Culture,  Politics

Can you defend the sexual revolution?

Anthony Esolen has a helpful article asserting the ideological bankruptcy of the sexual revolution. In essence, he argues that it undermines the common good to treat sex as if it were irrelevant to the flourishing of society. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Why should two men who are sexually attracted to one another not be allowed to pretend that they are married? That we are even asking such a question is the result of our having accepted the premise of the sexual revolution, which is, essentially, that what people do with their bodies is their own business, so long as no one is harmed. By ‘no one’ we mean the people involved in the sexual act, and sometimes, though much less reliably and without a great deal of concern, an unwitting spouse who happens, at the moment, not to be in the bed but, perhaps, shopping for dinner, or laying pipes at a construction site. By ‘harm’ we mean obvious physical or psychological violence. So we frown upon rape and, after two generations of knowing smiles and winks, pedophilia. Everything else goes.”

This is an important argument. Read the rest of it here.


  • Paul

    This guy lives in such a cynical headspace that even I’m taken aback by it.

    I agree with his overall notion: That the sexual revolution has done us no favors.

    But when he says that adultery falls under the “no harm” clause, or says that pedophilia is frowned upon with a wink and a smile or essentially says that the world was better off with gays in the closet, the paper is already flawed before we get out of the second paragraph.

    This is a subject that needs to be talked about much more, but Denny, you need to find someone that can write about it from a sensible starting point.

  • Gene

    It is hard to begin the list of what is wrong with this article.

    Even his examples about excessive shoe buying are ridiculous. If someone wants to spend that much on shoes, let them! THIS IS AMERICA. It’s called freedom

    Of course, the whole article, and the whole premise of how the author sees the world shows he does not understand the idea of freedom at all. He sounds like Egyptian Muslims I have met who tell me that “real freedom is the freedom to do and be good”. “By whose standard of Good?” I ask. Why, Islams, of course!

    Just put the words “conservative Christianity” in place of Islam, and this guy is like one of their clones.

    I agree that treating sex in a manner in which no thought is made for the pain infidelity can cause others is a real downside of the sexual revolution. The topic needs discussing, yes, but this author is insulting to whole groups of people, and even his examples show a mindset that is unthinkable in a free society. His CV lists him as a professor in RI. Was he born and raised in America? He sure does not sound like it.

  • Oh-Jay Lackmon-Bay

    says that the world was better off with gays in the closet

    I’m sorry, I missed the part where that statement is not true. I mean, when I was in high school about 20 years ago, there is no way on earth that a person would have admitted they were gay. Now, you have leth-bians suing school systems (with our taxes having to pay legal fees to defend against the law suit) because the school canceled the prom rather than allow the leth-bians to go as a couple. Exactly how is it that sodomites being out of the closet is a good thing?

  • Murf

    I like that the discussion goes to a common ground that secularists and people of faith must acknowledge…. reason.

    He provides decent reasoning on anthropological grounds. However, it was convincing to me because I’m already in his camp, and have nothing at stake in opposing his views.

    The weakness of the argument is that most will appeal to sexual freedom like they do free speech. You’ll have a hard time getting an American audience off that horse.

  • yankeegospelgirl

    I sort of ditto what Joe says. Yes, obviously, gays in the closet isn’t a “good” thing, but better for them to do their jobs and interact with the rest of the world normally rather than making everything they do revolve around their lifestyle/agenda while bullying others in the process.

  • Charlton Connett


    I missed where he argued that homosexuals are better off in the closet. It seems to me that his argument is that those with homosexual inclinations or tendencies are better off not acting on them, and in fact all of society is better off if they do not act on them. But, his argument is much more than that. His argument revolves around the idea that there should be a natural linkage between sexual acts and procreation in general, and that all of society is directly affected by the customs we enforce in relation to sexual activity in general. Therefore, not only should homosexual inclinations be resisted, because of the good of society, but society should encourage all sexual acts to be regarded as significant acts, and society should encourage sexuality to be confined to the realm of marriage, where individuals will be held responsible for the actions taken. (Yes, I’m reading a little bit into his argument, but this seems to be where his argument would logically lead.)

