The Sexual Revolution Hasn’t Made Women Happier

Youth Culture - Hippies 1960s

Hippies (Photo credit: brizzle born and bred)

Aside from the obvious questions, “happier than what?” or “happier than when?”, or even begging the question, “how do we know that women have ever been happy overall in the first place?” because I don’t know how we can compare the educationally, socially and career limiting eras of our mothers and grandmothers with the veritable garden of options that women have today.  It’s not an apples to apples thing.

The idea that happiness is the end goal of our life’s pursuit is an oddly American one anyway. Ever since Jefferson lumped the pursuit of it with the rather more important issues of life and liberty, people have seemed to grasp more for the third rail and worry about the other two only after the fact.

A recent debate courtesy of the Wall Street Journal pitted Hanna Rosin against Mary Eberstadt on the subject of whether women are better off, which has nothing to do with happiness.  In life, really, happiness is often beside the point as our stoic grandparents and their parents before them could have told us, but since the Boomers, each subsequent generation has found itself more and more unhappy and puzzled as to why, so naturally the fault must lie outside themselves. It wouldn’t do at all to expect the more probable truth that happiness is a choice and many of us choose to be dissatisfied. Not because we want to be unhappy but more because we have no idea how to disentangle the idea of happiness from status, wealth, material things and other people’s approval.

Eberstadt argues that because women today aren’t happy with their lives then the sexual revolution has failed. Rosin argues, correctly, that happiness is beside the point. Women are better off economically, socially and from a human rights standpoint. She muddies the water a bit with the tired assumption that because women can have “risk free” intimate relationships without fear of jeopardizing educational or career plans then the revolution is a success. The “sex” part of the revolution was not the great gain for women however.

Entanglement free sex is a fantasy and always has been, and it’s a male and female delusion. The idea that another person’s body is recreation probably isn’t the worst thing human beings have done to each other over the course of our history, but it is one of our more persistent fantasies because it is the very rare person who plays that game and doesn’t get slapped at some point and it’s the pretense of “risk free” that is at the root of such chastisement.

But that’s a secondary road, a tangent that isn’t the point any more than happiness is.

Women are better off for the advances in law, reproductive health and societal changes than they were fifty years ago. Whether or not they are “happy” has more to do with who they are as people and what they believe the point of their existence is.

Young people especially, but every generation is guilty to some extent, of believing that our individual “happiness” is the point of being alive at all. If we are not happy, there is a reason and someone/place is to blame. Someone other than ourselves.

The sexual revolution has nothing to do with “happiness” anymore than being an American versus being a European is the recipe for “happy”. Religion or no. Wealthy or not. Powerful or average joe. There are happy and unhappy people populating any niche one would care to label.

Happiness is a choice. A housewife in the 1960′s chose to be happy or discontent in the same way and by the same numbers as a SAHM or career woman chooses to do the same today. Then as now, the ability to maneuver and achieve within the allowed parameters is largely up to the person.

My personal opinion is that the sexual revolution vastly underestimated most people’s ability to separate personal expectations and emotions from the incredibly intimate act of copulation. Most of us just don’t arrive at our sexual awakening with the maturity, wisdom or knowledge base to avoid making huge emotional missteps which results in hurts that can leave long-lasting scars on ourselves and others.

Perhaps if we weren’t so human, and so woefully determined to ignore our vulnerable natures, it might have worked out better. As it is in America, we still don’t do the “free love” thing very well and we spend much of our lives stumbling and wondering why it’s so hard and why our relationships don’t work out the way the media tells us they should. And that too is a side road for another day.

That doesn’t mean that the revolution was a bad thing or an unnecessary one.  Poor planning and execution coupled with a continued denial of human nature doesn’t negate it. The hypocrisy that governed sexual relations before certainly wasn’t working all that well either and a wide swing in the opposite direction was inevitable and has led to an increased acceptance of perfectly normal relationships that were once considered wrong like interracial and same-sex couples. And it decoupled marriage from sex, which was occurring long before anyway, and we are better off for simply acknowledging that as perfectly normal too. We are not all meant to be in long term relationships, and even though monogamy in some form works for more of us than not, doesn’t make it the default setting because human beings tend to change with age. What fifty year old will tell you that he/she is in need of the exact same thing emotionally now as they were at 18 or even 38?

