Published August 29, 2022
The devil may promise the world, but what he delivers is hell.
The rejection of Satan and all of his empty promises is not just a rhetorical flourish in traditional baptismal vows. Rather, it instructs and reminds us that the blandishments of sin are deceptive. The immediate enjoyment rarely lives up to the hype, and in the long run we find ourselves, in the words of C.S. Lewis’ wily devil Screwtape, ruled by an “ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.”
This is why there is unease even among the denizens of the high holy places of sexual liberalism, such as the New York Times. They are noticing that the sexual revolution has been imprisoning, rather than liberating. For example, a recent piece by Nona Willis Aronowitz complains that, even though “Women’s right to sexual satisfaction is taken as much more of a given… extracting what we actually want from a mess of cultural and political influences can still sometimes feel like an impossible challenge.”
Michelle Goldberg, a columnist at the same paper, has likewise been puzzling over how sexual liberation has produced so much misery and oppression. She admits that “as sex positivity went mainstream and fused with a culture shaped by pornography” the sexual revolution actually “became a cause of some of the same suffering it was meant to remedy.” Furthermore, she realizes that the emphasis on consent as the measure of sexual morality is a dead end. Goldberg writes that our “dating culture appears to be an emotional meat grinder whose miseries and degradations can’t be solved by ever more elaborate rituals of consent.”
To sum up: Liberal feminists are proclaiming that the sexual revolution has failed to provide relational happiness or satisfaction. Instead, it regularly makes men and (especially) women unhappy. And all the conservative Christians said “amen!”—and maybe also “I told you so.”
But here’s the thing: Neither writer is willing to abandon, or even curtail, the sexual revolution. Rather, they are sure that just a little more liberation will do the trick. Goldberg concludes that women just need to be more assertive, both in sex and in the dating market, by insisting on realizing their desires. Aronowitz appears even more committed to staying the course, declaring that, “reaching for more sexual freedom, not less—the freedom to have whatever kind of sex we want, including, yes, casual sex and choking sex and porny sex—is still the only way we can hope to solve the problems of our current sexual landscape.”
This is the mindset of an addict, chasing the dragon of a better high even as lives crumble, relationships break, and the flesh decays. It is how, as Screwtape put it, the devil seeks to “get a man’s soul and to give him nothing in return.” In the end there is no longer even much pleasure, just desperate appetite—a wretched Gollum clutching the Ring in the miserable darkness, forever.
These feminist proposals offer no comfort for those hurt by our sexual culture, and no help for those struggling with the tyranny of desire. And desire is indeed a tyrant if it is not ruled and checked by a person’s higher nature. Christians will recall scriptural warnings about being in thrall to desire, notably Jesus’ teaching that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” And philosophy has also told us this truth, most notably through Plato’s exploration of the inevitable wicked misery of a person ruled by the passions.
Thus, the triumph of the sexual revolution is creating the conditions in which Christian sexual morality will once again appear protective and merciful, rather than a killjoy. The promises of the sexual revolution are empty indeed, and it is Christians who retain the intellectual, cultural and spiritual resources to envision and model an alternative. In a sexual world (mis)ruled by the tyranny of desire, the Christian view of sex as a self-giving act of love in marriage looks pretty good, and the restraints around it appear as necessary protections.
Those who accept the framework of sexual liberation may be able to sense that something is wrong, but they cannot offer a solution from within their own moral and philosophical tradition—except, that is, for yet more fervid indulgence, restrained only by more self-assertion. In this view, sex is treated as a negotiation between self-interested actors who must reach a mutually satisfactory settlement.
No wonder sexual exploitation and dissatisfaction are so rampant that even feminist writers of The New York Times have noticed.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.