I recently finished Jenell Williams Paris’s book The End of Sexual Identity. The book is a very mixed bag, but one thing which struck me was a brief mention of a dichotomy which I think Paris was borrowing from someone else: the choice between hedonism and discipleship.
This framing seems to me to miss something crucial, which politically-minded “social conservatives” often also seem to miss. Because of course there’s a third option, the life of bourgeois stability. The life of building up a reasonable income, getting married to somebody your parents approve of, doing well and upholding the standards of your community, burying your dead: all the normalcy Jesus disrupts.
This third option is important to notice for two reasons.
First, we used to know that the hedonist was just the mirror image of the disciple. In fact, hedonists turned into disciples all the time–witness all the Catholic decadents. Hedonists and disciples were both dissatisfied, restless, longing for ecstatic release, for something they had never before encountered. The chastened, exhausted hedonist could find in Christ both beauty and forgiveness, both ecstasy and hope.
This picture of personal transformation caused by guilt and beauty looks starkly different from the path of personal transformation our culture exalts now, the path from hedonism to bourgeois respectability. In this model you can and even should spend your teens and twenties getting your ya-yas out, sending all those Texts from Last Night, but then at some point you get serious and have to hope that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Sex is recreation and marriage is work, and eventually every grasshopper is required to grow up into an ant. That’s an extraordinarily difficult psychological transformation and one for which we provide virtually no guidance, since it’s supposed to happen as a natural result of “finding oneself” after an exploratory decade-plus of self-discovery.
The second problem is even more relevant to at least some subset of TAC readers: Conservatives often talk as if we’re combating hedonism and the solution is bourgeois normalcy. This makes our arguments look silly (everybody points out that “blue states” have lower divorce and teen pregnancy rates, or some other statistic indicating that they are winning on the bourgeois-normalcy front) and I think it probably makes our audience resentful. Nobody likes to be told that they’re not doing life right, but I think we especially feel indignant and even self-pityingly resentful when we’re working very, very hard to follow the rules and somebody comes along and tells us we’re just out for our own pleasure.
We don’t have a marriage crisis in this country because everybody has stopped following the rules. We have a marriage crisis because the rules don’t work. There are all kinds of strict rules: Don’t marry before you’re “economically stable” (an endlessly-retreating horizon), don’t wait until you’re married to have sex, don’t wait until you’re married to live together, don’t move back in with your parents. And, for the upper classes, don’t have kids too early and don’t have too many. I’ve written about these issues before (here and here) but I want to emphasize how the rules rely on completely bourgeois impulses to achieve and preserve. They’re based on fear–primarily fear of divorce, but also fear of loneliness–but also on the intense, poignant desire to do the right thing.
A woman who has sex with multiple partners (maybe hooking up a lot if she’s at a more elite college), contracepting throughout and having at least one abortion, then cohabits, then marries in her early 30s if at all, might be a hedonist or a relativist. In my experience she’s much more likely to be trying to do everything right, finish her education and start climbing the economic ladder and make good rather than hasty choices in her men. Her mother usually supports or even pressures her in her decision to abort, and many of the decisions I’ve described are made not in the service of personal sexual liberation but as a means to preserve her relationships. A lot of the time it doesn’t work–the marriage or cohabitation she really hoped would be “the one” still breaks up–but she sees all the alternative choices as even riskier, and therefore irresponsible.
I don’t know that I have “solutions” really. You can’t solve somebody’s heart. I would suggest that explicitly naming the new rules and explaining how and why they fail may help. We need to offer a broader array of vocations, rather than capitulating to a culture which upholds marriage and motherhood as the only two paths to adulthood. (Motherhood, not fatherhood–a man can stay a boy as long as he wants, and often much, much longer than that.) Perhaps both Christians and social conservatives should focus more on beauty (here’s a suggestion directed to Christians on college campuses) and much, much less on mere statistical stability. And we need to stop acting like hedonism is our biggest problem. If only!