalight.