A review of Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, by Mary Eberstadt

Everyone agrees that women are more educated, wealthy, and influential than ever before. Liberal author Hannah Rosin made the provocative case in her 2010 Atlantic cover article, “The End of Men,” that the future is better suited to women, who are rapidly overtaking men educationally, professionally, and financially. In her 2011 book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women is Turning Men into Boys, conservative Kay Hymowitz wrote about “female sovereignty” redefining the college, graduate school, and professional worlds. She called it the “New Girl Order,” and traced it in part to the freedom brought about by contraception. So with all her learning, money, power, and freedom, how is the modern woman feeling, 50 years after the Pill?

Well, she is unhappy. The unhappiest, in fact, she has ever been, as far as we can tell. Female depression levels are at all time highs, as is use of anxiety and depression medication among women. She is also unhealthy, with STD levels surging and fertility rates plummeting. Roughly half of all women ages 20-24 have the sexually transmitted disease human papillomavirus (hpv), which is directly linked to cancer and infertility. Although one in three teenage girls today will get pregnant, approximately 25% of working women with bachelor’s degrees or higher now wind up childless, despite advances in fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilization. Seventy-eight percent of women engage in a “hook-up” during their college career, 14% of whom will rely on a friend to tell them what happened the next day and 16% of whom will feel pressured into the sexual encounter.

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In Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Mary Eberstadt offers a grim portrait of society in contraception’s wake. She makes empirically plain that the sexual revolution has not been kind to Eve. Nor has it been particularly kind to Adam, or Adam, Jr. A research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Eberstadt makes the Pill out to be the world’s tiniest weapon of mass destruction. It’s a devastating read.

The book is predominantly composed of expanded essays, each exploring a facet of how our culture has changed, post-contraception. Many of these topics have already spawned small libraries. Her chapter on the college hookup culture, for example—Toxic U Eberstadt calls it—draws on books like I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student (2006), Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (2006), and Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both (2007). She catalogues a mountain of data, showing that the average college campus is a place where parents are slowly bankrupted while their children are deprived of moral and sexual integrity. Parents: have a drink before you read this chapter.

Other chapters are more original and provocative. Eberstadt asks, “Is Food the New Sex?” Unlike 50 years ago, having a baby out of wedlock (as the majority of women under 30 now do) is no big deal. But shop somewhere other than Whole Foods or a local farm, and you’re a pariah. This inversion of food and sex is just one of many paradoxes Eberstadt brings to the surface in Adam and Eve.

Contraception was supposed to liberate women into a world of choice. But many women feel ensnared in the social expectations that have come with liberation. A recent Pew study found that only 21% of mothers with children under the age of 18 say full-time employment is the ideal situation for them. Yet 90% of them feel social pressure to contribute to their household income. A recent Economist online poll asked two women to debate, and readers to vote on, the statement, “A woman’s place is at work.” Almost half of voters agreed with the statement.

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In interviews I have conducted with young women in my own research on this subject, I am amazed by how little choice young women feel they have today. Nearly every woman I speak with felt pressured into her first sexual encounter, by the man, but also by the expectation that pre-marital sex was simply what was expected of her. Contraception and abortion have liberated women from an obvious excuse to delay sex. These same women feel enormous pressure to delay marriage and perform professionally. Paradoxically, as Eberstadt argues, the Pill has seemed to narrow women’s options precisely by giving her unprecedented choices.

When she set out to tackle contraception, Eberstadt may have had two anniversaries in mind: the 50-year anniversary of the Pill and the 45-year anniversary of the Catholic papal encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the Church’s opposition to artificial contraception. It would have been impossible, however, for her to know that the release of her book would coincide with the most bitter, protracted debate about contraception in this country since the Supreme Court considered its legality in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965.

In the months leading up to the publication of Adam and Eve, the country erupted into a spirited debate over contraception and its back-up plan, abortion. The Department of Health and Human Services issued its so-called “contraception mandate,” requiring that employers, regardless of religious and moral conviction, cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients in their healthcare plans. The ensuing religious liberty debate continues, after Georgetown University law student and contraception activist Sandra Fluke helped to pave President Obama’s path to another electoral victory.

Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of contraception and abortions, was caught up in multiple fiascos: first when a string of sting operations exposed a nascent sexism and racism, then when Congress tried to defund it, and finally when the Susan G. Komen Foundation decided it would no longer consider Planned Parenthood as a grantee (only to buckle after a wave of feminist pressure). The Planned Parenthood chronicles and the bitter divide over the HHS mandate led to feminist allegations that a “war on women” had erupted.

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Eberstadt, of course, could not weigh in on these subsequent national debates, but they give her book an immediate relevance. Budding in the soil of the legislative and social angst over who should fund what, were the tiniest shoots of conversation about contraception itself: Was it rightfully considered “preventive healthcare” for women? Were there potential drawbacks to the hyper-sexualized culture it had facilitated? The Wall Street Journal devoted a lengthy point/counterpoint, in which Eberstadt was a respondent, to the question: has the sexual revolution been good for women?

Journals and websites that would have never discussed contraception began debating it with gusto. A popular financial blog, Business Insider, for example, published an article entitled, “Time To Admit It: The Church Has Always Been Right on Birth Control.” The authors argued that, think what you may about contraception, Pope Paul VI was uncannily prescient when he wrote in Humanae Vitae that the widespread acceptance of contraception would lead to “a general lowering of moral standards, a rise in infidelity and illegitimacy, the reduction of women to objects used to satisfy men, [and] government coercion in reproductive matters.”

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Though issued by a Catholic publisher, Eberstadt’s book treats the Catholic teaching on contraception as a sort of afterthought. The last chapter, “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” does not spend much time on the encyclical itself, nor does it need to. The previous seven chapters make plain that widespread use of contraception fomented a cultural attitude which regarded sex as disconnected from procreation, or as little more than “hygienic recreation in which anything goes so long as those involved are consenting adults.” The result has been: lots of less-than-hygienic recreation and plenty of less-than-consensual encounters. The victims of this new mentality have been disproportionately children and women. The glamorization of pedophilia—”pedophilia chic” Eberstadt terms it—is one example.

For the first time in history, female athletes constituted the majority of the U.S. Olympic team in 2012. Also for the first time, there was at least one female athlete from every nation represented at the Games. In the 1972 Munich Games, women took 24% of the American medals. At the 2012 London Olympics, they took around 56%. So women are not only more educated, wealthy, influential, and free than ever before—they can also run, jump, throw, swim, lift, and box like you’ve never seen. All these are what Aristotle would call the kinds of goods people pray for. But he admonishes us that what we should pray for is that these goods will be good for us. Whatever may be the many undeniable advances of women over the past half century, there is also no denying the grim reality one sees from the bird’s-eye view of Adam and Eve