A new venue for paternalistic scolding has emerged recently, and with gusto: the perception that the millennial generation, those kids who invented sexting, are too uptight and even puritanical. This is a reversal of the standard complaints that older generations have long had about their juniors, which typically allege unrestrained hedonism and sexual anarchy. Those complaints are still around, of course, but baby boomers (and occasionally Gen Xers) have also come to believe that millennials are sexless, humorless ascetics who want to destroy office holiday parties and wring the life out of the one-night stand with blockchain-powered consent apps. This requires an ahistorical worldview in which the Enlightenment values of personal and social freedom came to full fruition sometime in Nixon’s first term. In reality, that era was less permissive than the present by every measure, but boomers are all too happy to embrace this delusion if it means they can heap scorn downward. Millennials, who have killed nearly every industry from golf to family dining in the last ten years, have evidently moved on to ruining sex and fun, and for this they must be chided.
This mindset was encapsulated last week by Christina Hoff Sommers, the libertarian American Enterprise Institute shill whose support of the 2014 controversy known as “Gamergate” earned her the embarrassing nickname “Based Mom.” On Wednesday, Hoff Sommers fired off a tweet that became widely mocked: “Dear kids: I’m a Baby Boomer. We are getting old. But at least we had sex, drugs and rock & roll. Seems like millennials have moral panics, workshops, and grievance circles. Time to rebel!”
Dear kids: I’m a Baby Boomer. We are getting old. But at least we had sex, drugs and rock & roll. Seems like millennials have moral panics, workshops, and grievance circles. Time to rebel! xxMom— Christina Sommers (@CHSommers) February 15, 2018
This tidy narrative owes its existence to selective memory. The “sex, drugs and rock & roll” elements of the 1960s and ‘70s are overrepresented in boomer-authored media — it sells better and flatters the target demographic — and this retelling seems to have gradually replaced reality for Sommers and her ideological comrades. There were plenty of young squares back then, like the 70 percent of Vietnam soldiers who enlisted of their own accord, or the 52 percent of 18-to-30 year olds who voted for Nixon in 1972. Just as classic rock radio ignores Bread’s chart-topping soft rock ballads in favor of Led Zeppelin deep tracks, baby boomers choose to omit all but the coolest aspects of their generation’s history. Who can blame them?
Nostalgic distortions aside, it is undeniable that the events of the 1960s liberalized sexual and cultural norms. The rates of premarital sex, use of contraceptives and divorce rose sharply as the average boomer reached adulthood. In a general sense, this was a movement against taboos, and its exponents were and are incredibly wary of creating new ones. The goal is to “rebel,” after all, not to build a better world. We see this reluctance to condemn any non-illegal sexual misbehavior in so many boomer writings about #MeToo. New York’s Andrew Sullivan, age 54, noted the “censorious Victorianism” of the movement and shed tears for disgraced boomers, like the journalist Mark Halperin, who rubbed his boner against subordinates, and former Sen. Al Franken, who enjoyed grabbing womens’ breasts without permission. Katie Roiphe, a boomer in a late-Gen-Xer’s body, warned in Harper’s that #MeToo and the infamous “shitty men in media” list could lead to a “totalitarian state,” despite no evidence of innocent mens’ lives being ruined by false accusations.
Millennials, who have killed nearly every industry from golf to family dining in the last ten years, have evidently moved on to ruining sex and fun.
Last month the French actress Catherine Deneuve, who continues to defend Roman Polanski, signed an open letter with 100 other French women calling the #MeToo movement a “witch hunt.” From that letter: “Instead of helping women, this frenzy to send these ‘pigs’ to the abattoir actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty – religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries.” Again, any attempt to create new sexual taboos, even when justified, is viewed as an attempt to reinstate the old ones. When young women request that men like Aziz Ansari not perform “the Claw,” which involves repeatedly thrusting one’s fingers down an unenthusiastic woman’s throat in order to lubricate her bone-dry vagina, it can only be the first step in a retreat to Victorian norms. It might even lead us to the repressive world of The Handmaid’s Tale, whose author Margaret Atwood compared the firing of a creative writing professor who sexually assaulted a student to the Salem witch trials.
The idea that millennials could ever usher in a return to premodern sexual norms, or even come close, is ludicrous. Even though younger millennials are half as likely to be sexually active in their early 20s as older generations —, a factoid featured in countless headlines — our society could not, we could not be further from puritanism, thanks to the abuses of our elders. The president of the United States of America was on tape admitting to sexually assaulting women when 52 percent of 45-and-overs voted for him. Last month, it came out that he paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star he had an affair with shortly after the birth of his youngest son. That story was in the news for all of three days. Documentation of a second affair was published earlier this month, and that disappeared even sooner. When the “grab ‘em by the pussy” scandal broke in October 2016, the Trump campaign’s move was to bring four of Bill Clinton’s accusers to a presidential debate. Those accusers were all but discounted by contemporary feminists like Gloria Steinem and Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh, who told The Washington Post in 1998 that “American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude [to Bill Clinton] for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” If any aspect of the sexual revolution can be credited solely to baby boomers, it is the impulse to raise the specter of The Scarlet Letter anytime someone suggests that a powerful man should be punished for wrongdoing.
The idea that millennials could ever usher in a return to premodern sexual norms, or even come close, is ludicrous.
It’s funny, given how often proponents of sexual libertinism have warned of impending theocracy, that they ended up on the same side as the theocrats. Jerry Falwell Jr. and the rest of the evangelicals have given Trump a pass for his misdeeds, and scarcely a Fox News viewer switched networks when Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were exposed as serial abusers. Vice President Mike Pence, who might be the single most sexually repressed man in America, appears unperturbed by his boss’s history of rape and infidelity. Sure, the Christian Right might still care about repealing Roe v. Wade, at least until it inevitably comes out that Trump forced one of his mistresses to get an abortion, but other than that, their current grievances are mostly contrived and fast food-based. With the avatar of sexual depravity in the White House, enabled by the “moral majority” which once seemed like it could reverse the innovations of the 1960s, fears that a new millennial puritanism is just around the corner are wholly unfounded. We should be so lucky.