Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics
By Mary Eberstadt
Publisher: Templeton Press
Review Author: Preston R. Simpson
Mary Eberstadt’s latest book is about an identity crisis — an identity crisis of a civilization. In her words, the argument of the book “is that today’s clamor over identity — the authentic scream by so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world — did not spring from nowhere. It is a squalling creature unique to our time, born of familial liquidation.” Eberstadt does a thorough job of describing the crisis, and she makes reasonable, though sometimes debatable, points about its origins in the breakdown of the family. She describes a “Great Scattering,” defined as “the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens, especially though not only across societies of the United States and Europe, since the 1960s.” This “unprecedented familial dispersion” is “now sixty-plus years in the making with no end in sight.” The book’s subtitle points to the sexual revolution as the ultimate source of the crisis, and that link remains tenuous at the end of Eberstadt’s otherwise lucid description.
Eberstadt begins with a question: “How has the matter of ‘identity’ come to be emotional and political ground zero for so many in the first place?” The answer, she believes, lies in family breakdown and “scattering.” Early signs of this were seen by prescient observers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1965 work The Negro Family: The Case for National Action linked black poverty to the disintegration of the black family. At the time, 25 percent of births among blacks were out of wedlock, a significantly greater percentage than among whites. By 2016 this figure was over 70 percent, and white illegitimate births were at 30 percent. Eberstadt claims she is not all that interested in what this breakdown of the family is doing to us; that has been addressed by many others. What she does want to know is what it tells us about our society.
Despite this distinction, Eberstadt spends much of the book telling us what it is doing to us. Humans are communal animals adapted for life in a family, and the disintegration is creating the “atomization” of our species, leading to individuals’ feeling lost, separated from community, and struggling to re-establish some kind of identity. In Eberstadt’s view, we are constantly asking, Who am I? Although it probably makes no difference to her argument, Eberstadt appears to be a thoroughgoing Darwinian evolutionist, as she frequently draws parallels to animal studies showing that wolves, rhesus monkeys, elephants, and other animals that are deprived of their natural familial habitat develop anti-social behaviors that correspond to some of the antics and neuroses found among our disaffected youth. The implication, whether intended or not, is that Homo sapiens is simply another animal that responds to stress in the same way as our nonhuman relatives. Eberstadt does, at other points, lament the neglect of God and traditional religious teachings about the family, but this God evidently did not create the family as something unique for humans; rather, He let us acquire it from very distant common ancestors. Eberstadt does not let go unnoted the irony that many humans want to prohibit animal shows because of their effects on beastly socialization while they ignore the disintegration of the human family.
This disintegration takes many forms. Chief among them is divorce. Eberstadt reminds us that Allan Bloom, in his famous book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), noted the detachment of his students and attributed it to divorce. Other factors Eberstadt examines that diminish the family are sperm donation, surrogate parenting, late marriage, small family size, and, of course, the high incidence of out-of-wedlock births. She notes, for example, that divorce is inversely correlated with the number of one’s siblings, perhaps because siblings teach sharing, bargaining, and cooperation. She cites numerous studies examining the effects on the mental health of children of divorce and of nonmarital conception. Few dispute these findings, but they are often ignored as inconvenient by those who seek unlimited sexual freedom without regard to collateral damage. The freedom they envisioned has turned into a prison of psychopathology for the following generations.
Primal Screams makes the case that smaller and fractured families leave much less chance for youth to learn how to deal with people of the opposite sex in a nonsexual environment. There are far fewer brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins (or at least no stable, consistent ones) to demonstrate how members of the opposite sex are to be treated in the home. Various boyfriends, stepfathers, stepsiblings, and nominal uncles and cousins come and go. In addition, the male in the modern fractured family is often an object of contempt. He leaves and takes no responsibility for the mother and children left behind. Boys have no sound fatherly guidance, and girls do not know what a stable, protective father looks like.
A large body of literature shows that children in single-parent families are twice as likely to drop out of school. The boys are much more likely to be out of school and out of work (and to be in jail, although Eberstadt does not mention this). The girls are twice as likely to have out-of-wedlock births. Children from such families are more likely to have discipline problems in school and emotional problems in general.
In two somewhat confusing chapters, Eberstadt analyzes feminism and androgyny and finds them to be survival strategies for coping with the fractured families she has described. She points out that today’s feminism, at least among musicians, is accompanied by coarseness, vulgarity, and pornography. The crudity is intended, unconsciously, “to compensate for the postrevolutionary strengthening of predatory men, the paucity of enduring positive male attention — and the paucity of male protection.” What’s more, the “ethos of recreational sex blurred the line between protector and predator, making it harder for many women to tell the difference.” At one point, she writes, “the overabundance of available sexual partners has made it harder to hold the attention of any one of them — as has the diminished social and moral cachet of what was once the ultimate male attention-getter, marriage.” To this reviewer, overabundance of available sexual partners seems like an odd choice of words. The females are willing partners, not Sabine women. Undoubtedly, the men are happily aware that many of their potential partners are on the Pill. Eberstadt’s mention of the ethos of recreational sex points to a fundamental change in worldview at work, not simply a lack of fatherly or brotherly influence.
