Perusing various magazines and news sites in recent months, I’ve noticed a growing number of commentators who recommend we reexamine our society’s norms surrounding sexuality. Casual sexual encounters bring more misery than happiness, they say, and “consent” isn’t a high enough standard to bring about sexual fulfillment and freedom.
The Problem of Being Cool About Sex
Consider an article from Helen Lewis in the Atlantic last year, “The Problem with Being Cool about Sex.” Lewis claims that the new generation of feminists hasn’t reconciled “what we should want with what we do want.”
Pornography has saturated the lives of young people and colored an entire generation’s expectations of what sex should be. “If two or more adults consent to it, whatever it is, no one else is entitled to an opinion,” or so goes the commonsense thinking about sexual encounters. The problem, Lewis writes, is that the sexual revolution’s promises haven’t panned out.
“Our enlightened values—less stigma regarding unwed mothers, the acceptance of homosexuality, greater economic freedom for women, the availability of contraception, and the embrace of consent culture—haven’t translated into anything like a paradise of guilt-free fun.”
The sexual revolution isn’t working. The utopia promised by blowing up old moral strictures hasn’t arrived. What’s more, in some cases the situation seems worse.
“Our language still lacks the words to describe the many varieties of bad sex that do not rise to the criminal standard of rape or assault,” Lewis writes, and then mentions an Oxford professor surprised to find students riveted by arguments that claim porn debases and objectifies women. Even men say that porn makes it difficult to imagine sex as something loving and mutual rather than an act more inclined to domination and submission.
The cultural scripts we’ve inherited stir up conversations about sex that expose the confusion over its purpose, its meaning, its significance:
“Is sex most usefully thought of as a physical need, like breathing; as a human right, like freedom of speech; as a spiritual connection that takes on full meaning only if it’s part of a relationship; or even . . . like ‘bungee jumping, an adrenalizing physical feat’? Can rules made by believers in one of these frameworks be applied to those operating under another?”
Lewis’s response is to assume there’s no simple or sustainable answer to this question. We should adjust our expectations until we realize that the promised utopia of sexual freedom and fulfillment will not arrive:
“No, tomorrow sex will not be good again. As long as some people have more money, options, and power than others do; as long as reproductive labor falls more heavily on one half of the population; as long as cruelty, shame, and guilt are part of the human experience; as long as other people remain mysterious to us—and as long as our own desires remain mysterious too—sex will not be good, not all the time.”
She concludes with this killer line, which sums up a truth about fallen humanity that could be lifted straight from Augustine, Aquinas, or even the apostle Paul: “We will never simply want the things we should.”