The 1950s and 1960s marked the beginning of sweeping societal upheaval in the United States. The most sensational headlines have always gone to sex (the sexual revolution), drugs (the pharmacological revolution), and rock and roll (the musical revolution), but alongside this well-known triumvirate the Baby Boomers also brought us fast food and frozen dinners (the culinary revolution). These revolutions are all related. They have cross-pollinated one another and they share common dependencies. They all endure, with any of the four of them likely to steal the headlines on any given day. They have not, however, progressed all at the same pace.
The musical and culinary revolutions rocketed ahead of the pack. The pharmacological revolution met a bifurcated destiny, with a few illegal drugs encountering enduring resistance, a burgeoning pharmacological industry charging forward in bewildering ways, and alcohol and marijuana caught somewhere in between these two poles. The sexual revolution has been both widely adopted and widely opposed, yet the pace of sexual change in our nation has accelerated, fueled by the wide availability of pornography on the Internet. As social conservatives wonder what awaits us in the future of the sexual revolution, we might do well to consider the parallels between it and the culinary revolution and to see where the American obsession with food has led us.
Both the sexual revolution and the culinary revolution depend upon technological advances in the early twentieth century. The invention of latex in the 1920s led to the widespread use of this form of birth control in the 1930s. The sexual revolution and the pharmacological revolution intersect in the laboratories of G. D. Searle & Company during the 1950s, where ongoing research in endocrinology yielded oral contraceptives.
Technology also enabled the cultural shift away from fresh, locally produced, home-cooked food to embrace fast food, restaurant food, frozen food, and engineered food. Pasteurization arrived in the 1860s. Chemical food preservatives emerged into widespread use in the mid-twentieth century—another example of the pharmacological revolution’s broad cultural impact. Swanson’s TV Dinners arrived in 1953. Ray Kroc joined McDonald’s in 1955. Julia Child published The French Chef in 1961.
Both the sexual revolution and the culinary revolution correspond closely with feminism. Women in the 1960s were dissatisfied with the experiences both of eating food and of preparing it. The latter was a prominent component of the “domestic slavery” that Betty Friedan was urging women to flee. Child harnessed the former to bring women back into the kitchen, but as cultural sophisticates able to embrace cooking as adventure and self-realization. Cooking need not be drudgery if food ceased to be boring.
On a parallel track, many women eschewed sex as a marital duty without abandoning sex altogether. Rather, men and women adopted a new rationale of sexuality whereby—much like Child’s French cuisine—sex became worthwhile insofar as it was varied and fun. Titles like “Sex Begins in the Kitchen” may reveal more truth than they realize. In both the kitchen and the bedroom, American society began to discard a domestic vision of life in favor of a new youth-oriented, cosmopolitan life in which variety ranked high among the chief virtues.
A look at cultures beyond the reach of these revolutions provides us with a glimpse at what we once were ourselves. Much of the world is quite content to eat mostly the same thing every day. A Cuban pastor-friend whom I hosted in my home years ago asked my wife and me to stop taking them to nice restaurants. The rich food upset their digestive systems and they didn’t understand why we would need so much seasoning and food choice in order to be satisfied. A Senegalese pastor-friend who translates for me when I am in that region explained to me about his dietary regimen: He eats rice and fish every day. Period. He’s perfectly happy with that. While we are with him, we bestow upon him Mountain House Red Beans and Rice and Chewy Mini SweetTarts. He obliges us, and he likes them (or so he says), but he seems not to be wooed at all away from his quotidian fare of fish and rice.
Your great-great-grandparents probably viewed food in much the same way, eating a local diet that consisted, if not of the same foods every day, limited rotation among a few dietary staples. Humans share the same digestive biology, and most people can appreciate or detest sweet, salty, sour, and bitter in their varying presentations. The difference between cultures and across times seems to lie less in discovering the broad continuum of available gustatory experience and more in locating within that continuum what is normal.
In the same way, although pre-revolutionary sexual tastes have long acknowledged that people often depart from monogamy and sometimes deviate from the physical intercourse that defines biological sexuality, across the world and across the centuries heterosexual marriage has defined sexual normalcy.
The culinary revolution has proven to be unhealthy for us. It is unhealthy physically. Americans are obese. Americans gorge themselves on french fries and spray cheese. We are a nation of hyperlipidemia and other metabolic disorders. Thankfully, the pharmacological revolution that partially brought us to this place is partially delivering us from it, urging us to chase down our bag of Ruffles with forty milligrams of Crestor so that we might live longer.
We are less effective at combatting the unhealthy psychology of our relationships with our food. We have this array of food choices because we were dissatisfied with our limited fare, but now that we have so many options, we are less satisfied than ever. The villages of the Casamance where everyone eats rice seem not to know the phenomenon of the “picky eater.” Where the food revolution has been the most successful, there you will find anorexia and bulimia. Beyond the domain of the culinary revolution, a “toxic relationship with food” generally involves actual toxic food, or perhaps a toxic lack of food.
