[Editor’s Note: Mary Rice Hasson, JD, is the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, an international network of Catholic women that responds to Pope Francis’s call for women to be a “more effective presence” in the Church and in the world. She spoke to Charles Camosy about their May 31 event “The #MeToo Moment: Second Thoughts on the Sexual Revolution” in Washington, D.C., which was also co-sponsored by the Catholic Information Center and the Archdiocese of Washington.]

Camosy: The Catholic Women’s Forum (CWF) and Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture recently put on a significant event in Washington, D.C. to offer “Second Thoughts” on the sexual revolution. What prompted this gathering of heavy hitters like yourself, Helen Alvare, Mary Eberstadt, and Cardinal Wuerl? 

Hasson: We share a deep regard for women, families, and human dignity, and serious concern over the harmful consequences of the sexual revolution. As the #MeToo movement exploded into the headlines, the raw pain of women who were harmed and exploited under the cover of sexual freedom shattered our cultural complacency. The silver lining is that #MeToo created space for more honest—and long-overdue—conversations, not only about sexual harassment but also about related harms, and their common roots in the sexual revolution. We wanted to step into that space and engage that conversation.

The Catholic Women’s Forum (CWF) held a panel discussion on sexual harassment in December 2017, which sparked conversations with Mary Eberstadt, Carter Snead of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, and my colleague George Weigel, about a larger, collaborative effort (which eventually drew the Archdiocese of Washington and the Catholic Information Center as additional co-sponsors). In the wake of #MeToo, the time seemed right to inject new facts into the public discourse and to raise thoughtful concerns—to air “second thoughts” on the sexual revolution.

The conference featured leading thinkers and substantive experts. Speaking to a packed house, Cardinal Wuerl’s address provided context, noting that because the culture has lost its moral compass, the Church’s role in proposing the truth is pivotal. Mary Eberstadt described the cultural landscape and, paraphrasing Tolstoy’s observation in another context, challenged the audience not to turn away from evidence of the sexual revolution’s harms, because, “We cannot pretend we don’t know these things.”

Two panels of experts—women physicians, psychologists, and attorneys—highlighted research from law, medicine, and the social sciences to underscore the devastating impact of the sexual revolution. For example, Dr. Monique Chireau, an Ob-Gyn from Duke Medical Center, observed that women’s fertility has been shaped by the sexual revolution, often in unwelcome ways—sexually transmitted infections have skyrocketed, harmful sexual practices have become mainstream, and contraceptive failures inevitably drive abortion.

Dr. Marguerite Duane of Georgetown Medical Center presented data on the harms of hormonal contraception and medical professionals’ strikingly outdated beliefs about fertility awareness—which effectively deprive women of the information they need for healthy decisions. Catholic University law professor Mary Leary, an expert on online sexual trafficking schemes, gave a compelling presentation on the commodification of women’s bodies and the multi-million-dollar business of buying and selling human beings through sexual trafficking. Professor Helen Alvare’s closing remarks critiqued laws, policies, and norms that now prioritize adult sexual freedom over children’s wellbeing.

Because the speakers were highly credible and presented empirical data, attendees who did not share our moral or religious beliefs nevertheless found plenty to think about.

As far as I can tell, the primary response to #MeToo in most secular circles has been to wrestle with more rigorous and explicit concepts of consent. Did you or others have a reaction to this kind of response?

Yes! Consent is a legal minimum, but falls far short of protecting human dignity and the meaning of sexual intercourse, as God intended. In practice, consent often proves to be an inadequate parameter, because people and sexuality are complex. As psychologist Suzanne Hollman noted during her presentation, studies show that men and women tend to indicate and interpret the verbal and non-verbal signals of consent (or non-consent) very differently.

The ambiguity is magnified when couples hardly know each other. Sexual encounters, especially in uncommitted encounters, may be characterized by ambivalence, regret, and consent to unwanted sex. In addressing the emotional consequences of casual sex, Dr. Hollman noted that, “It is possible that women now feel more pressure to appear free, emotionally unaffected, and to consent even when not entirely comfortable.”

