Editor’s Note: The article below was published as part of the first annual Sex Week at The Federalist, which was apparently something of a first for a prominent conservative publication. The other articles were from a conservative perspective and ranged from better to worse. I took the opportunity to present, as I put it below, a third alternative in the culture wars.—RWT
I have argued for the necessity of a third alternative in the culture wars. If ever there was an issue on which this is desperately needed, it’s sex.
The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, in whose aftermath we all live, billed itself as an attempt to sweep away the fire-and-brimstone Puritanism it attributed to the previous era. Yet it turned itself into a twisted mirror image of that very Puritanism.
This sort of thing happens all the time, on both the left and the right: the other side draws a caricature of you, and you “defy” them by embracing the caricature. The advocates of the Sexual Revolution agree that sex is dirty, filthy, disgusting, meaningless, impersonal, and brutishly physical—but they’re for it! The symbol of this, in my mind, is when I occasionally see a come-on for an “adult” website, usually in a spam e-mail, with a sales pitch along these lines: “This is the filthiest, nastiest, most disgusting site on the Web!” Who sells their product this way? Who sells food by advertising the filthiest, most disgusting restaurant in town?
And then a show like “Girls” comes along and says: sex is also awkward and ugly and fraught with emotional confusion and insecurity. Great! Where can I sign up?
So what went wrong?
The Sexual Revolution was not just about removing artificial impediments to sexual enjoyment. What it advocated was not merely sex without guilt, but sex that is “zipless,” i.e., “without emotional involvement or commitment.” It is sex without meaning, context, consequences—or human connection.
This is quite perverse, when you think about it. You have a movement that says it is in favor of sex, which then tries to empty sexuality of all value and significance. They seek to liberate sex by trivializing it.
One of the consequences is the well-documented death spiral of the pornography addict who needs more and more stimulation—something weirder, more shocking, more over-the-top—just to get the same level of arousal, like a drug addict who acquires resistance and needs higher and higher doses. When sex is trivialized and deprived of meaning, people have to find some way to fill the emptiness. Some of them will try to make it up on volume.
This also explains what I find most disturbing about the recent Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon: the assumption that you have to make sex weird, forbidden, kinky, and dangerous in order to make it really interesting.
But this is a consequence of the core premise of the counterculture. The Sexual Revolution invariably defined sexual liberation negatively, as a form of opposition to a traditional morality that it was trying to tear down. In practically every variant of its mythology, there is the priggish authority figure that we are all out to shock. (Until we reached the point, somewhere between the emergence of Madonna and that of Miley Cyrus, when there was no remaining way to shock anyone, and it all became hopelessly boring.)
In this as in many things the counterculture’s self-serving portrait of the previous era was cartoonish. Prior to the 1960s, there were plenty of portrayals of sex as something that could be a lot of fun, not to mention glamorous and romantic, without any compulsion to inflate it into a warped caricature in defiance of some authority figure.
But after the 1960s, liberation wasn’t just about enjoying sex. It was about sticking it to The Man.
This leads us to the dead end of the Sexual Revolution, in which sex has become all about the least sexy thing on earth: politics. It’s no longer about defying joyless authority figures, because there is no authority figure more joyless than the campus feminist. Instead, it’s about “smashing the patriarchy.”
A great example of this is the cultural left’s ambivalence about gay marriage. It was advertised as a way for homosexuals to embrace the joys of a meaningful, committed long-term relationship. But now some of its own advocates are restlessly admitting that their actual goal was simply to tear down traditional marriage and do away with the institution.
Sonny Bunch recently quoted a Soviet filmmaker who criticized a Sergei Eisenstein film because “There was no socialist element in it.” Read Bunch’s summary of this Social Realist theory of art:
The tenets of socialist realism were both remarkably simple and remarkably complex. Simple because the primary—the only, really—goal of socialist realist art was to educate the masses as to the “correct” way of thinking. Complex because, as we all know, the “correct” way of thinking in the Soviet Union was ever-changing, bound only to the whims of Stalin.
Doesn’t that perfectly describe the modern left’s culture war on sexuality? Sex is treated as an instrument for a political end. Your sex life may not be politically correct if “there is no social justice element in it,” as decided by whatever arbiter of social justice is loudest on Twitter this morning.
