The attitude toward sex in our secular culture is simultaneously tedious and disturbing. Tedious because of its predictability. Disturbing because of its profound negativity, despite absurd claims to the contrary.
A good example was provided last week by Aimee Byrd. Over at her Housewife Theologian blog, Byrd highlighted an online interview with a woman called “Gracie X.” The lifestyle Gracie describes will probably surprise no one. Her promiscuity and the fluidity of her relationships are nothing new. In the ’70s, people like Gracie were known as swingers. Today they are respectable members of the “ethical non-monogamy community.” The nomenclature is oxymoronic, the underlying attitude merely moronic.
As is conventional when today’s hard-hitting journalism deals with fringe lifestyles that mock traditional mores, the interviewer asks no hard questions and makes no critical observations. Such would be impolite and judgmental, I guess. Well, let me break once again with the contemporary canons of journalistic social commentary and offer a few impolite and judgmental observations of my own.
The language of the interview is revealing. The omnipresence of the first-person singular is quite remarkable, reminiscent of The Beatles song, “I, Me, Mine.” Yes, this really is all about Gracie. To be fair, she does claim that her refusal to control her libido is good for her children—but she also makes it very clear that even if they asked her to stop, she would not, because she is her lifestyle.
The best parts of the interview are those involving pious sub-Oprah psychobabble, such as this gem: “The biggest burden you can put on your child is an unfulfilled life. We really have to make sure we’re living.” Really? I suspect the burden of not having any kind of stable parental relationship to rely on might rank somewhere. But as long as a mature ten- to eleven-year-old is able to offer wise and informed support to an ethically non-monogamous parent, all will be well.
Most sadly disturbing is Gracie’s use of the term “sex positive” to describe her lifestyle. Clearly she enjoys sex. But that hardly amounts to being “sex positive.” Her view of sex seems so truncated and so emptied of any real meaning, so centered on herself, so reducible to physical pleasure, that it becomes little more than an act of mutual masturbation. To say that such represents a “positive” view of sex is akin to saying that the person who enjoys cluelessly bashing out random notes on a piano has a positive view of music. Sex with no deeper relational context is sex with no positively meaningful content, as Henry Miller demonstrated over eighty years ago in the tragicomic nihilism of the myriad encounters recounted in Tropic of Cancer.
There was once a time when sexual intercourse was thought to be full of rich social and emotional significance. Now, even our language betrays our impoverished and negative attitudes. That we speak of “having sex” and not of “making love”—that the latter phrase can even evoke sniggers—is significant. A man can have sex with a prostitute. He can only make love to a woman he knows and about whom he cares.
So is Gracie X “sex positive” in her attitude? Well, sexual intercourse used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. That has been taken away. Sex has been reduced thereby, as indeed has adulthood—the childish obsession of Gracie with herself is surely no accident. There was also a time when sexual intercourse was only considered legitimate between a man and woman committed to a lifelong partnership. It marked their exclusive relationship to each other. That too has been taken away. Sex is no longer the consummation of an exclusive bond. Now it is just a form of recreation. A bit like golf, but usually cheaper and generally without the plaid pants.
Fortunately, Gracie is an extremist, even by today’s standards. But she is the logical end term of our culture’s simplistic, pornographic, selfish, abusive, mechanistic, and, yes, negative view of sex. Sex’s sole significance is what it does for Gracie as an individual, and damn the consequences if that hurts anyone else. It is who she is, after all. Indeed, I imagine that even now some liberal Episcopalian bishop is desperately wrestling with how to be open and welcoming to the “ethical non-monogamous community.” Might I suggest that a minor change to the marriage liturgy is all that is needed? “With thy body I me worship.”
Joking aside, such a vow would be entirely appropriate because, superficial as Gracie's understanding of sex is, she is actually advocating in practice the rather more sophisticated philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, whereby the other’s body is a mere instrument for her own personal satisfaction and nothing more. That we live in a time in which de Sade's approach can be described as “sex positive” is not something to be celebrated. That we describe it that way simply reveals the impoverished, mendacious, and ultimately lonely view of sex and relationships that we are passing on to our children. We have robbed our children not only of stable families but also of the real joy of sex—of sex that exists as a vital part of a committed relationship and thus has more than mere momentary, physical significance.
Anyway, I look forward to Part II of the interview, scheduled for when Gracie turns seventy-five. That's my own sadistic streak speaking. You see, I have a sneaking suspicion that growing old is going to be especially cruel for members of the “ethical non-monogamy community.”
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.