The case of pornography.
The Last Days of Women
Media culture sells girls’ bodies—and souls—for parts.
As 2020 came to an end, the streets of Buenos Aires were crowded with celebrating women. They looked and behaved quite differently from The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo—those mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, and daughters who once gathered on the Argentine streets to oppose the dictatorship which “disappeared” their loved ones. The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo protested the brutal forces warring against the sacredness of the person. The women of 2020 came together to celebrate—with gusto—the Argentine Senate’s decision to legalize abortion. The Mothers had come to seek their children. The girls came, Maenad-like, to snuff them out.
For decades, every aspirational middle-class female was blasted with the message that she could “have it all.” Yet women no longer want the “all.” Somewhere in the past few decades, the logical consequences of the liberal consumer revolution began to reveal themselves. “Children will slow you down; relationships are emotional labor; have sex with strangers. Better yet: start an OnlyFans and treat yourself. Also? You’re not actually a woman. You’re a vagina-owner! Enjoy your new life partners, SSRIs and therapy.”
A parallel story, of course, can be told about boys. But though we do little about it, even leftists at least acknowledge that masculinity is “in crisis.” Girls are not granted this concession: they face the peculiar circumstance of being simultaneously driven mad and told that it’s progress.
The Priests of Revolution
Around the same time the women of Argentina were warring against the patriarchy, Teen Vogue offered young “vagina-owners” a no-nonsense guide to masturbation. The New York Times celebrated “frivolous sex,” highlighting comments from a mother glorifying her daughter’s “quickies” in the bushes while out for a jog. Sex with strangers seemed a discordant message from the lockdown-obsessed paper. But when it comes to the cause of sexual liberation, consistency is a secondary issue.
Our mass media has created a climate where the top legislative body in the country can proclaim, with a straight face, that ancient gendered words like “daughter” are no longer appropriate terms for congressional use. Doctors are encouraged by the revolution to use clunky, dehumanizing terms like “egg-producer” and “sperm-producer.”
A revolution requires prophets and missionaries, and today’s seek nothing less than to overthrow the most eternal and fundamental aspects of human lives. To even entertain the notion of soulless terms like “sperm-producer” and “vagina-owner,” a society must be so inundated with never-ceasing propaganda that following the current seems the only way to maintain some private peace.
The great normalization of daycare was already well underway by the end of the 1970s. This transformation of American life, which Wendell Berry described as the final devolution of the homestead to a commuter motel, is now all but total. As care-by-revolving-strangers became routine, a vacuum opened up in the lives and minds of the children left to institutions.
Among this highly vulnerable generation of disconnected youth, there walked the priests of revolution: advertisers.
We are What we Behold
Religions live by directing our attention. For a hundred years the holy priests of American advertising have been relentless in capturing that attention. The first rumblings of the avalanche to come were heard in the 1920s and 1930s as the female magazine industry took off. Veterans from these trenches later talked about how their job was to manipulate women, weaponize their emotions, and normalize what the editors and writers knew wasn’t actually common behavior.
What these priests preach may change, and often has. But the consistent underlying message remains stable: this world is all there is, we have the power to give you pleasure, and is it is immoral for anyone anywhere to put themselves “above” the rest of us by not maximizing feelings of comfort, safety, pleasure, and power.
Women between the ages of 15 and 45 have spent their lives participating in a peer culture moderated by mass media, and come to believe their participation in the zeitgeist is the main gift they have to offer. There are no more metaphysics left outside politics. The only religion they have been taught is girlboss sex-positive feminism. They are so well catechized that an influencer has only to hint and within minutes, like a flock of birds in flight, millions of women are suddenly sharing the same memes on Instagram.
A middle-class American girl between the ages of 10 and 14 is increasingly unlikely to be raised in the proven safest environment for children: a two-biological-parents household. She is turned over to bureaucracy, media, and peers for the majority of her education and care (and in the COVID era she simply partakes of these things via screens). She has little to no productive work to offer her family or community. Her hands are idle but for the keypad on her smartphone. Her passions must go somewhere. Peer culture, as mediated by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and now social media, has filled this vacuum of meaning.
Sally Lee, an editor-in-chief of the teen magazine YM in the 1990s, was noted for her skill at filling this void in a 1995 piece by the New York Times. “We’re not a tool or anyone’s propaganda, and we’re not homework,” Ms. Lee insisted. “I’m a big believer in age-appropriate sex information. They are not at the age where they are looking to perfect their sexual enjoyment. It is enjoyable, it’s a primal urge and it’s a big responsibility. We want to teach about that.”
But her enterprise was fundamentally an un-teaching. Among her “tricks,” noted the Times: “Write for older girls and sophisticated young ones will pick up the magazine, as will less-sophisticated college girls. Create a fantasy, then back off.”
Fantasy is exactly what frivolous, no-consequence sex is and will remain, and fantasy is also what it is to un-name one’s self and entire sex in favor of a mechanistic, parts-based identity. Young girls are not in danger of not being allowed to be women doctors; they are in danger of no longer wanting to be women at all.