    In addition to this misunderstanding of his argument, you also say that he says that adultery falls under the “no harm” clause. Esolen makes no such claim, he says that perhaps one might argue that adultery falls under the “no harm” clause, so long as the spouse being cheated on is not aware of the act (and I would assume is not otherwise negatively affected by the transgression, such as through the development of STD’s). The caveat of “perhaps” means that he not necessarily supporting that position, only stating that some might.

    With all of that said, I would agree that perhaps this argument could be made stronger through longer development. However, as an introductory argument, a first salvo if you will, this is a good piece. If the argument is flawed, if there is good reason that the sexual revolution (at least for homosexuals) should be embraced, and that culture is made better by it, then please set forth the reasons that we should know them and be convinced. Simply saying, “the paper is already flawed before we get out of the second paragraph” is not an argument.

  • Kamilla


    Thank you for posting this. I’ve long admired Tony’s writing and his wisdom about who men and women really are. He gets things like no one else I’ve ever known.

    Plus I think he’s pretty cool because he gave me the “nickname” I’ve taken as title for my blog.


  • Paula


    I’d suggest you read the essay again. Esolen says,

    “So we frown upon rape and, after two generations of knowing smiles and winks, pedophilia. Everything else goes.

    He’s saying that finally, after two generations of turning a blind eye to pedophilia, society is finally frowning upon it.

    He also says,

    The person who proclaims it severs himself, in effect, from all considerations of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. For he says, “With regard to sexual behavior, so long as no one is being coerced into the act, and, perhaps, so long as no spouse is being betrayed, the claims of virtue do not apply.” The justification of the sexual act is located in the desire itself, and the desire is taken as a brute fact, a given. But this is a premise we would reject out of hand in any other sphere of human action.”

    He’s quoting a hypothetical justifier of these behaviors and then beginning to build his case against that person and his arguments.

    I think overall he makes a good case, but for those already in the moral relativist camp, it will fall on deaf ears. What could possibly be wrong with playing video games all day if one has the means to avoid work? Like most moral issues, without a biblical framework and worldview, many will utterly reject the arguments.

    Still, because of God’s common grace, arguments like this will convince some non-Christians to adopt a moral lifestyle that may make living here a a bit more tolerable for the rest of us : )

  • Paul

    1) for everyone – note that everyone, save Charlton (I’ll get to you in a second sir) focused singularly on what I had to say about the gays in the closet aspect of Mr. Esolen’s opening remarks. I’m beginning to think that the SBC is obsessed with homosexuality, and I’m practically waiting for Joe Blackmon to write somewhere about how someone got gay all over the artichokes at the local Kroger. It’s actually a little amusing.

    2) Charlton – you misread me where I wrote about adultery. I didn’t say that he viewed it as a no harm scenario. I said that it’s laughable that many other people do. Call the sexual revolution many things (and you’ll be right a lot of the time, mind you), but even the vast majority of people not named Newt Gingrich will tell you that adultery is a very bad thing. And they’ll say the same about pedophilia, and without the wink and the nod.

    What I was getting at is that when someone can claim that adultery is seen as “victimless” and that pedophilia is only grudgingly disparaged, especially as their starting point, then the entire argument is flawed. Because that’s clearly not the case.

    Make the same case without the ludicrous assumptions at the beginning and I’m sure I’m on the same page as this guy.

  • Nathan

    Keeping homosexuals in the closet results in very unhealthy people. People hate themselves in the closet. People commit suicide in the closet. People do very unhealthy things (physically and emotionally) in the closet. If you were backed into a corner and completely stifled sexually, would you make healthy choices? Also, when you allow homosexuals to exist, but exclude them from marriage, you take away the positive pressure that you could have on them to live healthier lives. Yes, allowing two men to “pretend to be married” is better for society than relegating them to the underground.

    This article argues against gay marriage, but it is really an argument against promiscuity. The author can’t understand that gay doesn’t mean promiscuous and that allowing gay marriage can only reduce the amount of promiscuity seen in this group. Supporting people in living healthier lives can only help society.

  • Charlton Connett


    If you want to support people living healthier lives, then perhaps you should support the other side of this argument: Help them learn to desire better choices. You act as though there are only two options: be openly homosexual with no control over your desires, or be “in the closet” and still have no control over your desires. There is a third choice though: Admit that homosexual urges are best resisted for the health of society, and learn to desire better things (either abstinence, or, for some, to seek normal marital relations with the opposite sex).

