Published April 1, 2022
For a prophet of doom, vindication requires catastrophe, which tends to take the fun out of “I told you so.” Thus, for Christian conservatives the disaster of the sexual revolution is cause for sorrow, not schadenfreude.
That the sexual revolution has failed to deliver on its promises is increasingly obvious, even to those who loathe Christian sexual ethics. For example, Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times has returned to the problem, this time with a review of “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation” by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba. Although Goldberg dislikes the book’s Christian influences, she concedes that “modern heterosexual dating culture appears to be an emotional meat grinder whose miseries and degradations can’t be solved by ever more elaborate rituals of consent.”
Despite this admission, Goldberg isn’t ready to abandon the sexual revolution, but instead wants to save it. She concludes that the problem “is that many women are still embarrassed by their own desires, particularly when they are emotional, rather than physical.”
This, she argues, is why Emba’s book “is full of examples of people suppressing their longings. She interviews many women who seem to feel entitled to one-night stands, but not to kindness. … It’s what you get when you liberate sex without liberating women.” If only women were more assertive about what they want and don’t want, all would be well.
Liberalism Undermines the Desires It Claims to Liberate
This unrealistic analysis reveals the impoverishment and impotence of modern liberalism’s moral vocabulary. All that this sort of liberalism can offer women who have been immiserated by our sexual culture is the suggestion that they negotiate for more romance and less sexual degradation from porn-addled men.
But liberals remain insistent that these preferences are purely subjective, and are not normative in any way. Thus, liberalism can only suggest a more inclusive settlement between warring desires, with emotional needs now balanced with sexual fetishes.
It would, of course, be good if more women told men to take their internet-induced perversions and shove them. It would also be good if women demanded more emotional commitment from men, rather than settling for hookups. But liberal culture cripples women’s ability to take such stands by vitiating the necessary moral and cultural support for them.
Morally, liberal ideology deprives a woman of anything stronger than setting her own “I want” against the “I want” of a man. This refusal to judge between desires leaves modern liberals such as Goldberg stuck, able to recognize the disaster of the current relational marketplace, but unwilling to accept any moral judgments that would give women’s desires more than subjective value. After all, without a normative understanding of what is good in a relationship (including sex), why should a woman’s desire for romance, or even simple kindness, matter more than a man’s porn-induced kinks?
Furthermore, liberalism’s theoretical neutrality between competing desires in practice favors desires that are simple and intense over those that are more complex and diffuse. Thus, in a liberal culture, emotional needs and relational longings will naturally take second place to immediate sexual gratification. To be uncomfortable with unbounded indulgence is to mark oneself as an enemy of liberalism. This is why liberalism’s supposed neutrality about the nature of the good and the good life actually denigrates self-control and commitment while promoting selfish indulgence. Our culture is filled with celebrations of the liberation of desire, including the sexual desires and relational habits that are proving so harmful to women.
A Sexual Counter-Revolution
Changing this exploitative environment requires more than subjective assertiveness. Minor tweaks to the sexual revolution will not fix it. What is needed is a normative challenge to sexual liberalism’s ideology, morality, and culture — a sexual counter-revolution.
A sexual counter-revolution in favor of loving commitment may seem unlikely, but it has happened before. There have been, of course, the original sexual revolutions as Christianity converted pagan cultures, but there have also been revivals of Christian sexual teaching, such as the Victorian reaction against the excesses of regency England. Today, such a sexual counter-revolution would be motivated by the misery the sexual revolution has inflicted — misery for which sexual liberalism seems to have no remedy.
Thus, Christians should not grow weary or afraid of proclaiming gospel truths about human sexuality and family life. Though they are unpopular and unfashionable, and the powers that be will rage against us, our culture needs Christian truths, including in bed.
Of course, cautions may be appended to this. We should always strive to speak with wisdom, to be gentle when needed, and to humbly recall our individual and corporate sins. The excesses of evangelical purity culture a couple of decades ago are an example of how bad teaching can harm believers and discredit our witness.
But we should not allow our sins and the inevitable difficulties of life to keep us from sharing the Christian moral insights that our culture needs. We know that the sexual revolution has failed to deliver on its promises of happiness because the liberation of desire means slavery to desire. If we do not master our desires they will master us, or, alternatively, we will be mastered by someone else’s tyrannical passions.
The liberation of desire has led not to satisfaction and peace, but to conflict and domination. It is no wonder that many, especially women, are looking for an alternative. Christians should be proclaiming — and, more importantly, modeling — a better way to live and love.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.