Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
Retaking Sex Ed
Rethinking Sex: A Provocation
By Christine Emba
A few months before I was scheduled to depart for what would be my first tour in Afghanistan in 2009, my friend J.P. offered me a warning. “You’re going to be tempted to try and sleep with your girlfriend,” he cautioned me. “But don’t do it. It will only make things worse for you and her.”
Unlike myself—I had reached my mid-twenties relatively unscathed from social pressures to participate in the hyper-sexualized American youth culture—J.P. had done a lot of things he regretted. Consensual, casual sex that seemed harmless had left its scars. I took his advice.
Washington Post columnist Christine Emba has talked to many millennials and Gen Z’ers who have similar regrets about their sexual history. Though we live in an era when sex is supposed to be free, open, and endlessly thrilling, in Rethinking Sex Emba argues that American youth’s libertine lifestyle has let millions of them down, leaving a generation lonely, lost, and hurting. Perhaps, posits Emba, we require a more robust framework for understanding sex than simply consent, which in our Tinder and Grindr age is often given in the most casual and anonymous of circumstances. Unfortunately, her diagnosis is more coherent and perceptive than her prescription.
The sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us from the confining strictures of traditionalist morality. The prioritization of consent as the defining (and often sole) requirement for sexual encounters encouraged Americans to approach sex with a certain degree of detachment. You don’t need to love or even intimately know your sexual partner if the act is simply another extension of sensual appetite, akin to having a good meal or witnessing a beautiful sunset.
This paradigm has fostered some strange contradictions. We’re told that sex, and particularly great sex that is tailored to our unique personal fetishes, is the height of human pleasure. We’re also told that sex can be committment-free and more-or-less anonymous—it is just a biological function universal among mammals, after all. These two narratives exist in obvious tension: is sex an interpersonal encounter that should be reserved for the person with whom we share the deepest, most intimate relationship, or an emotionless, impersonal activity we are subjected to by nature?
That tension manifests itself in all kinds of bizarre and troubling ways. Men, often influenced by aggressive, violent, and deviant behavior they witness in online pornography, objectify and dehumanize their female sexual partners. Women sometimes go along with this because of social pressure or loneliness. Other times they accuse such men of harassment or assault. Or they choose to forego sex altogether. As for men, afraid of being churned through by the #MeToo machine, many of them are now “paralyzed with fear,” as one therapist told Emba.
Herein lies the paradox: despite the fact that our culture remains obsessed with sex, younger Americans are having less of it, especially casual sex. And fewer Americans are getting married—Emba notes that in less than twenty years, the proportion of never-married Americans rose from 21 percent to 35 percent, and the marriage rate among young Americans is in serious decline. “What we strive for as ‘freedom’ is the freedom to be people open to anything except connection: consenting and uncomplaining,” she writes.
Part of the problem, Emba argues, is that despite our best efforts we can never be emotionally detached in sex. Our sexuality will always be indelibly wrapped up in our affections. “Everyone wants love of some kind, but no one wants to admit it,” she writes. When we attempt sex absent those emotions, the inevitable result is disappointment, disillusionment, and loneliness. Much of our art, be it television, movies, or literature, reminds us of this.
Moreover, modernity’s attempts to minimize if not eliminate differences between the sexes has proven unrealistic. By virtue of their biology and capacity to bear children, women remain the vulnerable party in any sexual encounter. Emba, though a left-leaning feminist, is willing to acknowledge the obvious: men are on average larger and stronger than women, and the heterosexual act by its very nature is one in which the male is the aggressor. If things do not go according to plan, it is women who bear the burden of making the most important decision: to carry or abort, either via chemicals or an invasive medical procedure, the growing child in the womb.
It has also proven difficult to excise meaning from sex. Though our culture emphasizes its casual character, we know sex is serious, as Emba notes by citing a broad ecumenical agreement among religious traditions about the spiritual nature of sex. Even when our songs, our literature, and our movies treat sex casually, they have difficulty disconnecting it from romance, love, and relational faithfulness. If passionate lovers check their watches or field a phone call, we know something has gone awry.
Finally, sex is in certain senses unavoidedly public. “Far from being in a self-contained bubble,” writes Emba, “we are enacting communal dynamics and relationships when we have sex; our individual desires are often channeled through and into an existing set of cultural modes.” Our sexual behaviors tend to reinforce certain social narratives we have learned from and exist within. Our culture treats sex as an extension of the atomized, individualist market in which we can make private decisions about goods, but we neglect to understand that the “goods” we choose are our neighbors and fellow citizens, whose lives wil be altered by how we treat them.
