The hangover from a 30-year binge

An English friend of mine commented recently that “there are some liberals over here who are starting to get a hangover from their binge.” Indeed, what began with idealized hopes for the perfectibility of man has ended in a near-total cave in of public morality and civility – something even liberals are finding it a challenge to deny.

Affirmation of disordered sexuality is the quintessential litmus test of liberal political correctness. For the past 30 years or so, anyone who dared utter a word against sexual freedom has been contemptuously dismissed as a moral fascist or religious fanatic. It became inconceivable in liberal culture that virginity, abstinence, chastity, or celibacy could have any possible individual or social merit.

Received conventional wisdom dictates that sexual “repression” is unnatural and unhealthy, and that sexual promiscuity signalizes liberation from outmoded and oppressive values. “We found that older adolescents who have not had sexual intercourse, compared with those who are sexually active, tend to have lower self-esteem and poorer mental health,” wrote the authors of a study called Canada Youth & AIDS , conducted at Queen’s University in 1988.

The pandemics of sexually transmitted disease that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s took considerable wind out of the sexual revolution’s sails, but perhaps even more so the fact that once the veils of mystery are torn away from the sexual act, it quickly becomes banal – a routine bodily function like going to the bathroom, demanding ever-greater degrees of perverse titillation to keep interest from flagging. Sex gets to be a big bore.

So it’s not completely surprising to hear that a new wave of sexual conservatism is washing over France, of all places. According to a recent survey by the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the average age at which young French people lost their virginity is nearly 18 overall, and 20 for middle-class individuals. (The average age for loss of virginity in Canada is 16.6 years, a full year earlier than the global average of 17.6).

The institution of marriage is also enjoying a renaissance in France, with 400,000 weddings expected in France this year as compared with 280,000 in 1999, and the divorce rate is falling for the first time in 30 years.

While these trends don’t exactly signalize a return to traditional Christian morality, they do appear to mark a turning of the tide – an opening of the liberal mind – at least the young liberal mind – to the now-novel concept that there is perhaps some reward in virtue after all.

What drives one to the brink of despair are the legions of supposedly responsible adults who insist (and presumably believe) that “preaching” abstinence is both naive and futile, and that it is neither correct nor effective for society to set objective standards or impose sanctions on the sexual liberty of young people.

For example, the 1998 Macleans year-end survey found that 27 per cent of Canadian parents (57 per cent in Quebec) would be willing to allow an 18-year-old daughter or son to have sex in the home with a steady partner.

These liberal panderers of promiscuity earnestly blabber about “presenting teen sexuality in a positive light,” and the “need” for young people to “express their sexuality without feeling it is wrong.” Then they seem bewildered that despite their cherished sex-education programs, Canada’s teen pregnancy rate was 47.4 per 1,000 in 1995, up from 41.1 in 1987, rising every year during the period except 1995.

They just don’t get that learning to impose ordered restraint and discretion on sexual behaviour was one of humanity’s most substantive steps toward civilization. All major religions and enduring cultures have recognized this. Conversely, societies that don’t impose ordered limits on sexual expression don’t advance, and ones that relax existing sexual mores soon suffer sharp decline – ancient Rome and Greece being exemplars.

A curious thing is that advocates of libertine sex are usually the same bunch who make emotional public statements demanding that “something be done” about the AIDS plague. They yammer on about how we need to spend more money on sex education to promote the chimera of “safer sex,” while caustically scorning the only bona fide safe sex modalities: abstinence before marriage and fidelity within it.

This amounts to a perverse and profoundly confusing message coming from people who in the next breath are liable to lapse into fevered stem-winding about “the tragedy of AIDS.” Of course, this apparent paradox is really just typical have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too humanist sentimentality colliding with liberal angst and guilt over unpleasant outcomes.

However, perhaps there’s a scintilla of hope. The Macleans poll found that while seven out of 10 respondents believed that Canadian attitudes towards sexual matters are becoming more permissive, only 29 per cent of those who did thought this is a good thing.