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The Sexual Revolution - A Case Study 

by James Hitchcock
August 30, 2002

Delayed in an airport, I visited a news stand where the pickings were slim. I paged through the memoirs of the actress Cybill Shepherd, whose early films -- The Last Picture Show and Daisy Miller -- I liked. After a few minutes I realized that the book was more than just a memory of show business; it was a significant social document. But, like many such documents, it is significant in ways the author herself does not realize.

Writing a few years ago, Cybill reports that she is part of the "new celibacy". She no longer feels the need for a lover and, although she sometimes feels lonely, she has emancipated herself from what she now recognizes as a kind of compulsion. She can admit this now because it fits with feminist ideology. What she cannot see is that her story is virtually a case study in the effects of the sexual revolution.

Cybill grew up in a middle-class family in Memphis in the early l960s, just before social mores began to change, and she prides herself on having been ahead of the curve. While in high school she became "sexually active", and her doctor, who was a close friend of her parents, prescribed contraceptives without telling them. From then on Cybill was off to the races, as promiscuous sexuality soon became respectable.

Contraceptives were supposed to render abortion obsolete. But, inevitably, Cybill became pregnant and had an abortion, an event which by now is almost required in the résumé of any woman claiming to be enlightened. Cybill engages in what I call brow-furrowing -- "abortion is a woman's right, but it is troubling". She does not explain her position because she cannot -- if there are reasons for hesitating about abortion, then shouldn't the pro-life position be taken seriously?

Cybill was raised an Episcopalian and quotes a moving passage from the Book of Common Prayer. But she abandoned her religion and, feeling the need for a spiritual dimension in her life, found it in, of all places, goddess worship! Visiting the Sistine Chapel she is awestruck not by the scene of creation of the world but by a female figure -- the Cumean Sibyl, whose presence there the modern Cybill takes to mean that before Christianity there were goddesses, ignoring the obvious message of Michelangelo's iconography -- that ancient deities were replaced by Jesus Christ.

Since she long ago broke with her conventional background, her inherited Christianity brings her no comfort; apparently she does not even think about it. Similarly, her discovery of "celibacy" does not lead her to wonder if the "outmoded" morality she was taught could have been right after all.

If her account is believed, she has had incredible bad luck with lovers, employers, and co-workers, most of whom eventually betrayed her. What she does not grasp is how betrayal is at the very heart of the sexual revolution in which she so avidly participated. Its whole point was pleasure without responsibility, so that betrayal in such a context was meaningless.

One unrecognized betrayal in her life was by her family doctor, who facilitated the adventures of an immature adolescent, betraying thereby the parents whose friend he was. A respected professional in effect gave his young patient permission to be promiscuous.

But Cybill's first betrayal was in her own family. Her father had affairs (as did her grandfather) and eventually left his wife and children, so that Cybill did not see him for some years. The irresponsible behavior of children can often be traced to the behavior of parents, a powerful argument for those "family values" which Cybill and others like her have long ridiculed.

Ironically, if there is now a center in Cybill's life it is being "pro-choice". Although she has children, she will fight to the last breath for that. But abortion, whatever else it is, is the reduction of something to nothing. The end result of the sexual revolution is precisely that emptiness which she has for so long been trying to escape.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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