To paraphrase Shakespeare poorly, maybe when god makes men and women of some other metal than earth, we will get this all right?

Regardless, those who would have us believe that happiness is the point are missing the point. And are probably unhappy to boot.

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9 responses to “The Sexual Revolution Hasn’t Made Women Happier

  1. i’ve been quiet — mostly because it’s nearly impossible to state “this is my choice. this is what i do.” without others reading it as “I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD LIVE LIFE MY WAY!”. i’m not an advocate for ethical non-monogamy. it’s just my choice. for now.

    it isn’t easy, just as any committed relationship isn’t easy. it isn’t for everyone, just as monogamy is not for everyone. i work pretty hard at my relationships, and i care deeply for my companions.

    regarding happiness? agree that it’s a bad, unmeasurable metric, and probably not something humans should strive for — it seems to me more of a trailing indicator in a well-balanced, comfortable existence.

    regarding the sexual revolution? the advances in the availability of reproductive health care have been tremendous, but have fallen far short of where they should be. especially lately! ugh! why it isn’t availble on-demand, fully subsidized is flat out illogical. but then again, the male-dominated culture in the US is cornered, and this is the first volley to regain some control.

    so, to sort of try to circle back to the point of your post – which relates the sexual revolution to ‘happiness’: can we overcome adversity/trauma and live a life with some degree of exuberance and joy? i’d say yes. it wasn’t raped and beaten out of me on my 18th birthday. beyond that, there have been numerous incidents in my life that could have shut me down completely. i believe that my ability to move forward has been due in some part to luck, and some part to my desire to do so…

    i will simply not allow anyone else to steal my life from me. there are no mulligans. this is it.

    • I knew a woman once who was in a polyamorous relationship, she was legally married to one of the two gentlemen. I do think that some ppl are perfectly capable of these types of relationships. I think though that many times, ppl find themselves in triangles or intimately involved with someone who has other lovers and they are blindsided b/c they weren’t given a choice. Choice and freely given consent is key or what you have is cheating, betrayal and emotional devastation.

      And that’s really the problem. Some ppl can do this and some can’t and few of them are willing to state their expectations upfront for fear of “losing” the other. But if you can’t be honest, you have already lost – later maybe rather than sooner – but it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

      I think more of us than not are monogamists. Serial ones perhaps. But the number of us who can love equally among a gaggle of others isn’t the majority and likely not even half of the population. We tend more towards one on one and one at a time.

  2. Why am I not surprised to find you are back again already to quibble line by line?

    Ppl in general are more negative in the States these days and I doubt that it’s roots are in the sexual revolution. What’s wrong really is that in America, in particular though not exclusively, there is a whopping sense of entitlement coupled with a belief in the “dream” that is no longer attainable no matter how hard one works. Women feel it just like men do. They material gravy train has jumped the tracks and it’s not really going to get going for most folks again.

    But whatever. You believe what you like. I have no further interest in this discussion because it’s clear you just want the last word. Which you don’t get on my blog.. Maybe you should start a blog, if you don’t have one already.

      • You were trying to start an argument. This is a personal blog. Your idea of “dialogue” is like coming into my living room, putting your feet up on the coffee table and giving me instruction on how to be me.

        I have been on the record about my belief that happiness (although I wouldn’t use that term) is a choice for a very long time. I don’t believe that ppl who live in the industrialized first nations of earth are ever completely without option or choice no matter how limited their circumstances b/c we enjoy a standard of living – even at the lowest economic rung – that others in the world can’t even dream of. We are spoiled and it makes us whiny. If some women feel that the 1950′s offered our gender more than the year 2012, it’s only b/c they are grossly ignorant of history and are perhaps a bit too comfy in their entitlement.

  3. You really think a lot of people’s emotional self control and mental potency. If your life sucks it’s hard to be happy.

