Book Review: Primal Screams - How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

The latest issue of Affinity's Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download (as are all previous editions). In one of the current articles Norman Wells looks at a recent work by Mary Eberstadt, of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC:

Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, Mary Eberstadt,
Templeton Press, hb, 179pp, (2019), £15.64 (Amazon)

The precise origin of the term “identity politics” is uncertain, but there is general agreement that it has been in use for some 50 years or more. Nevertheless, it has come to the fore both in terms of an expression and a concept in more recent years. Variously defined, Douglas Murray has helpfully described the effect of identity politics in the following terms:

It atomizes society into different interest groups according to sex (or gender), race, sexual preference and more. It presumes that such characteristics are the main, or only, relevant attributes of their holders and that they bring with them some added bonus. For example (as the American writer Coleman Hughes has put it), the assumption that there is “a heightened moral knowledge” that comes from being black or female or gay. It is the cause of the propensity of people to start questions or statements with “Speaking as a...”.[1]

In Primal Screams, Mary Eberstadt, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC, observes that sexual identity, racial identity and ethnic identity have become essential to the politics of the left, but in addressing the issue she hopes to engage people across the political and cultural spectrum.

“The Great Scattering”

Her starting point is that “the modern clamour over identity cannot be understood without grasping the massive, radical and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations” (p.9) incurred by the human race in the West since the 1960s. The unprecedented degree of familial dispersion witnessed over the past six decades is dubbed “the Great Scattering” and attributed to the sexual revolution.

Dr Eberstadt argues that the de-stigmatisation of nonmarital sex in all its varieties and the sharp rise in behaviours that were previously rare and/or stigmatised have brought destruction on humanity. In making this assertion she stresses that she is not concerned with the choices that individuals make about how to lead their lives, but rather with the collective environmental impact of millions of such choices taken over the course of many years.

As a result of the sexual revolution, increasingly people no longer define themselves and their purpose with reference to their immediate family, extended family or real-life larger communities. Radical individualism is marked by an unparalleled atomisation and estrangement from family members, leading to a breakdown of social learning which is one of the family’s primary functions. Eberstadt remarks on the irony that “the most sexually practised generation of humanity may also be the most sexually illiterate” (p.11). She represents the current clamour over identity as an authentic “scream” for answers to questions of belonging – hence the title of the book. Her primary argument is that such unrest did not spring from nowhere, but is the product of family liquidation.

In asking what the current non-stop obsession with identity is telling us about ourselves, our society and our civilisation, Dr Eberstadt is careful to emphasise that post-1960 levels of fatherlessness, divorce, shrinking families and abortion are not the only phenomena propelling identity politics and acknowledges that real crimes and injustices have been committed against sexual, racial and other minorities. However, she maintains that: “The fact that racism and sexism exist does not make the crackup of the Western family any less integral to the post-1960s human story.” (p.15)

The familial dimension

The opening chapter of Primal Screams offers an overview of the debate surrounding identity politics to date. Eberstadt cites the American historian, social critic and public intellectual Arthur M Schlesinger, who in his bestselling book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, wrote: “The more people feel themselves adrift in a vast, impersonal, anonymous sea, the more desperately they swim toward any familiar, intelligible, protective life-raft; the more they crave a politics of identity.” (p.22) Various attempts have been made to identify the root cause(s) of identity politics, but in this book Mary Eberstadt focuses on the familial dimension which has hitherto been largely overlooked by social commentators.

In Chapter 2, Dr Eberstadt advances “A New Theory: The Great Scattering”. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, most children and young people grew up with the general expectation that they would marry and have a family, and that their immediate and extended family would remain their primary community. However, “the post-1960s order of sexual consumerism has upended every one of these expectations” (p.38). Erotic leanings and ethnic claims have now become substitute answers to the question, “Who am I?”

