The death of Pope John Paul II is a reminder of the profound changes in sexual mores over the past half century in the United States and many other countries, of the Pope’s strong defense of conventional Roman Catholic sexual morality (including opposition to abortion, contraception, married priests, and all nonmarital sexual activity, including homosexual sex and even masturbation), and of the growing gulf between that morality and the actual sexual behavior of Roman Catholics in the United States (which is, on average, similar to that of other segments of the community), including the recent sex scandals involving the priesthood.
Let us consider first why sexual morality has changed so much over the past half century. If one takes an economic approach to the question, then since the benefits of sex in the sense of the pleasure or relief of tension that it yields have deep biological roots, it is probably to the cost side that we should look for an answer. The costs of engaging in sexual activity have fallen dramatically over the last half century (AIDS notwithstanding), for many reasons. One was the discovery that penicillin is a safe, certain, and inexpensive cure for syphilis. Another was improvements in contraceptive technology that have greatly reduced the likelihood of an unwanted birth (with minimal interference with sexual pleasure). It is true that the number of unwanted births has risen, but this is because other factors influence that number besides contraceptive technology. And to the extent that improved contraceptive technology induces more sexual activity by making sex safer, the number of unwanted births will not fall by the full percentage reduction in the probability of such a birth; the reduced probability per sexual act is somewhat offset by an increase in the number of acts. Legalizing abortion has further reduced the risk of an unwanted birth, although legalization can be viewed as a response to, rather than a cause of, a change in sexual mores—or more plausibly as both.
Of fundamental importance is the changing role of women in society. The rise of the service economy, with its abundance of physically light jobs, together with the advent of highly efficient household labor-saving devices, has greatly increased women’s job opportunities outside the home. That increase has in turn increased women’s financial independence and thus reduced the gains to them from marriage. It has also increased the opportunity costs of childbearing—the higher a woman’s income, the more she gives up if she leaves the labor force, whether temporarily or permanently, to have children. So this is another factor raising the cost of marriage to women.
The consequence of all these things has been to reduce the marriage rate and delay the average age of marriage, and also to reduce the cost of divorce to women (and to men, by reducing the benefits of marriage to men who want to have children and stay-at-home wives). With less and later marriage and more divorce, women spend less of their sexually active years married and so their demand for nonmarital sex—sex made in any event less risky by improved contraception and the availability of abortion—soars.
The increased demand for divorce was a factor in the successful movement for easy divorce, and easy divorce makes it impossible to channel sex into marriage. In communities (and there are still some) in which premarital sex is strongly disapproved, young people marry to have sex, but marriages so motivated are likely to end in divorce, producing more unmarried people and so more demand for nonmarital sex.
Another factor that influences behavior in the same direction, though one that predates the developments that I have just been discussing, is the long-term decline in child mortality, as a result of which it is no longer necessary for women to be almost continuously pregnant in order to have a reasonable number of children survive to adulthood. In addition, with the decline of the farm population and the rise of social security, children’s value as farm labor and old-age insurance diminishes, and as a result the demand for children falls.
With more and more sex taking place outside of marriage, homosexual activity comes to seem less anomalous than in a society in which almost all sexual activity is (or at least is believed to be) confined to marriage. That is, once the link between marriage and sex is weakened, and sex comes to be thought of as worthwhile in itself rather than just as a means of procreation, nonprocreative sex—of which homosexual sex is a conspicuous example—begins to lose its opprobrium.
It may seem paradoxical to suggest that marriage and homosexuality are somehow linked; but they are. In societies like that of ancient Greece, in which men are expected to marry in order to procreate but are not expected to establish an intimate emotional connection with their wife (for example, in ancient Greece husband and wife did not eat together, and the wife rarely was even permitted outside the house), it is not difficult for homosexual men to marry. But when companionate marriage becomes the norm—when men are still expected to marry but marriage connotes much more than occasional intercourse—homosexual men become anomalous; the institution of companionate, as distinct from patriarchal, marriage tends to extrude them from a fundamental social institution. Companionate marriage is still the marriage norm, but fewer people are married, so unmarried men are less conspicuous.
The major Western religions, especially Christianity, and within Christianity especially Roman Catholicism, are increasingly defined by their opposition to the modern loosening of sexual mores. This is not because these religions have become increasingly prudish (though Catholicism takes a harder line against abortion than it did until the nineteenth century, and though a concern with sexual conduct plays a notably small role in the New Testament), but because their teachings on sex have become ever more removed from the behavior of their votaries. Pope John Paul II seemed unusually conservative in matters of sex not because he was making Catholic sex doctrine more severe, but because he was refusing to yield to strong pressures to relax it. He was swimming against the tide. Even though the United States is in the midst of a very striking religious revival, religion’s grip on behavior has weakened. Hence the contrast between vastly increased tolerance for homosexual behavior and powerful opposition, much though not all of it religiously based, to gay marriage. Hence, too, the great difficulty the Catholic Church is having in attracting young men into the priesthood, especially young heterosexual men—an all-male occupation holds obvious attractions for homosexual men, especially if the behavioral constraints of religious doctrine are weakening even for persons who desire a religious career.
To the extent that as a result of economic and technological change, sex ceases to be considered either dangerous or important, we can expect it to become a morally indifferent activity, as eating has mainly become (though not for orthodox Jews and Muslims). At this writing, that seems to be the trend in many societies, including our own. This is not historically unprecedented; many cultures have been far more casual about sex than our own—ancient Greece, for example.
I emphasize that this has been an essay in positive rather than normative moral theory. My concern is not with whether the changes in sexual mores that I have been discussing are right or wrong, but with trying to explain what has brought about the changes. I believe they can largely be explained in economic terms.