What I miss the most is the old-fashioned sense of wholesome sexuality. The old Puritans would have thought that was a contradiction in terms, and the heirs of the Sexual Revolution generally agree. Think of the old Vargas Girl pin-ups, or what Playboy used to be a few decades ago when they were fully committed to the “girl next door” look. Other magazines often featured girls who—how shall I put this?—whose day jobs were obviously night jobs. Playboy showed us girls who were normal and respectable by day, and who also had sensual bodies and a sense of adventure when you got them home at night. They were the kind of girl you wanted to get into your bed but would also be happy to take home to mother. I get the sense that this is what’s been lost in the wreckage of the Sexual Revolution.
The concept of wholesome sexuality is based on the premise that sexual desire and enjoyment are in fact normal, natural, and healthy—that they do not need to be treated as a manifestation of the seedy underbelly of life.
That’s the problem with the usual conservative analysis of the problem: that the legitimating purpose of sex is procreation, and any time baby-making is not on the agenda, sex becomes distorted and impersonal and goes down into the gutter. They will grant that sex has other purposes, such as bonding a couple together in marriage, but this is still ultimately justified as a means toward the end of procreation.
But this writes off all a whole range of normal sexual experience. In arguing for this view, Rachel Lu writes, “For sex to stay sexy, it has to mean something. There needs to be some objective significance that extends beyond the horny-adolescent feelings.” Well, certainly—but why not start with the obvious and immediate meaning: the love and admiration a couple hold toward one another? Over the long term, this involves building a life together, a home, and usually a family. But that is something that is far broader than procreation. It binds a couple together long before they are ready to have children and—ideally—long after the children are grown and gone.
If the objection is that sexual desire without procreation is selfish—well, sex is selfish, in the proper sense of that much-abused word. It is certainly something that is hard to do in a self-effacing manner. To be desired and to desire requires a confidence in your own value and the value of your partner. You are saying to them: you are a good person. Or more accurately: you are special, you’re different, you’re more interesting and fascinating that anyone else I know. And you want to know that they feel the same way about you. (If you feel the urge to contest this, try out “you’re just as good as anybody else, I suppose” on Valentine’s Day, and let me know how that works out.) Romantic love is the ultimate mutual admiration society: we’re so great that we can’t keep our hands off one another.
And that’s a very good and necessary thing. If you’ve earned it—that is, if you have put some effort into making sure that you really are good, and special, and interesting—then you need and deserve the psychological reward.
Of course, this isn’t always earned. Ayn Rand—who championed this view of sex—observed that sexual promiscuity is driven by an attempt to reverse cause and effect. Instead of saying, I am desired because I am worth it, the promiscuous person says, I must be worth it because I am desired. This, presumably, is why Kim Kardashian thinks she deserves to be famous simply because of her willingness to moon us. This is driven, not by a strong sense of self-worth, but by its opposite—by an attempt to take a deficient sense of self-worth and artificially inflate it. That’s how you get the insecure girl who puts up with a controlling boyfriend for fear of being alone, which from what I can tell is the actual underlying plot of Fifty Shades of Grey. Or it’s how you get the sleazy would-be “pick-up artist” who thinks that if he can trick a woman into sleeping with him, then maybe he won’t feel like such a loser. The compulsion to put notches in the bedpost is a pretty obvious form of overcompensation.
To be clear, a meaningful relationship leaves plenty of scope for sexual adventure. The cliché of the married couple with the dull, unsatisfying sex life is another caricature that has no basis in reality. We are blessed with bodies that are capable of a surprising variety of sexual response, and a healthy sexuality is less about what you do than the spirit in which you do it. A healthy relationship and a healthy sex life is sustained by a love that’s based on a confidence in your own value and the value of your partner.
Humans are complex beings with thinking minds; our whole psychology is designed to sum up our experiences over the span of many years and extract from them a broader meaning. So an experience as powerful and profound as sex can never be meaningless. And why would we want it to be?
The only question is which meaning we try to give it. We can recognize it as the natural expression of a profound and lasting love between two people who have worked hard to be worth that kind of mutual admiration. Or if we don’t, we find that we still end up seeking poor substitutes for that wider meaning, either trying to fill the hole with a string of temporary liaisons, or trying to freight sexuality with some incongruous political meaning.
That’s the failed promise of the Sexual Revolution, and it needs to be corrected. The results might just turn out to be a whole lot sexier and more liberating.