Women are in a bind. The sexual revolution has loosened sexual standards to such an extent that the less-easily-attained joys of committed relationships are increasingly out of reach, reducing women’s life satisfaction even as sexual freedom is hailed as their salvation. In Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense, conservative author Mona Charen bluntly argues that this shift toward shallow relationships is tailored to the male libido:
As George Orwell reminded us, “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” So let’s say it: Women’s desire for sex is less urgent and powerful than men’s. Accordingly, nature has given women an advantage or bargaining chip with men. Why should women give that up?
This passage from the first chapter is one of many quips and observations demonstrating that Charen is not one to hold back. Her smooth, authoritative voice weaves ideas together with life experience. She has the data to back up her arguments, but her points stick because she brings in concrete details from her own life as a mother, a wife, and a public intellectual.
Charen is happy women have greater professional freedom than in the past but isn’t the slightest bit hesitant to link feminist support of the sexual revolution to problems women are facing today. Noting the culture’s openness to women’s professional advancement was already happening without second-wave feminism, Charen lays out convincingly that those feminist leaders were deluded by Freud and Marx and ultimately pushed ideas harmful to women. Second-wave feminists weren’t alone: Charen describes how elite universities in the 1960s and ’70s were teeming with Freudian and Marxian thinking, precipitating the scientifically dubious but authoritative-sounding proclamations of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and other bestselling authors.
The sexual revolution allowed these writers to shape feminist ideas about sex, with a ripple effect extending to women who didn’t sign up for it. Seeing such bankrupt ideas maintaining deep and wide influence, worrying statistics about women’s present unhappiness come to make sense. Friedan is a case in point: The Feminine Mystique relies on data about human sexuality from Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and Freud, all of whom have had their research exposed as mostly worthless.
Freedom of choice differentiates Charen from the second-wave feminists who helped entrench the sexual revolution mores as the new status quo. French feminist Simone de Beauvoir was explicit: “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to bring up her children,” de Beauvoir said. “Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”
Slightly less dogmatic but no less strident, Friedan wrote that domestic life was a “comfortable concentration camp.” Charen argues that the data since second-wave feminism’s heyday have not been kind to their hypotheses. The most reliable statistics indicate women are less happy than they were before the sexual revolution took hold. Charen’s judgment is that women simply aren’t fulfilled by climbing corporate ladders and getting degrees; they want their full nurturing, caring selves to blossom through familial relationships that require cutting back on work here and there. She makes the political personal by drawing from her own life, revealing that she independently concluded she should drastically cut back on work when she saw her adopted son responding with greater affection to his nanny than to her.
So, feminist support for the sexual revolution rested on junk science and outright hostility to women’s agency to choose to prioritize family. What should we do about it? Here Charen’s optimism comes through, since she in no way treats the current state of the family as a given. She credits cultural leaders from former president Barack Obama to conservative intellectual Charles Murray for defending the legitimacy of marriage and the family. The statistics may seem bleak, but so was the problem of driving while intoxicated before Mothers Against Drunk Driving successfully led a campaign to socially stigmatize it. What is seen as the inevitable march of progress is, in fact, reversible.
Progressive readers could prejudge Charen a fuddy-duddy, but they’ll likely hear a discomfiting ring of truth in her statements about how unfulfilling modern relationships are. Her diagnosis has a healthy dose of worldly wisdom: Had women not signed onto the sexual revolution, it would have been just another attempt by men to get young women to let their guard down. For those apathetic about hookup culture or the shallowness of dating apps, this might come as a breath of fresh air.
What would relations between the sexes look like if the millennial generation heeded Charen’s words? Without getting ahead of herself and criticizing how “kids these days” are dating, Charen points out truths of human nature that have a wide application in dating, whether on campus or anywhere else. It’s the kind of guidance young people are likely starved for, since it comes unvarnished and without condescension. It’s a foundation free from the preachy dogmas of modern feminism.
Sex Matters offers something specific to women: a message that their differences from men are not defects. Gender issues being at the forefront of so many cultural and political debates, women are often cordoned off into the cultural left—as shown in how liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton blithely declare their solidarity with women along with racial and sexual minorities. But the left’s messages are drenched in presuppositions that put off many women, most notably the dismissal of male-female differences as “regressive” and “socially constructed.” The backlash against this kind of radical gender theory helped bring writers like Jordan Peterson to prominence. Charen’s book has a lot to offer women looking for their femininity to be affirmed. It also provides men with truths about the opposite sex that mainstream culture dismisses in the name of feminism.