All ages imagine themselves more enlightened—and at the same time, no doubt, more depraved—than their predecessors. Accordingly, we tend to exaggerate the moral distance between ourselves and the Victorians. The nineteenth century seems particularly remote to us in matters relating to sex. Since the turn of the century, the Western world is supposed to have undergone a "sexual revolution" which, for better or worse, irreversibly altered the way in which the relations between men and women were perceived. The "puritanism" of our ancestors, we suppose, gave way to sexual freedom—depravity, if you like—and the evidence for this proposition seemingly lies all about us: bikinis on the beach and skirts above the knee; obscenity on stage and screen; increasing license among adolescents; and, inevitably, in such a list, the "rising tide of divorce," as it used to be called. The fact that divorce is no longer novel or shocking merely testifies further, presumably, to the decay of the old order, the attitudes and institutions of an earlier time, which now evoke mingled nostalgia and contempt.
Divorce no longer shocks, but it is still a public issue, largely because the recent liberalization of the New York law (which previously limited grounds of divorce to adultery but which now makes a two-year separation additional grounds for divorce), together with the agitation preceding this change, focused attention once again on the absurdity of the divorce laws not only of New York but of most of the other states. But if divorce remains a political and a legal issue, it has not yet become an issue for sustained historical reflection. Studies abound, but practically all of them take for granted that the growing divorce trend is part of the "sexual revolution"; a symptom, therefore, of the decay of the family and of the whole complex of assumptions with which the old-fashioned family was bound up. It is precisely this premise, however, that needs to be re examined if we are to understand not only divorce and marriage but a whole series of related questions, which although they are not public questions in the conventional sense have an important bearing on the collective as well as the private lives of Americans. It is quite possible that easier divorce, far from threatening the family, has actually helped to preserve it as a dominant institution of modern society.