Criticisms from both the left and right reveal America's political problems. They also ignore key historical details.
Why Hooking Up Is Letting You Down
This is the third contribution to the Intercollegiate Review symposium “Sex and the Polis: Perspectives on Marriage, Family, and Sexual Ethics.” For more perspectives on this topic, check out our Student Voices, who weigh in on each symposium contribution.
Midnight. Shelly is getting herself drunk so that she can bring herself to go home with the strange man seated next to her at the bar. One o’clock. Steven is busy downloading pornographic images of children from internet bulletin boards. Two o’clock. Marjorie, who used to spend every Friday night in bed with a different man, has been bingeing and purging since eleven. Three o’clock. Pablo stares through the darkness at his ceiling, wondering how to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion. Four o’clock. After partying all night, Jesse takes another man home, not mentioning that he tests positive for an incurable STD. Five o’clock. Lisa is in the bathroom, cutting herself delicately but compulsively with a razor. She isn’t trying to kill herself. She doesn’t understand why she does it. She does it often.
This isn’t what my generation expected when it invented the sexual revolution. The game isn’t fun anymore. Even some of the diehard proponents of that enslaving liberation have begun to show signs of fatigue and confusion. Naomi Wolf, in her book Promiscuities, reports that when she lost her own virginity at age fifteen, there was “something important missing.” Apparently, the thing missing was the very sense that anything could be important. In her book Last Night in Paradise, Katie Roiphe poignantly wonders what could be wrong with freedom: “It’s not the absence of rules exactly, the dizzying sense that we can do whatever we want, but the sudden realization that nothing we do matters.” Desperate to find a way to make it matter, some young male homosexuals court death, deliberately seeking out men with deadly infections as partners; this is called “bug chasing.” At the opposite extreme, some of those who languish in the shadow of the revolution toy with the idea of abstinence—but an abstinence that arises less from purity or principle than from boredom, fear, and disgust. In Hollywood, of all places, it has become fashionable to talk up Buddhism, a doctrine which finds the cure for suffering in the ending of desire, and the cure for desire in annihilation.
Speaking of exhaustion, let me tell you about my students. In the ’80s, if I suggested in class that there might be any problem with sexual liberation, they said that everything was fine—what was I talking about? Now if I raise questions, many of them speak differently. They still live like libertines, sometimes they still talk like libertines, but it’s getting old. They are beginning to sound like the children of third-generation Maoists. My generation may have ordered the sexual revolution, but theirs is paying the price.
I am not speaking only of the medical price. To be sure, that price is ruinous: At the beginning of the revolution, most physicians had to worry about only two or three sexually transmitted diseases, and now it is more like two or three dozen. But I am not speaking only of broken bodies. Consider, for example, broken childhoods. What is it like for your family to break up because dad has found someone new, then to break up again because mom has? What is it like to be passed from stepparent to stepparent to stepparent? What is it like to grow up knowing that you would have had a sister, but she was aborted?
A young man remarked in one of my classes that he longed to get married and stay married to the same woman forever, but because his own parents hadn’t been able to manage it, he was afraid to get married at all. Women show signs of avoidance, too, but in a more conflicted way. According to a survey commissioned by the Independent Women’s Forum, 83 percent of college women say marriage is a very important goal for them. Yet 40 percent of them engage in “hooking up”—physical encounters (commonly oral sex) without any expectation of relationship whatsoever. Do you hear a little cognitive dissonance there? Can you think of a sexual behavior less likely to get you into marriage? The ideology of hooking up says that sex is merely release or recreation. You have some friends for friendship and you have other friends just for hooking up—they’re called “friends with benefits.” What your body does is unrelated to your heart. Don’t believe it. The same survey reports that hooking up commonly takes place when both participants are drinking or drunk, and it’s not hard to guess the reason why: After a certain amount of this, you may need to get drunk to go through with it.
The fact is that we aren’t designed for hooking up. Our hearts and bodies are designed to work together. Truly, don’t we already know that? A writer who interviewed teenagers who hook up supplies a telling anecdote. The girl Melissa tells him, “I have my friends for my emotional needs, so I don’t need that from the guy I’m having sex with.” Yet on the day of the interview, “Melissa was in a foul mood. Her ‘friend with benefits’ had just broken up with her. ‘How is that even possible?’ she said, sitting, shoulders slumped, in a booth at a diner. ‘The point of having a friend with benefits is that you won’t get broken up with, you won’t get hurt.’ ”
But let there be no mistake: When I say we aren’t designed for this sort of thing, I’m not just speaking for females. A woman may be more likely to cry the next morning; it’s not so easy to sleep with a man who won’t even call you back. But a man pays a price, too. He probably thinks he can instrumentalize his relationships with women in general yet remain capable of romantic intimacy when the right woman comes along. Sorry, fellow. That’s not how it works. Sex is like applying adhesive tape; promiscuity is like ripping the tape off again. If you rip it off, rip it off, rip it off, eventually the tape can’t stick anymore.
