Women discuss the Sexual Revolution in light of #MeToo

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Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique flew off the shelves when it was published in 1963. Its message spoke to women who had been told they could only find fulfillment through housework, child rearing and nurturing their husbands, said Mary Leary, a law professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington. “That (was said to be) the only way to be truly feminine, and that was not resonating with women,” she said.

Yet as attitudes toward women’s abilities outside the home changed, sexual norms also began to loosen. “The emergence of feminism and women’s rights overlapped with and were intertwined with the developments later labeled the Sexual Revolution,” said Leary. 

Increased opportunities to pursue higher education and a career have led to women being valued in multi-dimensional ways, said Leary. But current widespread sexual harassment, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement, suggest the 1960s didn’t solve everything. 

“If the #MeToo movement has shown us anything, it is that women are not as free as they may have previously thought in this context,” said Suzanne Hollman, a dean of Divine Mercy University in Arlington. “(It) has forced female minds and bodies to confront the reality that when it comes to sex, women remain very much at risk.”

“We’ve exchanged one form of exploitation for another,” said Leary.

She and other women discussed the consequences of sexual liberation during “The #MeToo Moment: Second Thoughts on the Sexual Revolution,” a multi-speaker lecture hosted by the Catholic Women’s Forum and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, among other hosts, in Washington May 31. Through their different disciplines, the experts gave examples of how liberalization of sexual norms has been largely detrimental to women’s health and well-being. 

Dr. Monique Chireau of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., spoke about the explosion of cases and kinds of sexually transmitted diseases and infections since the 1960s, many of which lead to infertility, cancer and other negative health consequences. 

Hollman spoke about how the gendered script of the hookup culture leads some women to consent verbally to sexual activity while still having deep internal reservations. “I would encourage any person if they have experienced some kind of sexual trauma, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of rape — if there is any coercion, if there’s any discomfort, get help,” she said. 

Dr. Marguerite Duane of Georgetown University in Washington spoke about the negative health and societal repercussions of birth control. Though many claim birth control has allowed women to get ahead in the work world, Duane disagrees. 

“Contraception has further defined the need to avoid pregnancy at all costs. If anything, it has hurt women in not allowing for flexibility or changes in professional structures,” she said. “I think the pill (instilled) this belief that you should postpone childbearing until your 30s, and I don’t necessarily think that’s in the best interest of women or men or the children they have.”

Hollman added that her colleague worked with a patient who “lamented the fact that she had spent most of her 20s trying not to get pregnant and most of her 30s trying to get pregnant,” she said. Women then turn to expensive, time-consuming reproductive technologies that can take a steep emotional toll, said Hollman. 

Jennifer Lahl, a nurse turned documentary filmmaker, spoke about the commodification of women’s bodies through surrogacy and egg donation. Leary spoke about the lucrative exploitation of sex trafficking. Mary Anne Layden, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, discussed the pornification of the culture. 

“Internet pornography is the most perfect learning environment we could ever devise if we had ever devised it as a learning environment. (There is) one problem and that is everything it teaches is a lie,” she said. “Sex (in pornography) is not about intimacy, love or respect — there isn’t any of that going on. Sex is not about marriage or having children.  (In pornography), all people want sex with all people all the time.

“It’s teaching us permission-giving beliefs that say what I’m doing is normal, it doesn’t hurt anybody and everybody is doing it. Since it’s all normal, I don’t need to change my behavior,” said Layden. “I hear this in therapy every day from men who are pornography addicts or abusers or rapists.”

In the face of such dysfunction, Catholics should assume the posture of healing, said Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl. “How desperate has our culture become for that healing as a result of the craziness that has flowed from secularism,” he said. “The beginning of the process is somehow re-establishing the moral compass, and we’re not going to do that by simply repeating over and over again the same teaching, which remains true.

“But now, we have a world that doesn’t even understand. The language is altogether different. Our task in the accompaniment of this generation is not only to have clear in our mind the teaching, but to be able to reach out in a way that they begin to hear us,” he said. “There is an element of going out, an element of engaging — this is where Pope Francis is calling us.”

Cardinal Wuerl was a young priest when Blessed Pope Paul VI published his groundbreaking encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” He said society and many Catholics rejected its teaching on artificial birth control and in turn rejected the pope as well. Today’s Catholic should not make the same mistake, said the cardinal. “In all our efforts, we need to keep one hand on that rock, so that how we are reaching out is faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the church,” he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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