Earlier this week, my colleague Damon Linker wrote a thoughtful essay on the nature of the culture war, distilling it down to how attitudes about sex changed radically over a very short period of time. As Damon typically does, he stakes out his own position while giving fair treatment to reasonable and rational disagreement. He ends by suggesting that traditionalist views deserve respect — mainly because the implications of the sexual revolution are largely still unknown. But the framing of the question mirrors the disconnect between the traditionalists and the modernists in the culture war, cutting to the heart of the conflict.
Modernists see this as primarily about sex as an end to itself. As Damon writes, the emphasis falls on "the proper place of sex in a good human life," a way to engage in physical pleasure that modernists largely see as no one else's business, within the framework of consenting adults and concerns about consanguinity. The fulfillment of a natural body function is framed as natural and healthy while restrictions on it from cultural, religious, and legal paradigms are unnatural intrusions on both health and privacy.
The traditionalist view sees sex as a natural function as well, but one that has profound implications for the structure of society. Civilization was built on family structures, and the legal and cultural parameters that deal with sexual attraction and procreation grew in response to the resulting pressures on society. Responsibility for children, organizing for their protection, and the strengthening of the family unit made the creation of cultural norms and legal structures — such as the recognition and definition of marriage — imperatives for communities.
Damon captures fairly the concerns that traditionalists have about discarding millennia of institutions, but it's that issue — the destruction of societal and legal conventions that undergirded Western civilization, in particular — that worries traditionalists, not sex itself.
Without doubt, these concerns have led to tragic reactions to nonconforming behaviors. Damon mentions a few, but others deserve mention too: the persecution of gays and lesbians; the idolatry afforded female virginity rather than an emphasis on chastity for men and women alike; and the shunning of women who conceived outside of wedlock, which led to the much graver quest for abortion on demand — and again, the lack of such consequences for the men involved. It took the modernists, fueled by the first sexual revolution that began in the 1920s in response to the First World War and the second that rose with the Pill, to check those excesses and restore at least a sense of equity and charity to cultural values.
It's that latter sexual revolution that became a cultural revolution, and in ways that have largely validated the concerns of traditionalists all along. Since the advent of the Pill, divorce has skyrocketed, as have out-of-wedlock births and the percentage of children raised in single-parent homes.
The traditionalists saw this coming. Pope Paul VI got roundly criticized for his encyclical Humanae Vitae, but it predicted 46 years ago this week most of the ills that have arisen from disconnecting sex from procreation and family life. The pontiff wrote:
Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards...
...a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. [Humanae Vitae]
The issue in this warning isn't the sex, but the degrading influence on the stability of the community that contraceptives create.
One passage from Humanae Vitae seems particularly apt in the debate as to whether the government should require employers and schools to provide contraception as preventive health care, whether or not the employers or schools have religious scruples that forbid their use. "Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective?" Pope Paul VI wrote. "Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone." We haven't reached that point in the U.S., but we have seen it in China, where the authorities brutally enforce their one-child policy through forced abortions. And here in the U.S., we have begun forcing others to directly provide contraception, even those whose beliefs oppose it.
To be sure, Pope Paul VI framed this in terms of Catholic teaching and faith. However, when he wrote that in "preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization," the issue was not sex itself, but the health of human communities. The traditionalist view is that sex cannot be separated from its consequences for civilization, and that the effects of attempting to do so over the last several decades demonstrate the damage it does to try.
So yes, the culture "wars" relate in large part to sexual politics — but in the end, they are about culture and civilization, not just the sex itself.