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The Triumph of the Sexual Revolution Seems Stunningly Swift. But Its Roots Go Back Centuries.

“I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Only a generation ago, few Americans would have regarded this statement as coherent and believable. Yet today, someone who comes out as transgender can earn cultural cachet, while those who question the new orthodoxy are increasingly branded as bigots or worse. This shift in cultural attitudes is only the latest triumph of the sexual revolution that has radically reshaped sexual categories and behaviors over the past several decades in America. Yet the roots of this revolution go back much further.

When determining why revolutions happen, social scientists often distinguish between three types of causes: preconditions, precipitants, and triggers. Preconditions are the long-term structural factors that make revolution possible. Precipitants are the short-term events that combine with these structures to make revolution plausible. Finally, triggers are the immediate catalysts—the sparks that ignite and make revolution actual.

The sexual revolution and its triumphs result from a similar mix of immediate, short-term, and long-term causes. Yet cultural commentators tend to focus only on triggers, acting like police officers or insurance adjusters who arrive at the scene of an accident to determine the extent of the damage or who’s at fault. These roles are important, but they only scratch the surface of how the church should respond to the sexual revolution.

A more holistic response requires a more holistic understanding that can only be achieved by sorting out the long-term structural causes of the revolution from its short-term and immediate causes. This sorting is precisely what theologian and historian Carl Trueman aims to do in his latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.

Trueman’s basic contention is this: The sexual revolution is a symptom rather than the cause of efforts to redefine human identity. Centuries before the nation swooned when Bruce Jenner debuted as Caitlyn, for example, intellectual shifts were taking place that would make a cultural event like this possible. What Trueman offers is the story of those shifts.

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