An article in the Washington Post last week (“How to break free from monogamy without destroying marriage”) described the dynamics of an open marriage and the various “apps” now available for facilitating extramarital relations. The amorality might have been shocking twenty years ago but today such well-traveled territory likely provokes little more than a yawn. Yet the article is still instructive for what the author’s analysis (or lack thereof) tells us about contemporary culture. Indeed, it is a classic example of what happens when your side in the debate is utterly dominant: You become lazy and put forward obvious stupidity as if it were compelling argumentation.
Take, for example, the attempts at offering evidential support for the incontinent sexual promiscuity described. All the usual tricks of persuasion are on display. Tendentiously selective history is wheeled out to make it seem that the idea of love as part of marriage is a recent innovation, emerging presumably after aeons where marriage was merely driven by pragmatic convenience. Homer would have disagreed, as would Dante and Shakespeare.
Bogus science makes a predictable appearance in the form of a piece of pure speculation about the marital motivation of cavemen. Real science, in the form of analysis of the significance of the statistics on, say, sexually transmitted diseases is conspicuous by its absence. That omission is, of course, now de rigueur in all politically acceptable discussions of sexual behavior and human “flourishing.”
And, as the pièce de résistance, once again the Enlightenment axiom, that one cannot derive an ought from an is, is conveniently suspended in the cause of denigrating monogamy and denying any moral significance to incontinent fornication: People commit adultery and get divorced, so sexual promiscuity is therefore good and natural. Well, some people are foot fetishists and others are serial killers. These things may be “natural” but does that make them socially desirable?
Yet even more disturbing than the predictable casual amorality and the lack of argument and critical analysis are two other elements in the article. One is the role of boredom; the other is the language of freedom.
That boredom is presented as justification for remaking the marriage bond speaks of a self-absorbed approach to life where stimulation and personal entertainment are now almost the only ethical criteria (except for the increasingly tenuous principle of consent). Indeed, the unthinking moral solipsism of this present age is on full display here. “If it is good for me, it must be good for society” is dangerous enough as a principle of social ethics. To replace that with “If it cures my boredom, it must be good for society” is lunacy. And who will pay the interest—financial and social—on this sexual ponzi scheme? Everyone, from the poor and the children of broken homes to generations yet unborn.
The other disturbing element is the reductionist view of freedom. The rhetoric of liberation pervades the article from the title onwards, and yet in what does this woman’s freedom consist? Her freedom and thus her personhood have been reduced to nothing more than the ability to have a series of loosely connected orgasms, unencumbered by any relational responsibility, as a means of punctuating the tedium of life.
That is a deeply impoverished notion of what it is to be free. Even a moment's reflection on the behavior described in the article raises obvious questions. Think of the husband who does not have to worry that his wife is finding better sex on her business trips than at home because she is committed to him alone. Or the wife who does not have to worry about contracting an STD because she knows her husband respects the marriage bond and does not jump into bed with any woman who takes his fancy. Or the children who do not have to fret about whom they will be expected to call “Mom” or “Dad” next year. Would being “freed from monogamy” really make these people more free? Much more can be said on the nature of freedom, but this gives at least some sense of the complexity of the notion and how it has been naively trivialized by a world where sexualized personal pleasure is the solvent of all social bonds and the measure of all things.
Strange to tell, this is where I found the article to be somewhat encouraging. A vision of personhood and freedom reduced to a series of sexual encounters designed to stave off boredom represents a somewhat childish and vacuous philosophy of life. Indeed, this is what now passes for thoughtful and provocative journalism in a quality newspaper and yet I hardly needed to break sweat in picking apart such nonsense. Conservative Christians may be in a minority, but thank God we have a richer understanding of what it means to be human and to be free than the rather simplistic and—dare I say it?—boring and predictable one which is exhibited here. The competition may currently control the airwaves but they really have nothing of interest or substance to say.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.