The ruin of the adhesive probably contributes to an even wider social problem that might be called the Peter Pan syndrome. Men in their forties with children in their twenties talk like boys in their teens. “I still don’t feel like a grown up,” they say. They don’t even call themselves men—just “guys.”
What Are the Sexual Powers For?
We human beings really do have a design, and I mean that term in the broadest sense: not merely mechanical design (this part goes here, this part goes there) but also what kind of being we are. Because the design is not merely biological but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, the languages of natural law, natural design, natural meanings, and natural purposes are intertranslatable, and most of the time interchangeable. Some ways of living comport with our design. Others don’t.
The problem with twenty-first-century Western sexuality is that it flouts the embedded principles and the inbuilt meanings of the human sexual design.
What, then, are the meanings and purposes embedded in the human sexual design, and how do they harmonize? Put more simply, what are the sexual powers for?
One of the natural meanings and purposes of the sexual powers is procreation—the bringing about and nurture of new life, the formation of families in which children have moms and dads. The other is union—the mutual and total self-giving and accepting of two polar, complementary selves in their entirety, soul and body. These two meanings are so tightly stitched that we can start with either one and follow the threads to the other.
But why these purposes? Why not say that the meaning and purpose of the sexual powers is pleasure? Certainly sex is pleasurable, but there is nothing distinctive about that. Consider an analogy between sex and eating. The purpose of eating is to take in nutrition, but eating is pleasurable, so suppose that we were to say that the purpose of eating is pleasure, too. Then it would seem that any way of eating that gives pleasure is good, whether it is suitable for nutrition or not. Certain ancient Romans are said to have thought this way. To prolong the pleasure of their feasts, they purged between courses. I hope it is not difficult to recognize that such behavior is disordered.
Although we find pleasure in exercising our sexual powers, pleasure is not their purpose; it only provides a motive for using these powers, and a dangerous one, too, which may at times conflict with their true purposes and steer us wrong. Besides, to think of pleasure as the purpose of intercourse is to treat our bodies merely as tools for sending agreeable sensations to our minds. They are of inestimably greater dignity than that, for they are part of what we are.
Real Sex Ed
Begin with procreation. Two conditions must be satisfied before one can say that the purpose of anything (call it P) is to bring about something else (call it Q), and procreation satisfies both of them. First, it must be the case that P actually does bring about Q, and the sexual powers do bring about procreation. Second, the causal connection of P with Q must be part of the explanation of why we have P in the first place. Procreation satisfies this condition, too; apart from the link between the sexual powers and new life, any explanation of why we have sexual powers at all would be woefully incomplete. I think even the most ardent Darwinist would concede this point.
If the procreative meaning of sex is granted, the unitive meaning follows. We aren’t designed like guppies, who cooperate only for a moment. For us, procreation requires an enduring partnership between two beings, the man and the woman, who are different, but in ways that enable them to complete and balance each other. Union, then, characterizes the distinctly human mode of procreation. A parent of each sex is necessary to make the child, to raise the child, and to teach the child. Both are needed to make him, because the female provides the egg, the male fertilizes it, and the female incubates the resulting zygote. Both are needed to raise him, because the male is better suited to protection, the female to nurture. Both are needed to teach him, because he needs a model of his own sex, a model of the other, and a model of the relationship between them. Mom and dad are jointly irreplaceable. Their partnership in procreation continues even after the kids are grown, because the kids need the help and counsel of their parents to establish their own new families.
Mutual and total self-giving, strong feelings of attachment, intense pleasure, and the procreation of new life are linked by human nature in a single complex of meanings and purpose. For this reason, if we try to split them apart, we split ourselves. Failure to grasp this fact is more ruinous to our lives, and more difficult to correct, than any amount of ignorance about genital warts. It ought to be taught, but it isn’t.
The problem is that we don’t want to believe that these things are really joined; we don’t want the package deal that they represent. We want to transcend our own nature, like gods. We want to pick and choose among the elements of our sexual design, enjoying just the pieces that we want and not the others. Some people pick and choose one element, others pick and choose another, but they share the illusion that they can pick and choose. Sometimes such picking and choosing is called “having it all.” That is precisely what it isn’t. A more apt description would be refusing it all—insisting on having just a part—and in the end, not even getting that.
Your Mother Was Right
These meanings, purposes, and principles are the real reason for the commands and prohibitions contained in traditional sexual morality. Honor your parents. Care for your children. Save sex for marriage. Make marriage fruitful. Be faithful to your spouse.
Let the sexual revolution bury the sexual revolution. Having finished revolving, we arrive back where we started. What your mother—no, what your grandmother—no, what your great grandmother—told you was right all along. These are the natural laws of sex.
J. Budziszewski is the author of On the Meaning of Sex (ISI Books), from which this essay is adapted. He is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. His new website is The Underground Thomist.
Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For
Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.
Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles
Join the ISI community. Membership is free.