To be a teenage girl in the TikTok era is to be dragged into a virtual web that objectifies and demeans your actual, real body. The suffering caused by this appalling virtual harem is likely to be dismissed because it is merely onscreen; meanwhile, the reality of girls’ behavior online grinds down their mental and emotional health until they begin to see all male-female relationships as a form of demeaning entrapment.
If your earliest exposures to sexuality are commodified, unloving encounters, why believe in marriage? If you are convinced men only want OnlyFans, what is marriage but the ultimate form of prostitution? Teen Vogue’s “no-nonsense guide to masturbation” almost admits that its readers will be wrecked upon the rock of commodified virtual sexuality. You won’t need a partner where we’re going, it seems to say. Sex with porn-addicted sperm-producers is likely to be empty anyway—why bother?
Sex-positivity messaging depends upon two groups, one centralized and the other decentralized. The centralized group is the conglomerate of advertisers, pornographers, women’s magazines, and media content creators. Their task is to make the new faith seem obvious and inevitable to impressionable readers, and remind more skeptical ones that only the most abhorrent bigots deviate from the new orthodoxy.
Sex within a relationship leads to emotional bonds. Emotional bonds are more or less not for sale. These bonds encourage people to value things which require sacrifices and trade-offs: children, routine, communal bonds. They shift our focus from the market to some other sphere which cannot be commodified. So for the marketplace, sexual monogamy, especially if it is open to life, is not optimal for market growth.
“Frivolous sex,” however, does not lead to such emotional bonds. And despite the infamous Samantha Jones, it often leads to (and originates in) emotional and mental trauma. But trauma, too, can turn a profit. In the end it’s irrelevant if sex positivity wrecks communities and countless souls: what matters is market growth and an atomized pool of dependent consumers addicted to the culture of feelings.
Then there is the second group, the unpaid millions who serve as missionaries for the new liberal order. What do they get from this uprooting of all meaning and purpose? Why does an adult push their child towards some bizarre dream of sexual freedom despite privately hoping for grandchildren? Why do middle-aged mothers cheer promiscuity and then confess they are befuddled by the mental health crisis of their children? How can so many be blind to the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic of their own inner desires?
Sex shame goes deeper than almost any other shame. The frenzy to de-stigmatize sexual misbehavior is a frenzy to remove one’s own pain of shame. Normalizing debauchery is the ultimate form of peer pressure: if others are compromised, then my own guilt is irrelevant. We see a society run by emotional blackmail and we fear being caught up in it. So we join the blackmailers, both condemning heretics and denying there’s any sexual sin which needs to be condemned at all.
Is it a surprise this kind of fervor and exhaustion eventually evoked a backlash via body positivity and the Andrea Dworkin-esque “MeToo” movement? Sex positivity and sex negativity both diminish the whole, cutting and separating individuals from their families and then their bodies. Both leave us without adult men and women.
We’ve dismantled the extended family. And the nuclear family. We’ve dismantled multi-generational homes. We’ve dismantled a neighborhood full of adults who know each other and keep a collective eye on the kids. We’ve eliminated community life that doesn’t require a car. We’ve eliminated the Elks Lodge, Moose Lodge, the local sewing circle and beautification committee. We’ve eliminated shared expressions of values. We’ve eliminated high holy days and communal feasts. We’ve eliminated stories shared between generations. We’ve derided the ideal of motherhood, vilified the ideal of fatherhood, and chained ourselves to a treadmill of credentialization, of pleasure maximization, of effective barrenness and sterilization. Is this sexual utopia? Well, as the New York Times comment section sighs wistfully, one at least can take comfort that some young people, somewhere, are having orgies.
The new creed which came offering tolerance has, Cronos-like, devoured its firstborn. Will mere vagina-owners and sperm-producers maintain the energy to participate in orgies? The religion of sexualized sexlessness is flat, and flatness is repressive. However much we are pressured to see ourselves as a series of cogs and teeth, something in us screams out.
The result is emotion unfettered by truth: The terrors of responsibility without love (bureaucracy) and love without responsibility (the illusion of frivolous sex) turn us into witch-burners, desperate to escape our own misery by becoming addicts or gather more power by burning others for their sins.
But something does matter. There is a creed rooted in the marriage of love and responsibility. The grandmothers of the disappeared knew there was something worth dying for rather than killing for. It has taken decades of media monopoly and over a century of community erosion for women to give up being women. But it need not take so very long to reject the ticket. It only takes awareness that forgiveness is real and genuinely offered to us all.
YM, Cosmo, Teen Vogue, the New York Times, cable news, Hollywood: they have relied upon millions of words churning forth at every moment to keep the spell cast. Despite the apparent strength of their fortress, all that is required to bring down the false enchantment is a few words of prayer and a contrite heart: “Thy will be done.”
So may the grandmothers of the future be able to have mercy on their own grandmothers.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.