Scott Yenor’s “The Recovery of Family Life”: A Review
It is a good thing that Scott Yenor has tenure. In 2017, Yenor’s modest defense of parental rights against transgender ideologues earned him the censure of college dean Corey Cook, accusations of Nazism from Boise State’s ‘Director of Student Diversity and Inclusion’, and countless flyers strewn about campus reading, among other things, “You have blood on your hands Scott Yenor.”
Scott Yenor is not a Nazi, of course. Cancellations like his betray not the strength but the precarity of an institution’s reigning ideology, which must be defended via the obfuscation of more coherent alternatives. Yenor is a classically-minded scholar whose inquiries into the philosophic bases of feminism, sexual liberation, and contemporary liberalism cannot be easily dismissed. “Few pursue philosophic knowledge about the nature of marriage and family life,” Yenor acknowledges. His new book, The Recovery of Family Life, is his most accessible attempt to do so yet.
As the frontiers of contemporary sexual morality become increasingly inscrutable, an account of the shift in America’s sexual mores becomes increasingly necessary. Yenor calls this shift the rolling revolution: “the seemingly unfinishable series of changes in marriage and family life toward the realization of individual autonomy.” He traces the movement toward individual autonomy through the three pillars of this rolling revolution — feminism, sexual liberation, and contemporary liberalism — first accounting for these on their own terms, then pointing to their limits, and finally illustrating how a healthier sexual morality might be recovered in the United States.
The Recovery of Family Life’s classical mode of analysis is refreshing. Rather than mucking about in the weeds of various sex acts, Yenor examines sex and family life in the spirit of Aristotle and Tocqueville, with constant awareness of their connection to the health of both the regime and of the individuals that comprise it. Central to Yenor is the “family regime”: the totality of mores that guides our understanding of the sexual and familial relationships we deem good and desirable, and how the regime encourages such an understanding, directly or indirectly. His analysis favors complex wholes over abstract syllogisms, allowing the family to be examined in honest realism.
This is not to say that Yenor does not go into the weeds of sex; indeed, The Recovery of Family Life shines in the weeds. Willing as this is to forgo decency in order to devote five full pages to a philosophic treatment of “sexbots,” this is exactly the sort of book required to cut through the prudishness of contemporary sexual morality. Contemporary morality, after all, is really a new sort of sexual prudishness — a stringent demand that complex and diffuse human passions fit within a mathematical grid of subjective sexual identities, in ignorance of sex’s interconnectedness to other facets of life.
Like Leon Kass, The Recovery of Family Life teaches the wisdom of repugnance. Why not buy a sexbot? What is so wrong with pedophilia? Buy the book if you would like these treatments in gratuitous detail; suffice to say here that modern sexual morality’s inability to condemn what we know to be wrong, as well as its well-attested detrimental effects on human happiness, should lead us to regain an understanding of the traditional sexual morality we have left behind.
Yenor is careful not to replace one inflexible orthodoxy with another. He has no interest in the ‘culture war’ in the vulgar sense. The “essential difference between the modern and the traditional views,” Yenor writes, is that “the modernization of sex involves separating things that traditional morality joins and simplifying things that traditional morality sees as complex.” Tradition is not the ignorant, bible-thumping prescriptivism many would like to pretend it is, but a time-tested, organic response to the basic questions of human life, and it contains within itself much more diversity in response to these questions than its abstract, reductionist alternatives.
This spirited moderation in favor of tradition is the virtue of Yenor’s book, and is most apparent in his concept of sexual grooves:
“By sexual difference I mean differences grounded, directly or indirectly, in the body or physical nature of men and women and in closely related psychological attributes. Gender properly understood is the meaning and importance lent to sex difference in a particular time and place… Sex differences generally provide grooves within which gender operates.”
For a neologism, sexual grooves go quite far. (Yenor’s other neologism, womanism, does not.) It is really superior to Harvey Mansfield’s glib dismissal of “gender” as a linguistic loan-word out of place in discussions of sex. Yenor is funnier than a troll, but he is not a troll. He knows that, satisfying as they may be, indulgent take-downs of liberal ideology trap us within liberal language and lead nowhere; cultural progress demands a positive vision of politics that is true and desirable. In this case, conservatives must articulate a vision of sex and gender that recognizes and honors the great good these categories give us as well as the great variance that exists within them.
It is easy to succumb to the contemporary temptation to simplify these categories; Yenor’s book is a comprehensive account of why we should not. Its vision of sex, gender, and family life is good, moderate, and nearly unanswerable. Those with an interest in the health of American family life will profit from its defense of tradition as a moderate, freeing guardrail and its condemnation of the rolling revolution as a reckless, misguided, reductionist project. The connection between our sexual passions and a healthy family life is natural, but it does not arise naturally. Yenor does the dirty work of reclaiming this natural connection.
The problem with this book of philosophy is that it is a book of philosophy. Yenor is a theorist, and theory stays in the driver’s seat throughout The Recovery of Family Life’s 281 pages. Some material effects of the decline of family life are alluded to, such as the impoverishment of America’s poorest communities. With Tocqueville, Yenor recognizes social forms such as marriage to be “a barrier between the strong and the weak” in which those who would otherwise exercise their passions irresponsibly “are tutored to their long-term interests.” Contemporary family mores, by contrast, favor the rich at the expense of the poor — but Yenor distances himself from economics as a primary explanation for the rolling revolution’s success. For Yenor, the rolling revolution has economic consequences but is not economically motivated.
This absence of class analysis is strange given the strength of Yenor’s argument that the rolling revolution is philosophically and scientifically incoherent. Why then, we might ask, have we adopted such nonsense? We are given the impression that the theory of feminism, sexual liberation, and contemporary liberalism is misguided but that its motives are pure. This may be true for the rolling revolution’s priests and theologians, but “Who does this benefit?” would have been a cutting question with which to compliment the book, especially as it bridges into practical solutions.
Likewise, material solutions to the crisis of family life are often dismissed. “Incentives mediate through values,” Yenor writes, so “economic incentives [fail] to reach people at the level that decisions are really made.” This is true enough, but it is also true that values mediate through incentives; the recovery of family life probably must be won on both fronts. Granted, the book’s sketch of pro-family policies is less of a dossier for Hill staffers and more of a resource for conservative thought leaders. Fighting on both fronts may merely be beyond the book’s scope.
The scope and audience of The Recovery of Family Life are unclear. The book comes shrink-wrapped with stickers and a postcard; its official hashtag, #recoverfamily, has five tweets, three from its own account; its website, yenorbook.com, is complete with discussion guides as well as cute infographics and animations. Just whom is this book for? All this (quite visually appealing) marketing targets the right-wing college activist, but I am unsure that Yenor should want to keep the company of Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro, and Dennis Prager. The college culture-warrior will perhaps be disappointed to buy The Recovery of Family Life and discover a lengthy philosophic engagement with Beauvouir, and the student craving this will not think to buy it.
One gets the sense that this book wants to be a philosophy book called The Rolling Revolution — and perhaps it should be. As it stands, it is a quirky book called The Recovery of Family Life that attaches a tonally inconsistent cultural campaign to its strong theoretical core. I might just be a cynic; perhaps its marketing will draw young people to think about sex and family life more seriously. Fingers crossed!
Be that as it may, the true virtue of this book is its methodology. Those interested in restoring the mores of an ailing nation should take a page from Yenor’s playbook. Stop quibbling in the anodyne language of the new dispensation and start using the nutritive language of classical political science. Move away from the reflexive irony of indulgent take-downs and toward positive cases for healthy forms and institutions. Show that tradition is manly, moderate, and — dare I say it? — progressive, and perhaps you will win.
While I wish The Recovery of Family Life great success, it does not shake my old fear. Benefited by books like these, we and our friends will praise the beauty of the family and critique Beauvoir and Butler — God willing, we will start families of our own — but all around us, robotically, inexorably, the rolling revolution will roll on.