Happy Father’s Day (or not): Sexualityism, choice and 41 percent

In an ominous trend for the nation’s purveyors of homely neckties and coffee mugs, fatherhood in America is fast on its way to becoming a quaint relic of a vanishing age.Maybe it was inevitable, in a society whose pop culture images of fatherhood toggle between the predatory (American Beauty) and the pathetic (The Simpsons). But the surprising thing is just how rapid the collapse has been.

Births to unmarried women accounted for 5 percent of all American births in the early 1960s. By 1980, that figure had more than tripled, to 18 percent, then climbed to 28 percent by 1990. Today, more than 41 percent of all babies born in this country are born outside of marriage. That blended figure masks important disparities: more than half (53 percent) of Latino births are outside marriage while for black babies, the rate is 73 percent.

The anti-marriage vanguard of the sexual revolution will hasten to point out that his failure to marry the mother does not necessarily mean that daddy is out of the picture. And it is true that most of the increase in non-marital births has been to cohabitating couples. But whether there are societies where such arrangements are as durable as marriage, the United States is not one of those societies.

In this country, cohabitating couples are twice as likely to break up as married couples. Even when the union produces a child, two-thirds of cohabitating couples break up before the child’s 10th birthday. The bottom line is that each year, a higher percentage of the babies born in the United States will grow up with their fathers partially or entirely absent from their lives.

The baleful consequences for children of widespread father absence – higher poverty, lower educational attainment, higher rates of crime, addiction, promiscuity, and other antisocial or self-destructive behavior — have been exhaustively documented. Beyond the quantitative indicators, much more damage is surely hidden, like painful wounds, in the hearts of children.

Perhaps, as George Orwell wrote in a different context, we “have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men” so here goes: the deliberate abandonment of one’s own flesh and blood is a tragedy and a scandal. The fact that it has become the new normal makes it more scandalous, not less.

Forty-one percent. What could possibly account for this figure? One common argument is that the lower their financial status, the less likely people are to marry because they simply cannot afford it. This seems intuitively plausible especially in light of the higher non-marital birthrates among those segments (e.g., Latino, black, no college degree) that generally do in fact have dimmer economic prospects. But there are equally plausible arguments to be made for correlation (the kinds of people who achieve economic success possess the same abilities to cooperate with others and to defer gratification that marriage also requires) and even for reverse causation (that people are worse off because they fail to marry, not vice versa).

If economic factors were the exclusive, or even the primary, causal factor behind non-marital births, we would expect to have seen soaring rates of illegitimacy during the Great Depression. Conversely, we should have seen a sharp drop-off during the 1990s boom. Neither happened.

Here’s what did happen: the sexual revolution. In a span of less than 10 years, a series of landmark Supreme Court decisions demolished what had historically been understood (if not always honored) as a sort of unified field theory, the tacit cultural assumption that love, sex, marriage and childbearing were noble goods belonging together. The first blow of the wrecking ball came in the form of Griswold v Connecticut (1965) that, by declaring no state could prohibit married couples from purchasing contraceptives, effectively severed the link between marriage and procreation. Eisenstadt v Baird (1972) expanded that logic to unmarried persons, severing the link between sex and marriage. And most notoriously, Roe v Wade (1973), severed the link between sex and procreation.

It is time to call a spade a spade: the resultant sexual anarchy has been a disaster for family life and for children. Those who would decree that a family is whatever anyone says it is either deny this disaster or simply dissolve the point. What about a nuclear family where the father is an abusive drunk? Better, surely, for a child to be raised by mom’s perfectly nice live-in boyfriend than a by violent biological father. Forgive me if I remain unmoved by the argument that something is OK if something else is worse.

Another common claim by the sexual Jacobins is that what is most important to a child is her parents’ happiness, even if it involves depriving that child of her other parent through divorce, never marrying in the first place, or installing a new partner in the role. Of course, so the party line goes, the child may wonder at first why she has never met her father, or why he never comes to see her anymore, or why she has to treat this stranger as her blood. But she will get over it.  These things just take time.

Observe the underlying logic: Children are resilient, but adults have needs.

If fatherless children are the inevitable consequence of the sexual revolution, then the revolution itself is the consequence of a radical individualism, a false notion of the human person as finding his “authentic” self not in relationship to others but in an alienated and alienating inner journey. In this profoundly atomized understanding of “the sovereign self” even the acts that by their very nature most concern connection – sex and parenthood – become primarily a means to the ultimate end of self-expression.

Harvard professor Lant Pritchett has dubbed this worldview “sexualityism” – the belief that the expression of human sexuality is in and of itself a positive good and that any constraint on that expression, up to and including parenthood, is inherently bad.

As always, a glance at the market is instructive – you can tell whether an idea has traction by whether people believe they can make money from  it. Last year, a television commercial for birth control pills showed a group of attractive, Sex-and-the-City type girlfriends, wheeling shopping carts through a sort of supermarket of life. Its shelves held a scale model house, a mortarboard (representing college), an Eiffel Tower (representing expensive vacations). One by one, the women went through the shelves, scooping up goodies. Also on the shelf, just another marketplace commodity, was a baby with outstretched arms. This, the women literally left on the shelf.

Or consider a Viagra commercial currently showing a rugged looking man sailing alone, working alone on a vintage-looking car, driving down a dusty road, alone. It’s a measure of how completely we have internalized sexualityism that this vision of sex as something essentially individualistic seems unremarkable. So if you want to feel viscerally how deep sexualityism goes, try this thought experiment instead: imagine the closing sequence of the Viagra ad  being the guy pulling his groovy vintage car up in front of a maternity hospital and joyfully racing inside to greet his newborn. If your head is exploding, well, sexualityism was the dynamite.

Sex is about life. Sexualityism is about “lifestyle.”

By definition, no lifestyle is any more or less worthy than any other. Nothing is sacred except the principle of total personal autonomy better known as “choice.” Which brings us back to children, who have never had a lot of choices over anything much at all and increasingly, have no basic cultural norms to shape their experience anymore either. But so what? The important thing is what’s best for the adults. “Since the decision to have a child is solely up to the mother, I don’t see how both parents have a responsibility to that child,” as one contributor to the Dad’s Rights Newsgroup put it.

Such is the implacable logic of choice. The miracle, really, under the regime of choice is not that 41 percent of children are born to unmarried women. The miracle is that any man chooses the path of self-sacrificial love that is marriage and fatherhood. One wonders how long it can last. For the moment, the cultural elite reject the “family diversity” they champion for others, and overwhelmingly marry before having children. So maybe we will continue fragmenting into the parallel societies described in Coming Apart. Or, equally likely, maybe the revolution will continue its long march and annihilate marriage in the upper classes as well.

Maybe there will be some kind of renewal. But the historical record on counter-revolutions is not encouraging. As hard as the fight can be to keep something, the fight to get it back once it’s lost is infinitely harder.

For all the cultural devaluation of fatherhood, in our hearts, in our lived experience, we know the importance. We know what we have lost, and what we still stand to lose.

Forty-one percent. Will the last remaining dad in America please remember to hang up the barbecue tongs?