The old Judeo-Christian sexual standards first came under attack at the end of the Middle Ages. The renaissance of Greek and Roman thought, the change from a feudalistic to a capitalistic economy, technological innovations, the beginning exploration of the globe, the growth of commerce, and the birth of modern science encouraged people to become independent and to question many formerly sacred beliefs. Moreover, as a result of the Protestant Reformation, the old religious unity and certainty disappeared. An increasing number of new Christian sects offered their own interpretation of God's will, and while most of them still agreed on questions of sexual ethics, their quarrels in other areas could not but undermine their overall influence. At any rate, eventually they came to differ even in matters of sex and then quoted the same Bible in support of very dissimilar or even mutually exclusive positions. Under the circumstances, many men and women turned away from the churches and sought moral guidance elsewhere. Values that had been considered absolute, slowly became relative in a general process of secularization.
The ''Contraceptive Revolution"
As modern research led to a better understanding of the human sexual and reproductive functions, the conscious control of reproduction became much easier than it had been before. Sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century, condoms made of animal intestines became more widely available. (There are still conflicting theories about the exact origin of the condom. For all we know, in one form or another it may already have teen used in ancient times.) At first, these condoms were probably used mainly as a protection against venereal disease, but their contraceptive value did not go unappreciated for long. Finally, in the 19th century, the mass production of rubber condoms became possible and encouraged an ever-growing number of people to practice contraception. Gradually, other efficient methods were added, such as the diaphragm in the 1880s, the IUD in the 1930s, and the "pill" in the 1950s, resulting in a wide range of contraceptive choices. At the same time, private and public organizations developed which tried to make these choices available to the public. In most countries today, men and women can easily prevent pregnancies if they so choose.
The "Population Explosion"
The invention of reliable contraceptives and the increasing willingness to use them gave the human race as a whole some reason for hope, as it rather suddenly found itself confronted with a new problem; the threat of overpopulation.
Actually, this problem had already been perceived at the end of the 18th century by Thomas R. Malthus, but when, in the following decades, the population growth of some European countries failed to keep up with the demands of industrialization, religious and political authorities dismissed Malthus' warnings and even actively encouraged higher birth rates. In the meantime, however, the truth has reasserted itself with a vengeance: The population growth on this planet has become explosive and is about to outstrip the available resources.
It is estimated that the human species has existed for at least three million years, yet as recently as three centuries ago it numbered only about 500 million individuals (i.e. a little more than twice the present population of the United States). However, by 1850, only two centuries later, the number had doubled to 1 billion, and by 1930 it had doubled again to 2 billion. Only thirty years later, in 1960, the number had reached 3 billion, and only fifteen years later, in 1975, the world population had grown to 4 billion. This means, among other things, that of all human beings who have ever lived, about 25% or one quarter are alive today. It also means that if the present trend continues, the number of people will double again in only 35 years and then reach the staggering figure of 8 billion. (See chart on p. 89)
Without going into details about the causes and consequences of this development, there is no doubt that it forces us to reexamine the reproductive bias of our traditional morality. There is no escape: If men and women continue to "increase and multiply" to their fullest capacity, they will soon render life on this earth intolerable or even impossible. If, on the other hand, they want to reduce the present high birth rates to a defensible level, they have to divorce their sexual behavior from the purpose of procreation. The complete sexual abstinence of billions of people cannot be considered a realistic alternative.
The Struggle for Individual Rights
The movement toward human self-determination, which began at the end of the Middle Ages, has, in the meantime, led to profound social and political changes. First religious reformers, then scientists and philosophers, and finally ordinary citizens emancipated themselves from absolutistic rule. Popes and kings were openly defied, as a desire for "enlightenment" prompted everyone to use his own powers of reason and to question all established authority. Individualism, equality, and independence were the new ideals, and in order to accommodate them, democratic forms of government were established in the United States and Europe.
The "enlightened" autonomous individual claimed that he had "natural human rights", and that among these were the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He also demanded freedom of religious belief and the right to speak, read, or print anything he desired. However, it soon became clear that there was nothing "natural" about any of these rights. On the contrary, they could result only from conscious human struggle. They were not really "nature's gift", but mankind's achievement. They had to be fought for, and once they were won, they had to be guarded, because they were easily lost. Furthermore, at first the new freedom was granted only to male members of the white middle and upper classes—women, slaves, the poor, and certain ethnic minorities were excluded to various degrees. It was only when these oppressed groups began their own civil rights struggle that they gained some measure of autonomy.
Today the struggle for individual rights continues and is, in fact, growing both wider and more intense. In the United States, women, blacks, and other ethnic groups still do not feel that all discrimination against them has ended and that some "affirmative action" on their behalf is required. Not only that —their demands are now being echoed by other, formerly silent minorities, such as the aging, the young, single adults, homosexuals, the handicapped, inmates in mental hospitals, and others. Each of these minorities has its own axe to grind, but in the present context we can point to one complaint which they have in common: For a very long time, they have all been victims of sexual oppression. (See "The Sexually Oppressed.")
However, today the sexually oppressed are no longer content with their lot, but demand the same freedom as everyone else. They are no longer apologetic about their desires and refuse to accept the status to which they have so long been assigned. By the same token, those who want to continue the present oppression now find that they must explain and justify their policies, and this is increasingly difficult, since they mostly reflect religious dogmas and do not have a rational basis. Under the circumstances, we can hope that the struggle for sexual liberation will succeed. It is part of the general struggle for the extension of individual rights and thus represents an exciting and constructive movement toward a society that is more open, more just and more free. After all, by granting more rights to more people, we do not abolish all moral, legal, and political authority; we merely make it more democratic. (See also "The Social Roles of Men and Women - The Emancipation of Women".