According to a recent CDC report, cases of syphilis are rising in the United States. The report offers an interesting window on contemporary American culture.
First, it features the usual exceptionalism for health issues that are a part of the progressive remaking of society. Just as smoking a cigar is bad but puffing on a joint is OK, so spreading illnesses by being unvaccinated is evil while spreading disease through sexual indulgence is a mere technical problem. And it cannot be addressed in terms of any broader moral framework beyond that provided by “experts”—typically not moral philosophers or theologians but scientists. The CDC is calling for a “whole-of-nation” response to the syphilis phenomenon—a vague phrase, but one likely to be fleshed out with condoms and antibiotics rather than government funding for teaching about chastity and personal moral responsibility. For chastity and responsibility are concepts that assume a moral framework for sex, the very thing our culture has now spent many decades repudiating.
There is a real but simple lesson here for Western culture: While there is a cure for STDs, there is no cure for stupidity. The sexual revolution is one of the most obviously failed experiments ever attempted in human history and yet, rather than reject it, society keeps forging ahead. All the evidence of its failure—the urban scourge of single parenthood, the elaborate menu of diseases, the rates of abortion, the falling birth rates, the objectification and exploitation of women—is regarded as a bug of the system, a set of technical problems to be addressed with technical solutions. Then there is the development of a linguistic culture designed to render any criticism illegitimate. Children from homes where mum and dad stayed together are “privileged,” as if the love, self-discipline, and fidelity of their parents was somehow bought at the unjust cost of denying that to some other child. To point out that certain patterns of sexual behavior greatly increase the chances of catching STDs, or that a life of promiscuity might be setting the stage for twilight years of loneliness, is to be judgmental or self-righteous. Strange to tell, the same is not typically applied to those who advise that it is dangerous to cross a busy road at rush hour without waiting for a break in the traffic.
The problems with the sexual revolution are embarrassingly obvious. A philosophy of sex that views it as recreational and focused on personal satisfaction tilts inevitably toward seeing the other person as an object to be used. That is why sexual liberation has not proved the gateway to a feminist utopia but has instead favored men. It has also further downgraded children to those who interfere with self-fulfillment. Human bodies do not do well when we use them in any way we wish, especially in the sexual realm. Active gay men are seventeen times more likely to develop anal cancer than their heterosexual counterparts. Even the government acknowledges that, though it is strangely coy about offering the obvious advice. It is hard to imagine the government blithely reporting that statistic relative to any other human activity without also strongly advising people to desist from the problematic behavior. And we have yet to see the full effect of the free-floating sexual life of no commitments on that other current health problem: loneliness. I’d wager it will intensify, not mitigate, the problem of late-life isolation and despair. And yet the revolution continues apace, with each catastrophe simply one more glitch for the experts to solve.
Human history indicates that the self-evident nonsense of an idea is seldom a barrier to it becoming the dominant philosophy of its age. That man is born free and is everywhere in chains is one. That sex is a cost-free, light recreation is another. And we are paying a heavy price for this sexual fantasy, with no sign as yet that our scientific experts are willing to step up and play the role of moral conscience on anything but those issues where they can safely affirm the tastes of the day, such as recreational drugs, fruit-flavored vapes, and alcohol.
In conclusion, here is some expert advice that might help the CDC as it ponders a strategy to combat syphilis. My father was not a religious man, but he did have plenty of good advice for how to live life. I pass on for free to the experts his words to me on how to avoid STDs: “Keep it in your trousers, son.” Blunt, practical, and—unlike antibiotics—one hundred percent effective one hundred percent of the time. Maybe that might be the basis for a whole-of-nation approach that does not breach the wall of separation but also yields some excellent results? At the very least, it is more in touch with scientific reality than the fantasy world of the sexual ideologues who have already destroyed so many lives and apparently co-opted so many “experts.”
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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