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Downstream, in the Moral Sewage

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All through history there have been the few who have benefitted at the expense of the many and the rich who have benefitted at the expense of the poor. Sometimes the progressive have benefitted at the expense of those who are falling behind. Many cities have produced endless amounts of waste and have flushed it into rivers that have delivered that waste, and all the death and disease that attends it, to people who live far downstream.

I thought of this as I read an article Al Mohler wrote for The Atlantic (he wrote the article, they chose the photo, unfortunately). Helen Gurley Brown died two weeks ago and Mohler wrote about her life and legacy as one of the most important and most underestimated agents of the sexual revolution. “Since 1960 we have experienced a moral revolution that has transformed every dimension of American life, and the death of Helen Gurley Brown is a reminder that the sexual revolution did not happen by accident. Like all revolutions, this one required moral revolutionaries.”

Her contribution was in creating the cultural category of the “single girl” and in convincing that single girl to liberate herself from all the traditional sexual mores. The single girl could and, indeed, should, have sex freely and with as many partners as she desired.

When Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl hit the bookstores in 1962, it lit a firestorm of controversy. A former advertising writer, then recently married to a leading Hollywood producer, Helen Gurley Brown dared to scandalize the nation, virtually inventing the “single girl” as a cultural category. Brown urged young women to see themselves as empowered by sex, money, and men—but without any need for the traditional commitment to marriage.

Her argument was so scandalous at the time that no major publisher would touch the book. The bookstores were filled with books offering advice to young wives and mothers, but Helen Gurley Brown was openly inventing a new cultural category, the sexually liberated single girl.

The single girl “is engaging because she lives by her wits,” declared Brown, who pointed to her younger self as a prime example of the empowered single girl she now celebrated.

And, most central to Brown’s vision, the single girl is having sex, a lot of sex, and enjoying romantic relations with men, lots of men.

Most scandalous of all was Helen Gurley Brown’s insistence that married men were not off limits for sexual affairs—not by a long shot. Married men, she advised, were among other things, “frequently marvelous in bed and careful not to get you pregnant.”

As I read about Brown’s life, I was deeply saddened and disturbed on at least a couple of different levels.

The first is that this revolution she began is one she herself indulged in for a time before falling into more traditional patterns. As Dr. Mohler says, “She was a living contradiction, who argued that being the single girl was the ideal, but then married; and that married men were fair game for adulterous affairs, but then drew the line at her husband.” Like so many revolutionaries, she sparked a revolution but demanded no moral accountability of herself. When she stepped out of that revolution and when it went far beyond what she could ever have imagined, no one called her to account. Like so many revolutionaries, she was a walking contradiction, which is to say, an utter, outright hypocrite. Her revolution continued even after she had grown tired of it or perhaps stopped believing in it.

The second observation is that young women today are convinced that their bodies are all their own, that they can hook up with whomever they want whenever they want without emotional scars. What is tragic is that they think this is their own idea, that they are the revolutionaries. What they don’t see is that they are swimming downstream from someone else’s sewage. Like a city that pumps waste into a river and watches it disappear around the bend on its way to the next place, Brown created moral sewage, and a whole generation–several generations–are mucking around in it, bearing all the consequences. And in some way we are all downstream from the revolutionary sinners, the ones who create new categories for sin, who create new and shocking ways to sin, and who so often eventually step back to watch us flounder in their mess.

Mohler aptly summarizes her impact: “A single individual cannot accomplish a moral revolution, but such revolutions cannot happen without individuals who are willing to make their arguments in public, push them with energy over decades, and never sound retreat. Helen Gurley Brown was not just a celebrity. She was a moral revolutionary who lived long enough to see the sexual revolution become our mainstream culture.”

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