One of the oddest aspects of the sexual revolution is its tendency to present the problem as the solution. For instance, during the 1980s, the least acceptable response to the AIDS crisis was the promotion of abstinence. Promiscuity was held to be normative, opponents of it were decried as idiotic and prudish, and any acceptable solution had to be built on these foundational truths.
Thirty years on, the failed pattern continues. Britain's Daily Telegraph reports that researchers are calling for sex education to reflect the increasing range of sexual activity in which young people are engaged. The change in sexual habits is presented not as a problem, but as a reality to be accommodated. This makes perfect sense, given the divorce of sexual activity from any kind of moral framework or personal narrative. As sex is essentially amoral (except when consent is absent—and then it is only the violation of consent, not the sex, that is immoral), so the education that surrounds it is amoral, too.
The proposal raises certain issues, which it fails to address in a satisfactory manner. Without providing any details, the Telegraph implies that these changes in behavior must bring with them new risks—hence the need for sex education to change with the times. And the change, as always, is couched in terms of the technical, not the moral. It must therefore be toward the more graphic (read: explicit and amoral). The article’s acknowledgment of the role of Internet pornography in all this merely states the obvious.
Yet why should sex education be “tailored to the realities of young people’s experiences,” as the article says? Why not address instead the factors that determine those experiences, by putting sex back in its rightful place, within an appropriate moral framework? The “tailoring” of sex education to patterns of behavior divorced from morality is one of the things that brought on the current situation. The problem is, by definition, not part of the solution, and to claim otherwise is to perpetuate the scam that is the sexual revolution. It promised freedom; it has brought us a moral and social deficit, evident in broken families and damaged bodies.
The problems of sexual activity divorced from morality are implicitly acknowledged by those who are involved in maintaining the myth of sex’s amorality. The spate of sexual harassment accusations in Hollywood and beyond provide ample evidence that sex is not merely recreational, but has deeper significance. And then, strange to tell, a recent report on the development of sex robots highlights the fact that clients of prostitutes often want to pretend that the sex occurs in the context of a real relationship. Some kind of narrative, however false, somehow makes the act more satisfying. Thus, to be most effective, sex robots will need to be programmed with personal histories. This is surely testimony to an innate human need to set sexual activity within a larger relational framework. And to set it within a larger relational framework is to grant it a moral status.
Modern sex education keeps failing to deliver on its promises—indeed, it keeps plunging society into deeper and deeper problems—and it keeps proposing as the solution more and more of the same. Sexual assault is heinous, and even the clients of prostitutes want something more significant than an anonymous encounter. The notion that sex can be pursued as recreation, isolated from a larger relational and moral context, is an obvious scam. But we keep getting mugged by reality.
It has often been observed that the victims of scams have a remarkable ability to ignore the obvious fact that, hey, they have fallen for a confidence trick. To accept that one has been conned out of a sum of money and thereby cut one’s losses may be more difficult than to keep giving the con artist more, in the hope that somehow the scheme is not a fraud after all. So it is with the scam known as the sexual revolution. It has institutionalized irresponsibility to such an extent, and demonized its critics so effectively, that even as it falls apart under the weight of its own contradictions, we keep pouring cultural capital into the same old schemes, hoping that all will turn out well in the end.
The hypocrisy of a Hollywood that lauds Roman Polanski while damning Kevin Spacey is just one example of how chaotic and confused our culture has become. This latest sex education proposal is another. At some point somebody will need to acknowledge what is going on. But that, alas, is not the psychology of those who fall for plausible grifters and attractive scams. For the time being at least, the problem will continue to be presented as the solution.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.