By Jonathon Van Maren
In 1934, Oxford anthropologist J.D. Unwin published his mammoth magnum opus Sex and Culture, a study of 80 primitive tribes and six civilizations over five millennia. According to Unwin, these case studies prove that when cultures become wealthy, they correspondingly loosen their standards of sexual morality. As a result, societies lose their cohesion as well as their purpose and drive. In short—I’m currently working through his brick-sized tome now—the success of a society is, according to Unwin, directly tied to the sexual restraint they exercise. Once this is lost, Unwin writes, the die is cast—the decline is irrevocable.
Unwin’s study pre-dates the Sexual Revolution but still serves as a powerful predictor. His thesis adds insight to Ross Douthat’s in The Decadent Society, in which Douthat analyzes the interlocking layers of cultural sclerosis that have produced our political gridlock, polarization, and Weimar cosplay. The creative lethargy and cultural listlessness Douthat describes, if you believe Unwin’s theory, is at least in part a result of the immense amount of energy being expended on sexual endeavours (be they digital or physical). When sexual energy is not channelled towards marital monogamy, it is diffused uselessly outwards.
A key question, however, is whether the Sexual Revolution has run its course (as Dan Hitchens recently theorized in First Things) or whether we are about to see it advance further. The next battleground, if the revolutionaries manage to advance that far, would be the sexualization of childhood—which is in some sense underway. Pedophilia advocates have praised the concept of “drag kids,” which has children performing sexual dances for adults. The LGBT movement is pushing nonstop propaganda to children; sex education is increasingly a how-to course; mainstream media outlets insist that children seeing nude adults at Pride Parades is a good thing. But all of this is not nearly as far as Alfred Kinsey might have hoped—and not as far as we once went in the West.
That brings me to a horrifying story in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv titled “The German Experiment That Placed Foster Children with Pedophiles.” Most of you will not want to read the whole thing—it is difficult to stomach. In summary, it details how German psychologist Helmut Kentler, working in the service of sexual liberation (which he thought essential for society to evolve), launched an experiment that placed foster children with known pedophiles. This experiment began in the 1960s and ran for decades with the knowledge and support of the German government. Aviv details one instance where a father attempted to retrieve his son; Kentler and the courts blocked him, and the boy remained with an active pedophile who sexually molested him. The outcome was as awful as it was predictable.
Ross Douthat analyzed the essay in the New York Times, noting that while it seems genuinely unbelievable that this took place, “Aviv explains with bracing clarity how the context of the 1960s and 1970s made the experiment entirely plausible. The psychological theory of the Sexual Revolution, in which strict sexual rules imposed neurosis while liberation offered wholeness, was embraced with fervor in Germany, because the old order was associated not just with prudery but with fascism and Auschwitz…If the old human nature had ended in fascism, then the answer was a new human nature—embodied, in Aviv’s account, by ‘experimental day-care centers, where children were encouraged to be naked and to explore one another’s bodies,’ or appeals from Germany’s Green Party to end the ‘oppression of children’s sexuality,’ or Kentler’s bold idea that sex with one’s foster children could be a form of love and care.”
In short, Douthat notes, all of this was part of the “wider Western mood, distilled in the slogan of May 1968: It is forbidden to forbid. In those years famous French intellectuals petitioned to decriminalize pedophilia, while America had its own squalid forms of predation, whether in rock-groupie culture or Roman Polanski’s Hollywood.” In this cultural context, the prophetic prudes warning of predation and sexual apocalypse were not shrill but desperately sane, and the recent revelations that the philosopher and founder of “wokeness” Michel Foucault was likely a pedophile rapist are far less surprising. As Douthat points out, our horror at such stories is “proof that revolutions don’t move in one direction—you can climb back up a slippery slope, you can break a taboo and partially rebuild it.”
So where are we now? I’ve interviewed dozens of intellectuals, activists, and academics over the past decade, and many believe we may be on the cusp of a backlash. The #MeToo movement was an attempt to reassert and reimpose sexual standards where hedonism had led to inevitable excesses. The transgender movement, with its hormone therapies and castrations and mastectomies for minors is causing frank horror among many (although perhaps not enough, and legions stay silent for fear of being damned as reactionaries.) A growing consensus from governments to the grassroots is emerging that recognizes the dangers in the non-stop digital consumption of pornography beginning in childhood.