    Your initial position, that people “in the closet” do unhealthy things, and that “in the closet” is an unhealthy place to be is simply irrelevant when you examine the rest of the argument. Esolen has laid out an argument that all promiscuity, and all sexual relationships outside of marriage, are unhealthy. Effectively he is saying that single people should also remain, “in the closet” in regards to sexual activity. Does that mean that, according to what you have said, those single people will make unhealthy decisions, commit suicide, and be “very unhealthy”? If homosexuals are prone to make self destructive choices because they are unable to freely exercise their sexual preferences, does that mean that all single people must be able to exercise their sexual preferences as well, or else they would be unhealthy? Should the use of pornography, and other immoral behaviors be condoned because keeping those who would prefer these sexual items or actions “in the closet” would lead to them being “unhealthy”? If so (or if not), how do we decide where to draw the line? It would seem that the flip side of your argument is that sexual freedom, for homosexuals and singles, should lead to healthier choices, less suicide (perhaps greater happiness?), less self loathing, and even healthier individuals as a whole.

    Pardon all the questions, but it seems that your argument has to attempt to answer these questions because they naturally flow from the logic you have set forth. If I have laid out your argument correctly above, then please defend it. I mean that honestly because now you are attempting to do the very thing that Denny asks, and that is to defend the sexual revolution. Please show how the immense sexual freedom that has been experienced in our age has lead to healthier people, fewer suicides, less self loathing, and healthier choices among society as a whole, singles as a group, and homosexuals as a group. Arguing that homosexual marriage should be permitted without first proving that greater sexual freedom has actually been beneficial to society is getting the cart before the horse, as Esolen has eloquently argued.

  • Charlton Connett


    Can you please demonstrate how the immense sexual freedom that has been enjoyed in our time has lead to healthier people, healthier choices, fewer suicides, and less self loathing? Arguing that all we need is to fully embrace “homosexual marriage” without first demonstrating that the sexual freedom already enjoyed has benefited society ignores the whole question this article raises. After all, we aren’t only talking about homosexuals here, we are talking about singles, pornographers, and many others (not to mention culture as a whole).

    In addition, what about the idea of learning to have virtuous desires as a matter of good ethical behavior? In other words, if we reprimand kleptomaniacs and attempt to encourage them to learn different desires, why can we not treat sexuality with the same attitude? Why can we not rebuke the licentious, the promiscuous, the homosexual, and the perverse of all strips, and encourage them to learn to desire what is good for the sake of society? (Herein, when I say “what is good for the sake of society” what I mean is learning desires which are the most beneficial to society, such as the forming of families and the desire to refrain from out of wedlock sexual activities because of the harm such activities do to society.) Your argument commits the very error that Esolen comments on in his article, treating sexual acts as so inconsequential (after all it only matters to the two people engaging in the act!) that society should have no say about them, while at the same time treating them as so immense that every sexual act must be legally protected or else it will result in grave harm to the individual.

    I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, but your response ignores the whole point of what Denny has asked: can you defend the sexual revolution? You have already as much as said that the problem is that we have not gone far enough (at least in regards to homosexuals) but can you defend how far we have already gone? Can you show that where we are now, as a society, is better than where we were 100 years ago in regards to our sexual mores? (Thus the question is not, “is this person better off” but “are we as a civilization and a society better off?” and if so, how?) If the sexual revolution has not lead us to a better place as far as where we are now, why should we assume that going further in the revolution would be good?

  • Christiane

    Hi Paul,

    You wrote ‘I’ve been modded. It’s a sad day in Dennyville for everyone, I am sure…’

    You’ll survive. Chances are that you incurred the wrath of one Oh-jay Lackmon-bay. Same thing happened to me.

    Here’s some advice: I.D. the resident ‘attack dogs’ and stay away from them, ignore them, don’t react to them, or interact with them . . .
    there’s a lot of good people on this post that you can interact with, but the ‘attack dogs’ are not to be roused.

  • Nathan

    Gay marriage isn’t MORE permissive, it supports people who want to commit to fidelity. IMO, fidelity is better than infidelity. You may think that homosexuality is a necessary item on any sexual revolutionist’s checklist, but I doubt you’d find many of them who would support sexual relations ONLY within the confines of a committed relationship between adults. No, they want the whole enchilada…

    The mainstream argument may treat sex as both trivial and nontrivial, but my argument is sex is a basic human need where enforcing certain boundaries can itself have deleterious effects. Abstinence isn’t a healthy choice for everyone, but neither is a heterosexual relationship. Sex is a physical connection that also provides for emotional needs. Just because you don’t understand the emotional needs of homosexuals doesn’t mean that you get to prohibit that behavior because it steps on your sensibilities.

    Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere – and so do you. In a society where a person is supposed to be free to live under their own conscience, you want to enforce the definition of purity that you’ve accepted. And how did you come to your conclusion? By yourself? No, God gave it to you and isn’t that the only way the ones under your thumb are going to be able to live according to the virtues you proclaim? So, if they don’t accept Christ, they are doomed to live up to standards that are impossible for them to achieve?

    I think that there is a better way than the free-for-all and a fairer way than enforcing only one option. So, no, I’m not going to try and defend the sexual revolution because I don’t agree with it. (Gay marriage isn’t equivalent to the sexual revolution and it isn’t the ultimate indulgence, either.)

  • Charlton Connett


    You said that sexual freedom for homosexuals was necessary because it would lead to less suicide, less self loathing, healthier choices, and healthier people. Why can’t that concept be applied to all of society? If, for one group, sexual freedom would mean all of those things, then why not for every group?

    If your argument is merely that committed relationships (lifelong monogamous relationships) lead to healthier, happier people, then I would agree with you. Then I would ask in addition, why do we need to have homosexual marriage in order for homosexuals to engage in committed lifelong monogamous relationships? Why should all of society alter what has long been understood as the most integral institution to maintaining society? Instead of redefining an already stressed institution, shouldn’t we strengthen it and attempt to return it to the importance it once had?

    The marriage debate is directly related to the sexual revolution debate. While you say you won’t defend the sexual revolution, you can’t argue for homosexual marriage without also, at least in part, defending the sexual revolution.

    Your argument “sex is a basic human need where enforcing certain boundaries can itself have deleterious effects” seems very dangerous. The idea that sex is a need is simply wrong. A need is something that we cannot live without. We can live without sex (even if it is not what we want). Sex is a powerful want, it is a powerful drive, but you fall victim here to another argument that Esolen has already addressed. We would never accept the premise that any strong desire is self justifying, why should we do the same with sexual desires? If a man hits me with his car I may have the very strong desire to get out of my car and attack him, but you wouldn’t say my desire is self justifying (at least legally we certainly don’t). Taken to its logical limits your argument leaves open the idea that no sexual boundaries at all should be enforced, because someone could always claim such a strong desire to cross that boundary that it would be inhumane to deny that person their “basic need” of sexual satisfaction.

    You said, “Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere” but then failed to give us any justification for drawing that line anywhere. If sex is a need, then drawing a line forbidding any sexual act is inhumane as it denies a person a basic necessity in life. If sex is a want, a drive, or an urge, no matter how powerful, then society has every right to draw whatever lines are in the greatest interest of society, so long as those lines are mutually and universally enforced. Society has this right for the very reason Esolen lays out: our sexual encounters with one another directly inform the kind of society we will have. The question then becomes, “What limitations are best for the kind of society we want?”

  • Nathan

    Charlton, you act as though there are only two options: be openly heterosexual (flagrantly married) with no control over your desires, or be a virgin for Jesus. That may be your ideal to preach and teach, but it isn’t a good a policy to enforce on society. You probably believe that everyone is confronted with two much-more-basic options: have faith in Christ and live a life of holiness to bring glory to God, or reject Christ and be enslaved by sin and doomed to an eternity in hell. These two other options are MORE important than sex AND preaching and teaching about them is critical, but should our society be made to live by the first of those two options?

    People within our society should be free to live under their own conscience but within boundaries defined by the good and bad consequences the specific actions cause. Finding a consensus on exactly where to draw the lines will never happen, but this seems to be a reasonable rule to use when drawing them.

    You seem to have made some very cavalier decisions about other people’s sexuality. At your blog, I see that your first interest is your wife. Until you live 40 years in the closet, then we can talk about what the closet is and means and about sex being merely a desire (Didn’t Jesus say something to the contrary?) For most, sex is a necessary form of expression and communication. Sure, you can survive stranded on an island, but that’s certainly not going to be a healthy situation.

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