Given these realities, how must we change our understanding of sex? For starters, Emba suggests that we must acknowledge that some sexual desires (and by extension some acts) are worse than others. She notes the increased prevalence of choking and anal penetration, almost certainly a result of the dramatic increase in consumption of pornography over the last couple of decades. Pornography and its normalization of once obscure sexual behaviors has encouraged the objectfication of persons, whose bodies become little more than impersonal playgrounds. “Certain sexual acts can have lasting psychological impacts; they can be affront to our human dignity; they can also be symptomatic of issues that might be better dealth with outside the bedroom,” Emba writes.
Thus we need a new sexual ethic that acknowledges the ineradicable realities of human persons and rejects what instrumentalizes and dehumanizes them. Emba cites Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as promoting an understanding of love as “willing the good of the other.” This, she says, requires “treating others as you would like to be treated in their position.” It also demands demonstrating an ability to “consider how your actions (and the consequences thereof) might affect them,” and “a certain level of maturity and self-knowledge.”
In other words, people should stop having sex unless they possess some level of deeper affection for one another, a more profound connection. She cites something called “Project Celibacy,” which exhorts people to avoid sex unless it is with someone “with whom there is a path to a long-term relationship.” Emba herself is seeking to put this into practice. She writes: “In my most recent relationships, I’ve taken some time before having sex. That decision is made not out of repression or fear: it’s because I think that sex is meaningful.”
Does anyone get the impression that we’ve been here before? Speaking as a product of Virginia’s public school system, what Emba is preaching is exactly what I heard from teachers and coaches in the 1990s. Though I, like Emba, was raised evangelical, many of my friends who attended mainline (liberal) Protestant denominations heard much the same. Readers who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, tell me if this sounds familiar: sex is something very special, and it should only be done with someone very special, who you really care about, who really cares about you, and with whom there is a strong sense of trust. Sex can be pleasurable, but it also should be respectful, loving, and consensual, we were taught.
According to Emba, the solution is simply to turn back the clock a few decades to a time that viewed sex less impersonally and more meaningfully. Kids could have their fun, but it was still supposed to mean something, whether it was “playin’ a new game… behind the stadium,” as Van Morrison crooned, or sleeping with that serious boyfriend or girlfriend that you were thinking you might someday marry. Indeed, you might even be living with that sexual partner—isn’t that emblematic of commitment?
Well, no, it’s not. And this was the problem with the “sex outside marriage is OK as long as it is consensual and means something” mantra preached to children of my generation. “Meaning something,” as we discovered, could be interpreted pretty broadly. Sometimes it meant engaging in monogamous sex with someone you lived with and might someday marry; sometimes it meant sleeping with someone with whom you made a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime connection at the bar earlier that night. Either way, the meaning attached to such sex was always ultimately emotive, even if dressed up in the language of responsibility, beauty, and love.
Emba’s solution is likewise emotive, and thus represents little more than an extension of the long adolescence of her generation. We want to act like and be treated like adults—exemplified perhaps most saliently in the casual and vulgar way that Emba and those she interviews describe sex—but we engage in immature, irresponsible behavior. For what can be more irresponsible than having sex, the only procreative act and one unparallaled among natural human behaviors in its unitive function, with someone to whom you are not married?
Throughout the book Emba and her interviewees describe a moment of metanoia, in which they realize perhaps they have erred, that perhaps their elders were on to something. Ancient traditions and mores about sex, they begin to realize, might have had some wisdom to communicate to us in the present. Yet they haven’t actually absorbed that wisdom.
Like myself, Emba is an evangelical convert to Catholicism. I find it hard to believe no one has told her that Catholic teaching expressly prohibits sex outside of marriage—indeed, it is mortally sinful. According to ancient Catholic catechesis, there can be no mature, responsible sex outside marriage. Sexual ethics isn’t simply about choosing the good for the other but obeying natural law and divine revelation. This considerably circumscribes condoned sexual behavior.
For this reason, Emba’s solutions for our contemporary sexual ills are decidedly milquetoast. We need more than a return to the pablum I was given in public school sex-ed class—we need intellectually and morally robust understanding of sex found in, for example, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Sex, the Polish pope taught, is about gift and self-gift: the giving of oneself, entirely and unreservedly, to another, and receiving the same from the other person (who must be, contra Emba, of the other sex). And if we are giving the entirety of ourselves to another in the most intimate of human acts, it must be reserved for marriage, especially given that the natural result of such acts is the creation of new life, a child who will need a mother and a father who made a solemn, public vow to one another.
Rethinking Sex offers us not this substantive, redemptive vision of sexuality but the same clinical, therapeutic, utilitarian understanding of sex that got us into this mess in the first place. The paradigm that prioritizes empathy and not solemn commitment to our sexual partner has already failed us and has resulted in more than one generation of Americans faced with bleak, morally compromised options for children (like in vitro fertilization and surrogacy) as they enter their 30s and 40s. For all the scandalizing, profane bluster of Emba and her friends’ sexual exploits, they apparently still have quite a bit of growing up to do. And not very much time to do it.
Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a contributing editor at The New Oxford Review.
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