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.