    “Women are better off for the advances in law, reproductive health and societal changes than they were fifty years ago.”

    Let’s take one of those things, reproductive health. Imagine this scenario. A woman, lets call her Emma, gets on the pill. She forgets to take them for a while because she’s often drunk or high. She then has sex with an attractive guy wearing black leather than she met in a bar, and doesn’t use a condom. He gets her pregnant.

    He then abandons her because she should just get an abortion. She keeps the baby and becomes a single mom, hating it. She also gets to keep the std he gave her. He didn’t use a condom either since

    Happiness for her is a choice? Even as the sores burn her genitalia, as the baby screeches in her ear? It’s a weighted choice. The changes were supposed to help women but they didn’t work out as they were intended to.

    • There are ppl in this world dealing with worse scenarios than the one you seem to think is the plight of the average young woman. FYI, unintended pregnancy rates are actually dropping thanks to the increase in condom usage, which are fairly good at keeping STD’s at bay as well.

      But that aside, you can choose to be bitter about shit that happens or you can choose not to be. Do I think the majority of ppl choose not to be? No. I think most ppl are like you. They see negative in everything and assume the worst of most ppl.

      If you’d read what I’d written carefully, I didn’t say that the sexual revolution was nothing but net and I attribute the difficulties mostly to the fact that we are human, but I don’t, as you do, assume that being human … and female … is synonymous with being stupid. But let’s say your grim and rather sadistic scenario plays out more often than not, there is always choice. You can choose to not have the child. You can choose adoption. You can choose to view the opportunity to mother as an opportunity. Each choice carries its own burdens. How we face them – optimistically or with angery is also a choice.

      Many ppl are quick to quit and give in to the negative, but they are choosing it whether they want to admit that or not.

      • “There are ppl in this world dealing with worse scenarios than the one you seem to think is the plight of the average young woman.”

        I agree, there are many much worse situations people can be in.

        “FYI, unintended pregnancy rates are actually dropping thanks to the increase in condom usage, which are fairly good at keeping STD’s at bay as well.”

        I agree that condoms are good at stopping stds and pregnancy, though a brief browse of wikipedia says that unintended pregnancy rates are rising because there’s more poor people. Could you cite a source for those stats?

        “But that aside, you can choose to be bitter about shit that happens or you can choose not to be. Do I think the majority of ppl choose not to be? No. I think most ppl are like you. They see negative in everything and assume the worst of most ppl.”

        I’d question this.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8347115

        Optimism is heavily (50% or so) genetic according to twin studies, and there are lots of childhood factors out of your control that affect your optimism. If your dad said that you were useless and would never amount to anything because he drank so much and was depressed, I’d imagine it would be hard to chose to not be bitter about shit. Some people are born or are taught to be optimistic, some aren’t.

        “If you’d read what I’d written carefully, I didn’t say that the sexual revolution was nothing but net and I attribute the difficulties mostly to the fact that we are human, but I don’t, as you do, assume that being human … and female … is synonymous with being stupid.”

        You noted the emotional problems that people face when they mix up sex with love. That’s true, those emotional problems are an issue. I was more saying that there are very tangible reasons why someone would be depressed due to the choices of the modern era.

        “But let’s say your grim and rather sadistic scenario plays out more often than not, there is always choice. You can choose to not have the child. You can choose adoption. You can choose to view the opportunity to mother as an opportunity. Each choice carries its own burdens. How we face them – optimistically or with angery is also a choice.”

        People can’t predict the future perfectly. This extremely common and grim scenario plays out often enough. Women who aren’t good at being mothers are thrust into the arena. They have more choices, but sometimes these choices lead to dark places, and they don’t know when their choices are going to lead them to dark places. By changing the law and the culture and such you plot a new path for women, for better or worse.

        “Many ppl are quick to quit and give in to the negative, but they are choosing it whether they want to admit that or not.”

        “Women are better off for the advances in law, reproductive health and societal changes than they were fifty years ago.”

        Women feel a lot more negative now. If there’s more negativity about then inevitably more will give into it. They are not better off on the whole.

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