On another level, placing faith in explicit (even written) consent procedures effectively reduces sexual intercourse to an arms-length transaction for individual benefit, with carefully negotiated terms, an exchange of benefits, and penalties for non-compliance. Small wonder that many young people complain that casual sex means settling for “bad sex.” Sex by its nature is meant to be an intimate expression of love in the context of a permanent relationship, a gift of self. Love demands more than consent. As Pope St. John Paul II emphasized, the human person is made for love, and should never be treated as a “thing” to be used—that’s a standard that people of any faith or no faith can embrace. Using another person is always wrong. (And because human dignity is inalienable, no one has the right to “consent” to being used either.)

The evidence presented at our event exposes the fiction behind the sexual revolution—the belief that sex is merely about pleasure, no weightier than consuming a favorite dessert. It’s simply not true. For decades now, women have been bearing the social costs required to keep that fiction alive. But “time’s up.” Women have ripped the glossy cover off of this narrative, exposing the painful realities at the heart of the sexual revolution. It’s time for a change.

One very hopeful development, at least from my perspective, is that many different kinds of people, from many different political and theological backgrounds are starting to see the huge role pornography plays in all of this. It seems to me that, especially post #MeToo, in some surprising places it is no longer considered “backwards” or “uptight” to point out the destructive nature of porn on individual human relationships and our sexual culture at large. Did those at the conference also sense a new opening here?

Yes and no. As Professor Maryanne Layden pointed out in her presentation, the harms of pornography, and the links between pornography and sexualized violence are irrefutable. People open to the truth will recognize its destructiveness. However, we live in a pornified culture, where pornography seems normal, and consequently shapes users’ beliefs about women and sexuality in powerful ways. Dr. Layden notes that pornography depicts women as never saying no, and “enjoying” sex that involves men slapping, choking, and degrading them. Pornography gives men “permission” to expect the same in real life. And it is shaping the attitudes of most young men. Gallup’s latest poll shows that, “67% of men aged 18 to 49 this year say pornography is morally acceptable, a 14-point increase from last year.” So, paradoxically, although the debate is over—pornography is undeniably destructive—Americans generally are more accepting than ever of pornography. It’s a disturbing trend, with serious consequences for relationships between men and women and the culture.

Among other things, the sexual revolution taught untold millions of women that their freedom and flourishing is dependent on the contraceptive pill. Was this engaged at the event?

A question from the audience suggested that the pill made women’s progress possible. Dr. Duane and Dr. Chireau strongly countered that premise, arguing that the structure of the workplace is still oriented around the male worker, which requires women to mimic male work patterns, priorities, and fertility patterns to participate fully.

By embracing the pill (with its backup, abortion) as the solution to “how” women can bring their talents to the workplace, women failed to insist that the culture value women as women, taking into account differences in fertility, priorities, and the realities of pregnancy and lactation.

Fifty years later, women still find their success often hinges on how well they conform to the male worker model, facilitated by contraception and “benefits,” like the tech industry’s employer-paid egg freezing, which incentivizes women to postpone motherhood for the sake of work.

The conference took on many different kinds of topics, but I’m a big fan of seeing the connections between moral issues and concerns. Was there discussion about the interrelationship between the topics, perhaps in ways that suggested a holistic way of approaching these concerns?

Absolutely. The sequence of presentations had a cumulative impact, as each topic brought the big picture more clearly into focus. It’s sobering, and can seem overwhelming, given the magnitude of harm and the financial muscle behind it.

But these seemingly disparate consequences of the sexual revolution share a common solution: we must insist that every person has human dignity and deserves to be loved; that it is never acceptable to treat another person as a thing to be used or to exploit another’s vulnerability, even with their apparent consent; that the human person, from conception to natural death, can never be reduced to a commodity, a thing to be bought and sold.

The good news is that women, who have suffered greatly in the wake of the sexual revolution, have found their voices and hope to spur a re-thinking of the sexual revolution, and to urge a new cultural trajectory, with human dignity and love at the center.