Americans’ public and private lives are on a collision course. Our social system—the one we publicly engage daily—still unwittingly encourages and rewards chaste behavior (though perhaps not speech). Privately, our lives bespeak an emerging chaos, regardless of what we personally hold to be good or true or ideal. In other words, American life is becoming sexually bipolar.

In many ways our social system still curbs its participants toward a very basic public chastity. Consider your time at the grocery store, your day at work or school, coffee at the café, the car or train ride back home. Sexually uneventful; you probably didn’t even notice. Daily activity in the social world still manages to largely reinforce the basic sexual integrity of the person.

While publicly the verbal expression of sexual libertinism may be increasingly rewarded, libertine behavior sure isn’t. Indeed, so much about the everyday social world works to reinforce monogamy and the reliable differences between men and women. From sexual violence laws, campus consent codes, all the way to workplace dating policies or norms—it’s as if public life is an ode to the complementary, peaceable, and pivotal relationship between man and woman.

A simple thought experiment ought to reveal how men could tolerate a much more sexualized social system (at least before unanticipated, unpleasant consequences emerge). Here’s social psychologist Roy Baumeister:

A man in love may feel sexual desire for a specific, particular woman, but most men also have plenty of free-floating sexual interest in other women, all women, any woman, at least in the broad set of “reasonably attractive” ones (e.g., the top 90% of women in their twenties, etc.) . . . Having one partner for sex only slightly reduces the desire for every other possible one.

If Baumeister is correct, many men could be happy with a much less chaste social system. One reason we don’t have such a system, Baumeister asserts, is because chaos is bad for a social system, putting it at risk of being undermined by more disciplined rival cultures. And sex can foster chaos:

Sex can disrupt families, set friends against each other, even produce violence and murder. Unregulated sex creates all sorts of social problems: children with no one to care for them, violence, and disease.

This gives us a profound incentive to retain public chastity even as private chaos is clearly emerging. As an example of this phenomenon, note the data on men’s pornography use. It’s soaring, and yet it remains largely hidden. The social system is not yet onboard with public manifestations of it. Indeed, it’s been twenty years since an NC-17 rated film grossed over $10 million (and that only twice). While prostitution flourishes online, red-light districts in the US have receded. The chaos is private.

But will technology-fueled chaos eventually prevail upon the public sphere? A recent Forbes cover story about Tinder CEO Sean Rad claims the online male-female hook-up app

has logged 600% growth over the past 12 months, has been downloaded 40 million times since it launched in 2012. The 30 million people who have registered collectively check out 1.2 billion prospective partners daily—that’s 14,000 per second. And they’re not just kicking the tires: Tinder is now facilitating almost 14 million romantic matches every 24 hours.

It sounds unchaste, and rather public. But even here complementarity provides a self-limiting reality check: the vast majority of requited “swipes” (or matches) do not materialize in real life. That is, most of the mutually-attracted parties never actually meet in social reality. Moreover, such attempts to rapidly connect men and women “represent the wants and needs of only half of their target audience,” complained one member of that half, Ann Friedman, in an article titled “Overwhelmed and Creeped Out.”

In other words, even when technology presses us toward socio-sexual chaos, women are much less apt to comply. That’s old but very good news. They’re wired—dare I say—to foster sexual order over chaos when they interact with men in public life. Or so say monotheists and evolutionary psychologists. When unconstrained, men—the creators of most online dating apps and sites—tend to focus on their own wishes. Indeed, Grindr takes women out of the interaction altogether, offering a recipe for very efficient sexual contact. And with it, private chaos.

Hence a basic complementarity and chastity remains obvious to this observer of (public) social life. Doomsayers ought to recognize that it could be worse—much worse. This isn’t blind optimism; it’s measured reality. And for that I’m grateful. Dare I go so far as to suggest the arc of history bends toward complementarity and chastity, narrowly defined? Not anytime soon. But given a long-enough arc, I suspect it may.

Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments