The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

How Global Elites Deconstructed the Family

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

In our last issue, Ryan C. MacPherson noted how the elite American Law Institute (ALI) worked quietly behind the scenes to remove most forms of sexual behavior from the purview of public policy on the assumption that such activity is a private matter with no public or social consequences. Consequently, nearly all sexual acts between consenting adults have been decriminalized in the United States. But that development is not unique to this country. As a team of sociologists led by David John Frank at the University of California–Irvine document, elite intergovernmental and international nongovernment organizations (IGOs and INGOs) have achieved on a global scale all that the ALI achieved domestically, “dispersing,” in their words, “the seeds of the sexual revolution.”

Writing in the American Sociological Review, the three American researchers explore a “reconstitution of world models of society” since Word War Two, one they claim has “escaped systematic analysis,” which replaced the former model that upheld social or collective entities with a new “individualization” construct. As they explain: “Individualization disembedded persons from families, nations, and other corporate bodies, and it re-rendered them as autonomous, empowered actors, recasting the imagined foundations of society.” Rendering individuals “as essentially equal across collective boundaries”—what some might call the gnostic understanding of society—demanded, in the researchers’ words,  a “global reconception of sex—away from a procreative activity linked to collective and moral orders and toward an expressive activity linked to individual selves.”

To document this seismic shift, the researchers created longitudinal compilations of penal-code records representing 194 nations between 1945 and 2005. Then they examined changes (or reforms) to criminal regulations in each country over sixty years of four specific behaviors: rape, adultery, sodomy, and child sexual abuse.

Their exploratory analysis revealed—and quantitative analyses subsequently confirmed—a global pattern that very few countries escaped: while acts of sodomy and adultery were increasingly decriminalized, acts of rape and child-sex abuse were increasingly criminalized. They write, “We see that 34 of 50 adultery revisions . . . and 83 of 102 sodomy revisions . . . contracted the law’s scope, while 119 of 140 child-sexual-abuse amendments . . . and 120 of 123 rape-law amendments expanded the law’s scope.” The relatively lower number of changes to adultery and sodomy statutes, the authors note, reflect the fact that adultery was adjudicated by ecclesiastical courts in the British Commonwealth and that Napoleonic Code countries—following the French penal code since the late eighteenth century—did not have sodomy laws. The countries within the English, French, and Spanish colonial orbit simply had fewer statutes to change.

Frank and his team claim this loosening of laws regulating adultery and sodomy but tightening of laws regulating rape and child sex abuse perfectly embody the new world model of society that exalts the individual. Because adultery and sodomy proscriptions protected the family and reinforced procreation, they needed to be contracted; as rape and child sex abuse laws protected individuals, they needed to be expanded because such actions violated the new cardinal rule: consent. At the same time, sexual intercourse between husband and wife lost its primacy, the researchers note, while “all kinds of formerly stigmatized activities came to count as sex.”

Among the key findings of the study: the new world order did not develop naturally or indigenously from the ground up. No, the sociologists emphasize that their documented legal shifts proliferated with the rise of elite-run IGOs and INGOs, entities that “constituted a global imagined community.” “Precisely because they cultivated postures of disinterested expertise,” they note, “IGOs and INGOs offered uniquely effective mechanisms for distributing legal templates to the whole population of nation states.” Indeed, negative-binominal regression analyses found that linkages to INGOs (what the researchers call “world society”) accelerated a country’s rate of criminal sex-law transformation. Each of the correlations between a country’s INGO ties and the four sex-law changes was statistically significant (p<0.05 for contracting sodomy and adultery laws; p<.0.01 for expanding rape and child sex abuse laws.)

Frank and his colleagues neither lament nor laud the dismantling of worldwide protections of monogamy, marriage, and the family in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet their comprehensive study offers an indispensable account to the entrenched global groupthink that pro-family organizations like the World Congress of Families and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute find themselves up against.

(David John Frank, Bayliss J. Camp, and Steven A. Boucher, “Worldwide Trends in the Criminal Regulation of Sex, 1945 to 2005,” American Sociological Review 75.6 [December 2010]: 867-93.)