Eberstadt sees androgyny as a way to create a substitute family, saying it operates “as a mechanism for reconstructing the extended family/community in prosthetic form in a time when the actual Western extended family/community is in decline.” She sees it as another desperate plea for an answer to that fundamental question, Who am I? She notes gender-bending, both girlish men and masculine women, in the culture, music, and fashion of India, China, and Japan, as well as in the West. Thus, the decline of the family has afflicted even non-Western societies that share many cultural attributes with North America and Europe.
As regards the #MeToo movement, Eberstadt concludes that it represents a breakdown of social learning. Again employing examples of animal behavior, she points out that house cats occasionally get stuck in trees but barn cats never do. (Who knew?) The reason is that cats learn from other cats how to climb down, but house cats are sometimes taken away from their feline families before learning this skill. By analogy, or perhaps by evolutionary descent, family chaos prevents men and women from learning how to behave with the opposite sex. Eberstadt notes that “there is a cluelessness about relations between the sexes that almost defies understanding.” Haven’t they been taught that it is inappropriate, for example, to enter a boss’s hotel room? Don’t they have sense enough to suggest a meeting in the lobby? Eberstadt speculates that these women hadn’t been taught by family to avoid these situations and didn’t realize the problems until they learned them from other women. Although the cluelessness is hard to explain on any basis, a more plausible explanation would be that political correctness had required them to think that men and women are exactly the same except for plumbing fixtures, and, therefore, the man’s motives would be identical to the woman’s.
In summary, Eberstadt makes a reasonable case that there has been an increase in social pathology in Western society and at least some of it is due to family dysfunction. She links this directly to identity politics and traces all of it to the sexual revolution, which she never explicitly defines. From context one guesses it primarily means the invention of the Pill and other contraceptives. But there are other important factors, both new and old, that need to be considered but were not. Eberstadt makes passing acknowledgment of this when she notes “the multiplicity of causes behind any large social phenomenon” and goes on to list geographic and class mobility, air travel, the technology of mass communication, television, and the Internet. Clearly, these factors, especially geographic and economic mobility, have played a huge role in family dynamics. In my own case, my parents stayed in the same metro area where they were born for their entire lives (until one retired to the Sun Belt), but beginning with college, my wife and I have never lived near either set of parents, and we are currently 1,800 miles from our adult children. This was necessitated by professional training and employment opportunities, not family dysfunction.
Another phenomenon that went unexplained is why, with contraception and abortion readily available, so many illegitimate children are still being born. Is it a relic of the “lost God” (Eberstadt’s term), which makes women subconsciously willing to bear the cross of children they are not able to support? What about the state as surrogate parent? She gives it brief mention but leaves unmentioned programs that pay women to have fatherless children, and tax policies that penalize marriage, despite the economic incentives they provide. Among well-off women are there cases in which children are acquired as an accessory that satisfies a maternal need, with no consideration given to the child’s need for an intact family?
Shocking stories of elder neglect, especially in Japan and France, the latter during the heatwave of 2003, are mentioned as examples of family breakdown, but they seem to illustrate a remarkable callousness that has a deeper root in spiritual darkness. Euthanasia is mentioned in the same section, yet only in passing. Is the increasing practice of euthanasia really a consequence of the sexual revolution? If so, how?
The behavior of “identitarians” that Eberstadt least satisfactorily explains is the repeated violent attacks on people with opposing social and political views. She catalogues the well-publicized (at least on the Right) attacks on Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, Heather Mac Donald, and others, referring to them as “all panic, all the time, served up with more than a smidgen of violence.” She writes that some of the victims report “cult-like” behavior, irrationality, and ferocity among their tormentors. One could be excused for interpreting this as the behavior of authoritarians of any stripe, behavior that long predates the sexual revolution. Nazi thugs broke up meetings of their opponents, beat them, and burned their books. There was no Pill available then. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot killed millions without being influenced by the Pill or divorce. It is frankly surprising that Eberstadt wants to offer a psychological excuse for what looks much more like political thuggery.
Tellingly, Eberstadt describes protests at a Jordan Peterson speech at McMaster University in 2017 as resembling “the menacing one-word chants of the frenzied in chapter 9 of Lord of the Flies.” Let us note that Lord of the Flies was published in 1954, before the sexual revolution. The behavior in the novel is what happens when adult supervision is absent. Perhaps it is a restatement, or manifestation, of the doctrine of original sin. But it has nothing to do with uninhibited sex.
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