Sex is like fire. In the fireplace it keeps us warm. Outside the fireplace it burns down the house. Ray Ortlund.
Apologies if I’ve reminded you of a song by the Kings of Leon (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself fortunate). I came across the quote above recently and I found it immensely helpful. Sex is a powerful thing – within the confines of marriage, it is contained and we enjoy its benefits. Outside of marriage, it destroys everything. This is exactly what I believe we are beginning to see as a society.
I’ve been reading a book called Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy by sociologist Mark Regnerus. It’s a fascinating – albeit slightly terrifying – read. Then, yesterday, I read an insightful article about the #MeToo movement, entitled: “Sex was Never Safe: Why Consent is Not Enough in the Post-Weinstein Era.”
They have helped to bring home to me just how lost our society is about sexual ethics. The Regnerus book is about how sex has become ‘cheap’: in an era where fewer people are choosing to get married – and those who do get married do so later on in life – there are very few barriers to sex. One of the things which struck me most was research about how many people have sex on the first date – in fact, Regnerus theorised that having sex is often the thing which causes people to move from fairly casual dating to more formally being in a relationship.
The whole book simply worked to underscore for me the fact that so much of our society is now based on a fairly consumer attitude to sex: people ‘try out’ different sexual partners, waiting for the one who will bring them most personal satisfaction. Sex is seen as a commodity, not something sacred which is to be held within the confines of marriage. Easy access to pornography has had a big impact. And it goes on.
The upshot of all this is that our society seems to massively value sexual freedom – the search for personal sexual fulfilment, with very little in the way to channel or restrict that freedom.
Then, we have the #MeToo movement. A lot has been written about the #MeToo movement, so I’m not going to rehash all that here. In many ways I can sympathise with it. But I think Joel Looper, author of the article I linked, picks up on something significant – is there an inherent contradiction with sexual freedom and #MeToo? His argument is that if we want to solve the problem which #MeToo is highlighting, this will logically entail the end of the Sexual Revolution. He says:
The Sexual Revolution was possible because women had ready access to birth control. Not long before, only men could sleep around without the fear of becoming pregnant. By the 1960s women could too. Among heterosexuals at least, the freeing of women to enjoy sex without that pesky natural consequence of the sex act also freed men. Sex became, in economic terms, a buyer’s marker. It was easier for both men and women, but especially for men, to obtain. The average age of marriage in the United States in 1970 was twenty-three for men and twenty for women, but by 2015 it was twenty-nine for men and twenty-seven for women. Marriage was no longer even typically a precondition for sex. By the mid-1990s, having a couple partners before finding the “right one” had become normal, perhaps almost normative in most parts of the West.
This is exactly what Mark Regnerus’ research was highlighting. Sex has become cheap, and is no longer seen as needing to happen within a committed relationship. This is the fruit of the Sexual Revolution. Although things didn’t change overnight, what we see today is the logical consequence of what happened back in the 60s.
The only value we see today is consent. That is, so long as the sex is happening between two (or more) consenting adults – then no problem. One-night-stand? Fine, so long as it’s consensual. Sex on the first date? Fine, as long as it’s consensual. What the #MeToo movement is highlighting is non-consensual sexual abuse of various different stripes (some more serious, some less so). But what action is needed to change anything?
What have we learned? What is the take-home value of #MeToo? Is it that men need more education? That society must be more vigilant in punishing men who commit sexual crimes? No. It is that consent does not constitute robust enough criteria for sexual intercourse. All the education in the world will not change the male libido. It is hardwired into men. Sure, most men are trustworthy most of the time. But many men are somewhat untrustworthy some of the time, and a few men (or is it far more than a few?) are downright dangerous. Birth control and at least sixty years of open discussion of sex have not changed this.
The point is that consent is not enough. Consent will never be enough to prevent people doing things they shouldn’t sexually. It can’t be changed with education, or by a movement on social media. A few months back I questioned whether education was enough to end sexual harrassment in schools (short answer: no). So what can be done?
Reestablishing the connection between marriage and sex is only part of the solution since – after all, women are sometimes assaulted by strangers and other times by their own husbands. We must have the cultural memory to recall that until quite recently sex, again in Berry’s words, was “everybody’s business.” The wider community had an interest in what went on in people’s bedrooms, even between “two consenting adults,” because people could be harmed behind those bedroom walls. They are today more than ever. Relationships are shattered behind those walls, worlds crumble, and often enough it is the male libido that is the destroyer of worlds. Anyone who denies this, whether in theory or practice, is living a fantasy.
Reconnecting sex and marriage – not, as the article says, the whole solution – yet it is part of it. Sex is not simply about personal freedom and individual choice. It’s not about individuals pursuing happiness, or “two consenting adults”. But sex has a wider scope – it is part of society. Society has an interest in what two people do behind closed doors – sex matters to more than just the two individuals concerned. Of course, as the author states, if we accept this – then it will spell the end of the Sexual Revolution.
As a society, it seems we have a choice to make: either we carry on as we are and pursue sexual freedom – which will lead to the kind of things the #MeToo movement is protesting, as well as other side effects such as driving men and women further apart. This is the way we are heading at the moment, and, if I may return to the quote I started with, we are beginning to see how hot the fire can burn.
Or – as a society, we realise that sex matters beyond two consenting individuals, that #MeToo is a symptom of a sex-obsessed society which cannot be solved simply by education, and that marriage is the only real solution we have (or at least, a nonnegotiable part of the solution).
One of the things I’m often struck by is how everything would be better if people simply listened to what God wanted us to do in the first place. Sex is designed as a wonderful gift from God, to be used within the context of a lifelong union of a man and a woman, but outside of that it is immensely harmful. Peter says in his first letter: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). I think it’s possible to see how our sinful desires, in this case sexual desire, wages war against us. We desire to find fulfilment in sex, which leads many people to shopping around for the best sexual partner available to them. But the irony is, they do not find fulfilment. The only fulfilment is found in obedience to God, in line with the way that he has made us.