Are the culture wars really just about sex?

In large part, the culture wars revolve around sex — sexual politics, sexual conventions, and the impact of sex on culture and cultural institutions. But is sex the actual prime issue in the culture wars? Damon Linker’s column at The Week argued that it is:

The culture war isn’t really about culture, and it never has been.

It’s about sex.

Leading social conservative Rod Dreher conceded as much last week — and I think he’s absolutely correct. Writing about what divides traditionalist religious believers from those who are more liberal or progressive, Dreher posed a pair of questions: “Take sex out of the picture, and what do you have? If we’re not talking about sex, what are we talking about?”

The answer is: nothing. We are talking — and fighting, and slinging mud, and spewing bile — about nothing but sex. And in particular, about two competing, largely incompatible visions of the proper place of sex in a good human life.

Damon spews no bile, but offers a very thoughtful essay in support of his argument that the culture war boils down to sex. In fact, Damon also argues that the “losing” side — the traditionalists — should be respected, since the implications of the sexual revolution are not yet fully known. He poses some of those issues in terms of tough questions that are still unanswered:

Do children do best with two parents of opposite genders? Or are two parents of the same gender just as good? Or better? How about one parent of either gender? What about three, four, five, or more people in a constantly evolving polyamorous arrangement?

Can the institution of marriage survive without the ideals of fidelity and monogamy? What kind of sexual temptations and experiences will technology present us with a year — or a decade, or a century — from now? Will people be able to think of reasons or conjure up the will to resist those temptations? Will they even try? Does it even matter?

After mulling Damon’s essay for a day or so, I wrote a response at The Week, which went up today, arguing that these questions show that the culture wars are not about sex, at least not as the prime concern. It’s about the impact that the sexual revolution has on culture and cultural institutions, especially the basic unit of civilization — the family. Speaking for the traditionalists, I argue that the devastation of the family over the last several decades makes that point, and Damon’s questions reflect the dangers:

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. …

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.

Be sure to read them both in full, and let us know what you think in the comments.