Though I’m not normally a fan of anything New York Times, a recent book review by Michelle Goldberg helpfully brings to light the foaming mess of disillusionment that’s been simmering among the ranks of libertines. In a nutshell, (for those who want to keep their NYT count at zero), the glamour of the “sex-positivity” movement is starting to fade.
More and more people are realizing the existential damage we are incurring as a society when we try to reduce the intricate weave of sexuality to a series of one-night stands and exotic encounters. Goldberg notes, “Fewer adults have live-in partners than in recent decades, and young people, despite their apparent panoply of options, are having less sex.”
Since the sixties we’ve been told that only a total moral renovation could prevent the next generation’s death-by-a-thousand-prudes and the social hell of abstinencism. It was an ethical fire sale. Sexual norms and their associated fixtures — monogamy, fidelity, heterosexuality, and biology — all had to go.
Then reality hit.
They promised us open-concept sexuality; what we got was profound isolation and the collapse of family structures. They promised us stigma-free sex; what we got was a string of atomized encounters that left us feeling emptier than ever. The more the demented progressive fairy tale goes on, the more likely it seems that every good thing will eventually end up dead in a witch’s soup-pot.
How did this happen?
Of all lies in this world, the lie that claims that “our wants are above reproach and worthy of fulfillment” is the oldest. It was this lie that Satan first whispered to Eve from his perch in the knowledge tree. Each successive generation since that fateful encounter has spent its time between believing the lie and experiencing the kickback of its absolute deception.
This has always been the bait and switch of indulgence: if a little is a good, then a lot must be even better. The flaw in this logic was picked up expertly (if sadistically) by Roald Dahls’ Ms. Trunchbull as she forced poor Bruce Bogtrotter to eat the rest of the chocolate cake he’d helped himself to a piece of earlier. He managed it, but it nearly killed him. And that’s how it goes. No alcoholic ever found happiness at the bottom of his twelfth Budweiser; no glutton found it under his last dish of fried chicken; no collector of classic cars popped the trunk of his most recent purchase and found it snuggled next to the spare tire.
The truth is that happiness is a legitimate destination. But you don’t get there by taking the shortcut through excess.
The Bible portrays the hell-bent pursuit of pleasure not as wisdom, but as the root of all folly. Nowhere is this more evident than in Proverbs, where those who pursue immorality are likened to “a bird darting into a snare,” and where the road of immorality is “a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death.” Many “liberated” men and women are only now starting to realize just how true these truisms are.
This is what happens when we disconnect legitimate pleasure from its proper place in the matrix of responsibility.
What we need is not the recovery of a negative view of sexuality, but a reclamation of the beauty of sexuality where it functions within its proper boundaries. You don’t fix bad sexuality by making sexuality bad; you fix it by discovering what kind of sexuality God told us is good. No one can read the Song of Solomon and conclude that sex is evil. Or even a necessary evil. There really is no getting around the fact that the Bible talks about sexuality, in its proper context, as an almost inconceivable romp in pleasure.
Our problem is that we, like everything in life, tend to break whatever we touch. A friend used to call this the reverse Midas touch.
Our other problem is that we think we are better artists than God, and that the best kind of artistry happens when we unhitch ourselves from the reality God has tethered us to. What we are seeing now is that the fruit proves the root. In the wake of secularism’s advance, neither architecture, nor visual art, nor music, nor marriage, nor education, nor sex has remotely improved — rather, it has taken a deep dive into ruin.
The exact expression of that ruin where it concerns sexuality will likely run one of two ways: indulgence, or evasion. Removing all moral boundaries is the domain of the sexual positivists. As Golberg (resignedly) points out, this particular experiment caught fire long ago and, though the elites are still warming themselves by it, the test-mice have just about had enough.
In response, the evasionists (often Christians) would prefer to bury sex in seven feet of reinforced concrete and drop it into the Marianas Trench. There may be many reasons for responding this way; some more reasonable than others. What we should be able to agree on is that treating any of God’s gifts with shame, fear, or embarrassment is frankly unacceptable. I’m convinced that countless young lives and marriages hang on the brink of ruin because a well- meaning so-and-so once told them, “Oh, we don’t talk about that.”
Here we’re getting close to the age-old Colossian heresy of asceticism: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?” (Col. 2:20-21). These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Asceticism has always been the pseudo spiritual response to issues of sexuality. Feeling tempted? Better hide in a cave, emasculate yourself, or become a priest. Better yet, don’t even bring it up. (All are solutions which have worked out terribly, by the way).
The cure for the bonfires of passion are not desperate handfuls of tap water but appropriate outlet; which, unless you possess the rare gift of singleness, is sex within marriage. Write that on the nearest lintel and doorpost of your heart. The solution to bad views of sexuality is not the abolition of sex, but a robust and biblical recovery of its function within the permanence and safety of the marriage covenant.
As the world bites into the fruit of sexual license and finds it bitter, Christians must once again seek to walk the narrow road of fidelity and fullness. As C.S. Lewis states in his Four Loves, we need to “reject as intolerable the idea that [love] should be transitory.”
This is the problem. Love has been conflated with lust and together they’ve become a cheap commodity — meant to be used up and then discarded like a waiting-room Dixie cup.
The answer is not escapism, asceticism, or hedonism, but a rich and wonderful biblicism.