The problem has become so prevalent that remediating it has become something of a cause célèbre. Morgan Spurlock’s film “Supersize Me” documented the deleterious health effects of a fast-food diet. Michael Moore’s “Food, Inc.” addressed supermarket fare as well. Michael Bloomberg declared war against the Big Gulp in New York City, and Michelle Obama has resolved to harry vending machines from the land, so to speak.
Although it may be difficult for social conservatives to look at Michael Moore and Michelle Obama and to discern in them a beacon of hope, perhaps we ought to try harder. Perhaps the fate of the culinary revolution can tell us something hopeful about where the sexual revolution is heading.
Like the advent of fast food, frozen food, processed food, and super-sized food, the sexual revolution has been and is a public health disaster. Consensual vaginal intercourse rarely sends anyone to the Emergency Room. In contrast, Naomi Wolf reported a dramatic rise in anal fissures among female college students caused by a pornography-fueled spike in the practice of anal sex. ER doctors face new challenges in removing a bewildering array of “rectal foreign objects.” STIs thrive in a hookup culture. A society that once labored and innovated in order to limit fertility now spends more than four billion dollars each year (as of 2009) to battle infertility, a problem that has increased in direct proportion to the use of birth control to delay childbearing beyond the timeframe when our bodies would have us to conceive.
In the realm of the sexual revolution, psychological dysfunction and physical dysfunction are difficult to differentiate. The scourge of Internet pornography has led to widespread inability to derive pleasure from sexual intercourse, or even to accomplish it. Some physical problems arise out of psychological problems. What once required only a man, a woman, and moonlight to bring pleasure now requires a ten-billion-dollar-a-year industry of pornographic films, sex toys, and pharmacological assistance. I submit to you that people aren’t shelling out ten billion dollars every year because they are already so satisfied with their sex lives. Although survey after survey reveals that sexual satisfaction is greatest among happily married couples, the sexual revolution has produced successive generations that delay or avoid marriage more and more. Research reveals that those who wait longer to have their first sexual encounter have happier sex lives as adults, but the average age of the first sexual encounter is going down, not up. The sexual revolution is creating, not curing, sexual dissatisfaction.
So, how much time will pass before culture and government acknowledge that casual sex has served us no better than fast food? At what point will a “real sex” movement arise in parallel to the “real food” movement that is awakening today? Will future filmmakers and First Ladies embrace the vision to break the sexual revolution’s hegemony over populations that it has disserved for too long? I don’t look for these things to happen in the near future, because doing so would require liberals to admit to social conservatives that we were right all along. The data make me a short-term realist and a long-term optimist. As we wait for that time to arrive, Christians ought to adopt the following strategy:
First, we ought to do all that we can to achieve a healthy biblical sexuality within the church so that it might serve as a winsome alternative to the growing sexual dissatisfaction around us. Healthy biblical sexuality may be no more commonplace inside the church than it is beyond its membership. Churches ought to work to replace pornography, infidelity, non-monogamy, cohabitation, and voyeurism with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as applied to marital sexuality or even to embraced celibacy.
Second, we must ground our public stance on sexuality in our concern for others rather than our concern for ourselves. Frankly, if we will practice the things mentioned in the previous paragraph, the sexual revolution will be powerless to harm our marriages and our families. We need not worry about ourselves. We ought, however, to treat a world dallying about with the sexual revolution not as threats about whom we are worried but as the threatened for whom we are worried.
Third, we need to worry less about what will make us seem popular today and more about what will make us seem prophetic on that coming day when the sexual revolution is seen for the disaster that it is. Advocates for the sexual revolution will often point to the failures of churches during the era of Jim Crow. What they fail to note is that those churches who failed during that era did so not because they were so stubborn in resisting the demands of the culture but because they were so cowardly in capitulating to them. Christianity did not create racism; too many Christians were simply too namby-pamby or given to rationalization to have the backbone to stand up against it. Culture will turn against the sexual revolution and the anguish it is creating. When it does, those who refused to capitulate to the totalitarian regime of pornographic sexuality will be vindicated.
Fourth, we ought to have enough faith in God’s sovereignty to recognize that the rapid acceleration of the sexual revolution may be less the defeat of His Kingdom than the mysterious work of His hand in history to bring more quickly the day when our friends around us will regard with distaste the fleeting season of sinful pleasures for their recognition of the stinging betrayal that always comes next. Perhaps the depravity of those around us means that our culture can only come out of the sexual revolution by going through it to the bitter end.
That the sexual revolution will not endure forever is no surprise. Previous sexual revolutions have suffered the same fate. The worship of Baal and Asherah gave way to the Pharisees. The Victorian Era came into being because people were fed up with the sexual profligacy that preceded it. Neither prudism nor pornography rises to fulfill God’s design for us as male and female. Christians preserve and proclaim the only lasting revolution—the gospel revolution. Let us be careful not to adulterate it with manmade revolutions made of lesser stuff.