Opinion: An age divided by sex

The Year of Our Lord 1982, upon whose disputed summertime events a Supreme Court nomination now hinges, was part of the Reagan era but not a particularly conservative year.

The ‘70s were officially over, but their spirit still lived on. The American divorce rate had peaked the previous year, after a steep climb across the previous two decades. The abortion rate was near its post-Roe v. Wade apex. Rape and sexual assault were much more common than today. The shadow of AIDS hadn’t yet fallen on the sexual revolution, the era’s teen movies offered unapologetic raunch, and real-world teenagers were more likely to drink and have premarital sex than in either the Eisenhower era or our own age of helicopter parenting.

Most contemporary discourse about the social revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s imagines a consistent “left” that created those revolutions and a consistent “right” that opposed them. But glancing back to the debauched world of 1982 suggests a rather different take, one that clarifies what happened to American politics in the age of Bill Clinton and what’s happening now in the age of Donald Trump.

The world of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford's youth, the world that's given us this fall's nightmarish escalation of the culture war, was not a traditionalist world as yet unreformed by an enlightened liberalism. Rather it was a world where a social revolution had ripped through American culture and radically de-moralized society, tearing down the old structures of suburban bourgeois Christian morality, replacing them with libertinism. With "if it feels good, do it" and the Playboy philosophy. With "Fear of Flying" for women and "Risky Business" and "Porky's" for the boys.

Which means that the culture war as we've known it since has not been a simple clash of conservatives who want to repress and liberals who want to emancipate. Rather it's been an ongoing argument between two forces — feminists and religious conservatives — that both want to remoralize American society, albeit in very different ways.

The irreducible core of their dispute is the question of legal abortion — whether it represents progress or regress, a necessary human right or a grave evil. But then in addition to that division, there is a more complicated contrast in their sexual ethics. Religious conservatives generally want to restore the sexual order of a more Christian past, restoring ideals of chastity and monogamy that the ‘60s and ‘70s dissolved. But feminists believe those older rules were just a means for men to subjugate women, so it’s better to maintain or further sexual emancipation while imposing the most stringent moral norms around consent. Instead of fruitlessly trying to tame lust, the theory goes, we can remoralize sexual culture by taming misogyny, extirpating toxic masculinity, and re-educating men.

We seem to be headed toward a world where the parties are polarized by gender and the two moralistic programs, feminist and conservative, are therefore seen as just the expression of each sex's interests as pitted against the other.

That means that #MeToo zeal will be seen by too many men (and their sympathetic wives and friends and mothers) as a means of punishing only guys for a sex-and-booze culture in which both sexes are complicit … while any Christianity-influenced sexual moralism will be seen by too many women (and their male allies and partners) as just the royal road to the Commander’s bedroom in Gilead.

In which case the war between competing moralisms will also become a war between the sexes, making a fuller re-moralization impossible while sacrificing the human future to permanent resentment, misunderstanding and distrust.