Is that backlash coming? It is too early to tell. As Douthat observes (and I’ve written extensively on these alliances from anti-porn conferences across North America), the alliance between radical feminists and social conservatives still exists, and there is much common ground on sexual regulations. It is possible to reach the same conclusions from profoundly different ideological starting points. Of course, many of those radical feminists are now also being damned as bigots—or, more specifically, as “TERFS”, i.e. trans exclusionary radical feminists. The new feminists see biological men identifying as women as their sisters, and they hate those women who fought for female-only spaces with a hatred once reserved for the patriarchy.
The inevitable question arises: Without the traditional Judeo-Christian standard for sexuality, can the West still regulate sex? Is the revolution a runaway train, or will nature reassert herself with an epic civilizational smash-up as proposed by Unwin? Or perhaps both?
Douthat believes that while the current trend has been more towards regulation, this is “contested and unstable.” He cites the Washington Post’s advocacy of children seeing “kink” at Pride and the Left’s growing embrace of prostitution as “sex work,” for example. “I don’t know how long the current period of progressive cultural power can last,” he concludes. “But so long as it does, these debates will continue, because the regulation of sex is an inescapable obligation of power. So progressives will continue to teeter between two anxieties. On the one hand, the fear of turning into the very Puritans and Comstocks they brag of having toppled. On the other, the fear of Helmut Kentler’s legacy, and liberation as a path into the abyss.”
Rod Dreher’s take on all this is, predictably, grimmer. Dreher points out that despite the horrors of what Kentler was perpetrating against children, he was universally deferred to by the elites: “We all can see how insane medical authorities, and adjacent gatekeepers, have gone about transgenderism today. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, one of the most respected psychological authorities in Germany was placing foster children with pedophiles, with the knowledge and approval of the German parliament. Today, top doctors, hospitals, and medical schools are cutting healthy breasts off of young females, and jacking children up with cross-sex hormones, all in a grand experiment to liberate them from biology. And Democratic politicians cheer it on, while judges do little or nothing to stop the insanity.”
There are many paths our society could take in the years ahead, but I will propose just two possibilities. The first is that the already-exploding movement of “de-transitioners”—those who have realized that gender transition was not the answer to their dysphoria and are now speaking out against the Pied Pipers of the transgender movement—manages to stage a cultural breakthrough and pierce public consciousness. Despite desperate attempts by trans activists to silence every whisper of dissent and shout down anyone who strays from the narrative, brave souls like Keira Bell have taken their cases into the courts and have gained a hearing. Perhaps Bell is but a blip in the trans movement’s march towards cultural domination—or perhaps her U.K. court ruling will be seen as a watershed moment. Time will tell.
Another possible path is that a generation of young, physically ruined people, bitterly unhappy and bearing the full consequences of transgenderism’s bitter fruits, will persuade themselves that their unhappiness is not as a result of their pharmaceuticals and their failed surgeries, but of “transphobia.” Denial is incredibly powerful, and thousands upon thousands of young people are going as all-in as they physically can—mastectomies; castrations; irreversible damage that will, in many cases, eliminate the ability to bear children or experience sexual pleasure. What happens if they persuade themselves that the reason for their unhappiness is the stubborn refusal of others to affirm their choices? Already, trans activists are insisting that this lies at the root of the “de-transition” trend. We know a backlash to all of this is coming—we do not yet know who it will be aimed at.
The Sexual Revolution has liberated everyone from the very things that make us happy—commitment, self-sacrificial love, children, family—and it has convinced us that those very things were the source of our misery. It is gaslighting on a civilizational scale, and it cannot last. But there are real differences between Douthat’s predictions of decadence and Dreher’s prophecies of collapse—differences with real meaning for how we and our children will live in the decades ahead. Considering J.D. Unwin’s analysis, hoping for a soft landing seems optimistic—but we can always pray for one.