An article on campus sexual mores by Rod Dreher this week drove me to reflect on who is the most influential thinker of our present age. Thirty years ago as an undergraduate in England, I would have argued that it was Karl Marx. Yet Marx looks increasingly like a nineteenth century figure, as Jonathan Sperber has so deftly demonstrated. Even the twentieth century revolutions inspired by his thought now seem more often like ethnic conflicts merely pretending to be class war. Perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for Nietzsche and Freud, as Phillip Rieff thought. Certainly the advent of ‘Psychological Man’ is one of the dominant master narratives of our day. But Dreher made me think the real prophet of this present age might be someone else: the Marquis DeSade.
In the popular mind, DeSade is associated with the idea of achieving sexual gratification through inflicting pain on another. Yet that notion rests upon a more sophisticated understanding of sex and personhood. DeSade’s specific sexual predilections assumed the notion of sex simply as one more consumer commodity in the marketplace and upon the idea of other people as merely instrumental to the achievement of personal sexual pleasure. DeSade turned the sexual relationship into an economic relationship of exchange aimed at the satisfaction of the individual consumer. He was truly a prophet born out of time and, like all such, doomed to be decried in his own day as a madman.
DeSade's ideal world is that to which we appear to be heading. Like him, we deny any intrinsic moral significance to sexual activity whatsoever and thus see it as something which is of no more ethical importance than buying a cup of coffee or eating a sandwich. In such a world, the celibate and the monogamous are increasingly counted as freaks, representatives of a defective, repressive cultural vision. Thus, the social pressure to be promiscuous becomes an integral part of the culture and the withholding of consent comes to be increasingly difficult, the act of social schismatics, freaks, and (to use the favored clichés of the day) the inauthentic, those who do not wish to flourish.
That is the world Dreher describes in his article and this is the world which pornography, Tinder and other personal pimping programs promote. Of course, the underlying assumption of consent is presumably still assumed by Tinder users. Rape is still rape, at least in theory. Yet if sex is evacuated of any intrinsic ethical significance, and the culture turns against celibacy and monogamy, the notion of consent itself may eventually become as morally meaningless as the orgasms it is supposed to legitimate. Indeed, one could even see a case eventually being made in DeSade world for the withholding of sex being considered an act of oppression, like the withholding of a wedding cake or a photo-shoot. It will never happen, you say. Well, more than any other history, that of sexuality and the laws surrounding it indicates that one should never say never.
Yet there is another force at play today which seems to be in conflict with the above: The belief that our sexual desires determine who we are at the deepest level. This is somewhat ironic: The age which denies any real significance to sex also wants to argue that sexual desires are of paramount importance to personal identity and fulfillment. Squaring that particular circle will no doubt generate a whole textbook full of neuroses in the coming years.
This age thus embodies a twofold sadism. It is sadistic because it turns people into nothing more than objects for the achievement of the sexual desires of others. And it is sadistic because it tells people their sexual desires are of the utmost importance to who they are while simultaneously denying that these desires point to anything of any real intrinsic importance whatsoever. That is cruelty of a peculiarly pernicious and nihilistic kind. Freud and Nietzsche may have played their part in making today’s world. But the success of Tinder indicates that the victor’s laurels should probably go to DeSade.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.