Sexual Revolution Sans la Terreur
Damon Linker is not surprised that religious trads like me are appalled by the Tinder dating story. He’s after something else:
I’m more interested in the reaction to this development among older mainstream liberals: those who have always favored the sexual revolution but whose own lives have remained relatively conventional, including exclusive dating, marriage, and childrearing, possibly a divorce and remarriage, with the ideal of lifelong companionship still active in their minds and imaginations.
I suspect many of these liberals — Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself) — will find this vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There’s just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey’s sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality — including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation — that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.
What the article describes is largely our doing. This is the world we made, furnishing it with our mores, our freedom from judgment and consequences, our wondrous technological toys. Just because we arrived too late to “enjoy” it as fully as those who’ve graduated from college during the last decade doesn’t make us any less responsible for it. And nothing demonstrates our complicity more than our incapacity to react with anything sterner than a furrowed brow or more compelling than, “As long as no one gets hurt…”
Read the whole thing. About his own kids:
I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.
That’s good. Linker wonders aloud if that is possible without some higher ideal binding individual desire. Without that, we get hook-up culture, with no way to condemn it beyond saying it is distasteful.
This is the real problem with the Tinder-driven hook-up culture in the Vanity Fair article: the merging of sexual desire, self-worship, and technology. Sam M. and others in the previous thread pointed out that studies show Millennials are, on average, having less sex than you would think, given the premises of the Vanity Fair piece, by Nancy Jo Sales. So much for the Tinderpocalypse, right? Jesse Singal of New York magazine looked into the story:
I emailed Sales about Twenge’s work: “The conclusions of the study seemed somewhat suspect to me,” she said. “And contradictory. For example: It finds that, while millennials have more open and accepting attitudes about sex, they also have fewer sex partners. This didn’t make sense to me. Nor did it make sense that people who are waiting longer to marry (or not marrying at all, so far) — that is, millennials — would also have fewer sex partners than past generations, who married earlier.”
That’s social scientist Jean Twenge, quoted by Sales in her story. Sales’s self-defense here makes intuitive sense, but she seems not to have thought about the famous non-judgmentalism of the Millennials. They may see nothing wrong with hook-up culture in theory, but may want nothing to do with it themselves (or be bad at participating in it).
I think it’s fair to criticize me for confirmation bias — that is, being too quick to believe the VF piece because it confirms what my criticism of contemporary sexual mores. As I said, it also confirmed to me the details of a college professor friend’s detailed observations to me about the sexual culture on his campus. Maybe the real story here is not so much the rate of sex that Millennials are having, but the fact that our non-judgmental sexual culture makes it difficult to achieve what Linker wants for his children (and I for mine).
It is also worth considering the role that the ubiquitousness and easy availability of pornography may play in decreasing sexual activity. Common sense would indicate that engaging in heavy porn use would stimulate more sexual activity. But what if the opposite is true? What if it satiates and numbs people, and causes them to substitute fantasy and masturbation for actual human contact?
By the way, here’s an interesting story about technology and sexual assault on campus, by NPR’s Tovia Smith. Check out this excerpt:
Even more questionable to some experts is the bevy of mobile apps that promise to help curb assault. One that just hit the market, called We-Consent, records students agreeing to sexual activity. A breathy female voice with a British accent asks the user to “say the name of the person with whom you would like to have sexual relations.” Then the app announces to the other person, that so-and-so “would like to have sexual relations with you” and asks for consent. If all goes well, the app ends with the sultry female voice announcing, “Have Fun!”
“It’s a very powerful tool,” says developer Michael Lissack, a former Wall Street banker turned social scientist. He’s selling the app on his website, We-Consent, for $5 a year and is also trying to get schools to buy it in bulk, for all their students. Lissack says Apple has refused to sell it in its App Store, calling it “icky.” But Lissack insists his app is exactly the kind of tool that’s needed to change behavior.
With We-Consent, both participants are encouraged to record video memos, naming themselves, the date, time and place they’ve given sexual consent, logging it for seven years in the event that one of them finds themselves accused of non-consensual behaviour afterwards. Immediately, most people over, say, 25 might find themselves questioning the app’s obvious flaws: first off, who would ever actually whip out their mobile to log the crucial moment before that crucial moment? What can filmed mutual agreement possibly mean when one or both parties have the right to change their un-filmed minds at any given point? Why is the basic human responsibility to understand the premise of yes or no being outsourced to an app?
If you listen to the NPR story, you can hear the We-Consent app’s voice. It’s totally creepy.
A friend who teaches at a college campus says the administration there is trying to figure out how to deal with the sexual assault problem there — date rape, mostly — but it’s tying itself into knots trying to determine an effective way of fighting it without using the language of morality. The students, my friend says, think of sexual morality entirely in terms of consent, which blinds them to the deeper, richer dimensions of sex and, dare we say it, love.
It was C.S. Lewis, I think, who quipped that it is possible to go to hell even if you are totally chaste — the idea being that if your chastity comes from having a cold, unfeeling heart. Similarly, if we only look to metrics of quantity to judge the merit of contemporary sexual morals, we may miss something more crucial at the heart of the phenomenon. If people come to think of sex as about nothing more than matter meeting matter, they will dehumanize sex even if they live in perfect chastity.