As a society we seem bent on sexualizing everything. Nearly every movie or TV series for adults features a good deal of sexual insinuations, talk, and action. Women’s chic clothing is provocative; even small girls are dressed up as sirens. Football games are adorned by scantily clad “cheerleaders” whose gyrations are pretty transparent. Erectile dysfunction ads run during family time on TV. College kids engage in “hooking up,” wherein the point is to have as much sex as possible without any personal commitment or memory. Above all, the internet is awash with pornography, available anonymously to anyone who wishes to view it. No perversity or degradation goes un-videoed.
All this is the fruit of the sexual liberation movement that moves like a tsunami in America life. The guiding principle is that everyone ought to be free to—and have the right to—express their sexual desires in any fashion whatever as long as there is consent. When consent is absent, however, judgment and punishment rain down on the hapless perpetrator without mercy or end. Lives can be ruined for those who are forced into non-consensual sex (child pornography and sexual assault) or who perpetrate it or are charged falsely with it.
Everything hangs on that crucial element of consent. But when the culture exhorts and excites everyone to engage in sex, it seems grossly naïve to believe that many people—mostly men—will not act upon their desires without regard to that weak reed of consent. Relying on consent in the face of such magnified desire is like the Dutch boy holding his finger in a hole in the dike in the midst of a flood.
A wiser society channeled sexual desire into constructive ends. It connected sex with commitment. It did not optimistically believe that sex unfettered by institutional guidance was harmless. Indeed, one of the main purposes of marriage was to protect society from sexual disorder and violence. Marriage, of course, was the social institution par excellence that incorporated sex into a permanent faithful union between a man and a woman. Both woman and man gave up their sexual wanderings for the sake of an exclusive kind of love. It was in that context that children were best born and reared. The institution was shored up by law and by a religious culture that elevated marriage—and the sex within it—to a Sacrament or a Holy Covenant. Marriage and the natural family became the building blocks of a good society.
But the marriage culture has been badly damaged by the sexual revolution. Ironically, however, it has not been as damaging to the college-educated classes as it has been to poorer classes and minorities. Educated people generally marry before they have children. They usually stay married and aim at a wholesome family life, supported by a decent income. They have resources—human and material—to cushion any mishaps.
Poor and working class people, no longer shored up by the institution and culture of marriage, often lead precisely the disordered and sometimes violent lives that the older defenders of marriage feared. They tend not to marry but have children anyway, often passed around to various persons who are move in and out of unstable family life. Young mothers often wind up alone, faced with daunting responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, the children of such families have sharply diminished life chances.
However, it is educated people (our elites) who press forward the sexual revolution. They are ones who produce the entertainment and do the advertising. They are creators and supporters of internet pornography. They are the ones—many in academia—who themselves live fairly conventional lives but would not be caught dead defending the institution of marriage. The negative effects of their actions or lack thereof are borne by those below them on the social class ladder, leading one commentator to characterize their action as “class warfare.”
Fittingly, colleges and universities are caught in the tension between unfettered desire and the need for consent, leading the federal government, of all people, to propose—or impose?—a whole battery of rules to govern sexual relations on campus. Women, who were supposed to be the same sort of sexual beings as men, are being surrounded by a chastity belt of rules that demand consent so primly that the whole system makes the Victorian age look permissive. The male who violates them—or is charged with violating them—is considered guilty until proven innocent.
Let’s hope the older marriage culture—now of a more equalitarian hew—will again arise to rescue a decaying culture. Sex really does need the guidance of a wholesome ethic. Consent is certainly necessary but not enough.
Dr. Robert D. Benne is a Jordan Trexler Professor Emeritus and Research Associate at Roanoke College.