As a result of the sexual revolution, more and more people in the West are living in an unnaturally detached way. There is a direct link between recreational sex and the loneliness of the elderly. Eberstadt writes:

Not only have divorce and cohabitation loosened the gravitational pull of family; simultaneously contraception and abortion have also shrunk the nucleus further. The result is a new generation of elderly, some of whom reach the end of their years not only sans teeth and sight, but sans spouse, sans children and grandchildren... [S]ubstantial numbers of older people now hail from small, broken, isolated and distant families. (p.55)

She therefore concludes that, “the diminution and rupture of the human family and the rise of identity politics are not only happening at the same time”, but “[t]hey cannot be understood apart from one another” (p.61). Having advanced her basic thesis, Dr Eberstadt presents the supporting evidence in four brief chapters.

Survival strategies

In Chapter 3 (Understanding the “Mine!” in Identity Politics), she observes that “some people, deprived of recognition in the traditional ways [i.e. within the family], will regress to a state in which their demand for recognition becomes ever more insistent and childlike”, leading to an “infantilised expression and vernacular” (p.64). This “chronic regression to preadolescent language and behaviour” testifies to the “prerational origins” of identity politics (p.69).

Chapter 4 (Feminism as Survival Strategy) focuses on the vulnerability of women as a result of the sexual revolution and the way in which identity politics amounts to a survival strategy within that context. Dr Eberstadt writes:

The sexual revolution reduced the number of men who could be counted on to serve as protectors... Broken homes put father figures at arm’s length, at times severing that parental bond for good. The ethos of recreational sex blurred the line between protector and predator, making it harder for many women to tell the difference. Simultaneously, the decline of the family has reduced the number of men offering affection and companionship of a nonsexual nature – fewer brothers, cousins, uncles, and others who could once have been counted on. Also simultaneously, the overabundance of available sexual partners has made it harder to get the attention of any one of them...

[W]omen, for all their empowerment on other fronts, are also now more vulnerable than before, thanks to the changes wrought by the very revolution that feminism embraces... Many women are now exactly what feminist identitarians say they are: victims – only not in the way that feminism understands. (pp.74-76)

In Chapter 5 (Androgyny as Survival Strategy) the focus moves to the way in which “the Great Scattering has increased pressure to gravitate away from the traditionally masculine and feminine and instead toward a more ambiguous, androgynous mean” (p.82). Eberstadt argues that “the new androgyny” which pervades Western culture is driven by the collapse of family and community. She writes of:

…a cultural incentive system that has increased the rewards for women to behave in stereotypically male ways and reduced the social approbation for those who would persist in traditional female ways – marrying, raising a family of size, devoting time and talent to what used to be called domestic arts, volunteering, and otherwise contributing to the world apart from the paid marketplace. (pp.84-85)

“The collective human howl of our time”

Finally, Chapter 6 (How #MeToo Reveals the Breakdown of Social Learning) reflects on how many women have been socialised ideologically to believe that they do not need any protection at all – from a father, husband, brother, or any other male relative. Dr Eberstadt writes:

In sum, #MeToo suggests that the world after the sexual revolution is one in which many women, thanks to family shrinkage and breakup, have fewer ties to men who are not potential predators; in which many men, thanks to the same forces, have little or no intimate but nonsexual knowledge of the opposite sex, and unsound sexual tutelage in the form of pornography; in which fundamental truths about disparities of size and strength are denied for ideological reasons; and in which the question of romantic identity for many is confounded by all of the above. (pp.100-101)

She concludes that the hysteria of identity politics is nothing more or less than “the collective human howl of our time, sent up by inescapably communal creatures trying desperately to identify their own” (p.109).

As the short commentaries from Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla and Peter Thiel which form Part Two of the book indicate, not all will be convinced by Mary Eberstadt’s thesis at every point. Nevertheless, there can be no question that Primal Screams makes an incisive contribution to a contemporary phenomenon and highlights the far-reaching and adverse impact of the sexual revolution. As such, it provides sobering food for thought to contemporary evangelicals among others, since we too need to take care that we do not inadvertently imbibe the spirit of the age and lose sight of the importance of family identity both in Scripture and experience.

Norman Wells is a graduate of the London Seminary and has served as director of the Family Education Trust since 2004. He is also a director of the Coalition for Marriage.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for February 2020. The whole edition can be found at

[1] Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019, 3.


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