This Culture is Ugly: Dark Thoughts on Roe Day
Many years ago I heard attributed to an Episcopal seminary professor the observation that Americans have a difficult time dealing with the Christian concept of sin, because we want to believe that “if it’s a sin you ought to stop doing it, and if you can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin.” I think of this often, and it’s come to mind several times over the past few days, during which three things have come together to leave me with a sense of gloom.
The first involves the visits to colleges which my wife and high-school-senior daughter have been making. I find that I can’t be enthusiastic about any of them, no matter what they offer in the way of academics, in part because they have all succumbed to the sexual revolution and have become, as one college administrator, more honest than discreet, put it, summer camps with no grownups. No grownups, and lots and lots of alcohol and other intoxicants.
Aside from a few conservative Christian schools (none of which offer the subject my daughter wants to study), colleges have long since dropped anything but a token effort to prevent or in many cases even to discourage sexual activity in their dormitories. One student guide, showing us around a dorm, replied to a parent’s question about male visitation to the girls’ floor (that’s floor, not building) with the rather too coy policy: “if there’s not a problem, there’s not a policy,” by which she meant that only if a girl’s roommate objects to her boyfriend’s presence is he required to leave. Of course it is possible for a student to remain chaste in this environment, but now that effort, which people have always found difficult, is effectively discouraged.
On the way to one of these visits I read a long piece by Caitlin Flanagan in the January Atlantic (thanks to Dawn Eden for the link, and please note that the article is full of very crude sexual references, including a fairly nauseating quotation from a rap song). Putatively a book review, the piece is in fact a discussion of the sickening phenomenon of teenage girls performing casually impersonal sexual services for boys—behaving, in short, as the pornographic popular culture in which they are immersed tells them they should behave. Flanagan, one of our most insightful writers on matters of love and marriage, offers this stark summary: “Society has let its girls down in every possible way.”
I agree entirely with this, but unless I’m misreading her Flanagan doesn’t see clearly how we got to our present condition. She seems to put forward as an image of how things ought to be the book Forever by Judy Blume, in which a young girl intent on making love with her boyfriend is outfitted (by her cooperative parents, I gather) with contraceptive gear and certificates of health covering both parties, has a perfectly fulfilling sexual experience, then apparently (I haven’t read the book) prepares to move on to the next “relationship.” This strikes me as pretty clearly a middle-aged woman’s fantasy of what she would have liked her first sexual experiences to be, and Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t seem to see that the effect of this super-controlled Planned Parenthood approach to sex is to make the woman more available to the male while asking less of him—almost nothing, in fact, beyond not raping her and attempting to see to her pleasure during the act itself.
That was the second thing, and the third thing is today, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
All three of these social developments involve or are driven by the attempt to sterilize sex, not only in the obvious physical sense but in its psychological dimension as well (to say nothing of its spiritual dimension, the existence of which is widely denied). It is thought that if new life is prevented, or destroyed if it occurs, the pleasure of the act can be grasped without any assumption of responsibility, not just for a new life but for the other person. There is to be no baby, but also no bond, no spiritual conception of the new thing which is the family, based upon the couple pledged to each other until death, the one flesh of which Our Lord speaks. I think that if we understand the truth about sex we must see the modern attempt at liberation to be in fact an attempt to destroy sex in the most fundamental sense, because reproduction is so much of its essence. What is wanted is, in a sense, sexless sex.
The motives involved here are nothing new; mankind has always struggled with them. The illicit use of sex has always come easily to us, especially so to all too many men, and too many women have always had to learn how to kill in themselves what appears to be an innate feminine propensity to form an emotional bond where there has been physical intimacy. What may be new is the attempt to end the struggle by denying the significance of sex. The traditional rules concerning sexual behavior are impossibly difficult, we think, and we can’t be expected to follow them. So the problem becomes one of convincing ourselves that we aren’t doing anything wrong—if we can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin. But the truth of human nature asserts itself, and not the least apparent sign of its insistence is the shrill fury with which the proponents of lifeless sex greet any challenge to their doctrine.
I don’t know how God would judge the two cases, but it seems to me that a boy and girl of forty or fifty years ago, crazed with the wine of love and desire, slipping away to car or woods or barn for furtive and risky lovemaking, are more admirable, or at least more likable, because more human, than what we are told is the contemporary ideal: the properly certified and equipped pair engaging more or less openly in what is described, in a phrase which has always obscurely repelled me, as “having sex,” expecting nothing more than a brief physical pleasure and a casual friendliness. Not surprisingly, most women are not happy with this situation and spend a great deal of energy in search of what is vaguely called “commitment,” which is a euphemism or substitute for marriage (and which, also not surprisingly, sounds to the footloose male like a whiny attempt to renege on an implicit agreement).
I don’t know why this little piece of trivia sticks in my mind, but one of the early albums by the Mothers of Invention had a chaotic-looking cover, in one corner of which was a crudely-drawn picture of a tree with the caption “This tree is ugly and it wants to die.” A variation on the phrase recurs to me sometimes when I consider the pathologies of our culture. Sex can be tamed; that’s what marriage is for. But to attempt to render it trivial is to attempt to flee from the burden of being human. This culture is ugly and it wants to die.