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Sex As A Pastime 

A Review of Modern Sex—Liberation and its Discontents, edited by Myron Magnet (Ivan R Dee, Inc., 256 pp., $28.50)

by Kirsten Andersen


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As the War on Terrorism progresses, the news becomes more and more a single-issue update than a comprehensive look at the events that shape our lives. Any given moment spent viewing the news networks reveals new developments in Afghanistan, in the anthrax cases, and in the lives of those affected by the attacks of 9/11. C-Span, for a time, seemed to be "All Airport Security, All The Time", and CNN Headline News now includes a detailed weather map of Afghanistan alongside the maps of New England, the Southwest and other American regions on its 24-hour ticker.

What the news no longer seems to be covering is day-to-day reality for the 250 million or so Americans who don’t happen to be on an anthrax-infested mail route or on the ground in Afghanistan. The problems that plagued America before 9/11 have not evaporated like so much dust at Ground Zero. If anything, they have been made worse by the lack of attention paid them since the terrorist attacks.

Today, crime rates in the inner cities are still rising, teens are becoming pregnant at an alarming rate, and the divorce rate still exceeds 50%. All of these problems are worthy of their own columns, but they can all be traced to a common root: Modern Sex.

Sex, of course, is nothing modern and certainly nothing new. But the Manhattan Institute has recently released a new book entitled Modern Sex—Liberation and its Discontents (edited by City Journal editor Myron Magnet) detailing the profound cultural effects of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. The effects of that age are impossible to ignore. Though not openly visible in today’s headlines, those effects can be found behind the headlines: Behind the inner city shooting, the son of an utterly absent father. Behind the jump in the teen pregnancy statistics, lonely girls who give sex to gain the love of a child. These and more are the issues addressed by Modern Sex, and they are issues perhaps, in the long run, even more important to our society than the search for Osama Bin Laden.

Modern Sex is a compilation of a dozen revealing essays by some of conservatism’s top editorial talent, including (among others) Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Wendy Shalit, and Harry Stein. All of the essays have appeared separately in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal at various times, but taken en masse, they paint a poignant and disturbing portrait of American sexuality at the start of the 21st century.

The book is divided into several sections, each detailing a different aspect of American sexuality. After the book’s introduction, the editor gets right to the point with the first section, called "Sex Now." It this section that contains some of the best insights, including a brilliant assessment of the hit HBO comedy "Sex and the City" entitled "Sex, Sadness, and the City" by Wendy Shalit.  With pinpoint accuracy, Shalit uncovers the truths woven throughout the series (which has been a hit with liberal media such as the New York Times). After quoting several of the star character’s defeated, depressed monologues (usually heard after yet another failed fling that began as a one night stand), Shalit declares:

"The publicists and pundits may not get it, but [show creator] Candace Bushnell and producer Darren Star of the "Sex and the City" TV show understand in their heart of hearts the failure of sexual liberation. That’s why all the story lines keep returning to the unhappiness of the players involved. The characters of "Sex and the City" accurately represent what the sexual revolution expects of women, and what the woman who looks for liberation through the bedroom can expect. The writers know that their four protagonists, for all their cool urbanity, experience feelings of loss and sadness and loneliness that are real and typical for women in the age of liberation."

Other topics covered under "Sex Now" include "The ‘L’ Word: Love as Taboo" (a great commentary on the overwhelmingly casual treatment of sex among young people today), and "How We Mate" (a scathing indictment of the common practice of cohabitation, otherwise known as ‘shacking up’).

By far the most shockingly informative segment of Modern Sex is the segment concerning the sexualizing of children. This set of three articles by Kay S. Hymowitz covers the sexual revolution’s effect on today’s kids, from grade school to age eighteen.

The essay called "Tweens: Ten Going On Sixteen" forever cemented this writer’s decision to home school any future offspring—or at the very least put them in the strictest private school available. "Tweens," or children between the ages of 8 and 12, are, according to Hymowitz’s extensive research, acting very much the same as juniors and seniors in high school did ten or even five years ago. Oral sex has become commonplace activity in middle schools (ages 11-14, mind you), with children apparently (thanks to Bill Clinton?) not considering it sex at all, but rather "just fooling around."

Hymowitz recounts a story of a seventh grade boy who had his first sexual experience when an eighth grade girl offered to perform oral sex on him. Not quite past puberty, the boy described the experience as not all that exciting but "sort of interesting." According to several school administrators quoted in the essay, this behavior often takes place on the playground (no doubt just yards away from the swings and tetherballs that the 12 year olds of yesteryear were contented with). Hymowitz goes on to expose the underlying causes of this unsettling trend—and what she has to say may surprise a lot of parents.

Other stellar essays include a series on the war between the sexes, and a section on the ideology of the sexual revolution. Of course, so many problems cannot be addressed without offering some sort of solution, and the last section of the book gives the reader just that. With common-sense logic and sterling erudition, Roger Scruton presents two essays advocating the resurgence of social stigma and the revival of traditional marriage and family.

Modern Sex should be required reading for policymakers, parents, educators, and anyone else seeking the causes and solutions for today’s prevailing social ills. 

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