The New Puritans
The recent trend towards teaching children about sex hits on a reality: The most progressive among us are also the most puritanical.
Comrades! Our glorious cultural revolution has opened a new front! This time, it’s a crusade to increase the “sex literacy” and “porn literacy” of young children. So it was that a drag queen was recently caught teaching five-year-olds how to twerk at a library; a Wisconsin school district is offering sexually explicit books that feature passages about anal sex and dildos; a Washington Post op-ed defends displays of kink at Pride parades and recommends that kids be exposed to them; and the Chicago Public Schools announces that condoms will now be available to elementary school students.
It’s all a bit confusing, since, in true Orwellian fashion, it was only a few years ago that we were at war with the sexualization of minors. The #MeToo movement saw several public figures defenestrated for making sexual advances against the underaged, most notably Kevin Spacey. But that was then, this is now, and the new moral standard seems to be a fig leaf of education. If exposing tykes to the birds and the bees can somehow be justified as pedagogy, then by all means break out the bananas and the rubbers. Thus is Planned Parenthood encouraging parents to educate their preschoolers about sex. And if the kids should ever walk in on mom and dad in flagrante delicto, Planned Parenthood counsels, “it’s OK to just say you were having sex and see if they have follow up questions.”
It’s enough to make you sing “a brave new world” to the tune of that Aladdin song. And over at the Spectator, my friend Grayson Quay has done just that. He notes that just as children in Aldous Huxley’s dystopia were conditioned to be sexually active, so too are we now training them. “Any form of self-denial is, according to the World State, mere folly,” Grayson writes of Brave New World. “The only sin is to be unsatiated.”
What’s always struck me about Huxley’s novel is that, even amid all this license, the savvier characters still recognize that they aren’t in fact free. Bernard Marx at one point refers to himself as “enslaved by my conditioning,” while the Savage contrasts “freedom” with the World State’s enforced “comfort.” This is the first thing to understand about what we’re doing to our children today: it isn’t liberty so much as the opposite. Huxley’s point is that even liberation can become subjugating if it’s turned into ideology and inflicted upon the young.
It’s here that a nineteenth-wave feminist might object: How can it be slavery if no one is being forced to do anything? Doesn’t consent matter? But if a child is attending mandatory health classes that push “sex positivity,” is he really able to consent? And even if he somehow is, is he really equipped to make that choice in the first place? Children are children for a reason; their minds are unformed. It’s up to us to sculpt that clay into something decent and well-adjusted and responsible, not just shrug and say “well they’re going to go through puberty eventually.” And beyond schooling, children are also inevitably shaped by the culture around them, and right now our culture is one in which sex is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere: on billboards, on TV, splattered across the internet. A majority of children have now watched porn by age 13; some are witnessing it as young as seven.
None of these kids had much of a choice. They were raised in a world where this was all held up as normal, just as were Huxley’s creations. Such sex saturation has become one of the most revolutionary and overlooked hallmarks of our time. Yet it’s here that I have to depart somewhat from Huxley. Because while he might have accurately diagnosed the conditioning part, he got something else very wrong. In Brave New World, sex is doctrinal, but it’s still plentiful and the characters enjoy it. Lenina Crowne, seemingly the book’s protagonist until she all but disappears (Huxley was never the best storyteller), chatters excitedly with her friend about men and later hungrily tries to seduce John the Savage. Bernard Marx longs for, and ultimately achieves, a certain erotic power.
Whereas in our brave new world, we’re currently in the midst of what’s being referred to as a “sex recession.” American adults are having less sex than they were before and Generation Z is having less sex than previous cohorts. While the reasons for this downturn are being debated, I would submit that one cause is that our currency has been devalued. If sex is everywhere, don’t be surprised to find that sex is nowhere. If you can get what you need on a screen, if you only have to log on to experience that rush, if the occasionally mortifying business of asking another to bed has been obsolesced in favor of a few easy clicks, then interest in the act itself is going to wane.
Research increasingly backs this up—one study from last year, for example, found that the consumption of porn among men leads to erectile dysfunction. But it’s also true from a simple standpoint of common sense. By turning sex into just another 10 for $1 Tupperware sale at Stop and Shop, you strip it of the mystique that makes it so alluring. You replace intimacy with cold utility, passion with “don’t catch the feelz.” That isn’t to say we’re going to kill off sex entirely, of course. But we’ve still fundamentally dulled what it ought to be, even as we imagine that we’re unshackling ourselves.
It’s a striking departure from even what the sexual revolution initially intended. Think back to the literature of the great liberal authors: the moment in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Stephen sees a nymph-like girl on the bank of the River Liffey and experiences a kind of enlightenment; the clichéd yet sublime scene in Gore Vidal’s The Judgment of Paris where Philip and Anna make love on the beach. This enigmatic beauty, this naturalism, was at least in part supposed to be the point. Instead such scenes today seem almost exotic against our banal rightward swipes and Snapchat filters.
For an example of this, consider our new national anthem, WAP, Cardi B’s and Megan Thee Stallion’s sexually charged ode to their vaginas. After it was released last year, critics tripped all over themselves to pay tribute. It was brilliant! It was edgy! It was a brazen display of black female sexuality! Actually it was boring. The lyrics sounded like they’d been cobbled together via mad-lib using stock words borrowed from a gazillion other sex anthems. The video featured the two artists dancing inside a CGI-rendered erotic mansion, their bodies blending with the furniture and door knockers. It felt less like music than terms of surrender: This is what we’ve done to sex and you will knuckle under.
With porn all over the internet and WAP on iTunes, the final frontier for the revolutionaries becomes young children, who at least in theory aren’t exposed to all this yet. And that, of course, will only further strip away what’s left of that lovely veil.
This is why teaching sex to kiddos isn’t “liberal”; it’s a measure so drearily puritanical that only a modern could have conceived of it. That isn’t to say sexually active teens and even pederasty haven’t been common throughout history. But never before has this level of dulling immersion been not just possible but insisted upon. Our problem today is not that we’re too obsessed with sex. It’s that we’re obsessed with a cheap facsimile. It’s that puritans with pink hair have reduced one of life’s great mysteries to a mandatory school assembly.