There you will show me
That which my soul desired;
And there You will give at once,
O You, my life!
That which You gave me the other day.
—John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle
Midnight. Shelly is getting herself drunk so that she can bring herself to go home with the strange man seated next to her at the bar. One o’clock. Steven is busy downloading pornographic images of children from internet bulletin boards. Two o’clock. Marjorie, who used to spend every Friday night in bed with a different man, has been bingeing and purging since eleven. Three o’clock. Pablo stares through the darkness at his ceiling, wondering how to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion. Four o’clock. After partying all night, Jesse takes another man home, not mentioning that he tests positive for an incurable STD. Five o’clock. Lisa is in the bathroom, cutting herself delicately but compulsively with a razor. She isn’t trying to kill herself. She doesn’t understand why she does it. She does it often.
This isn’t what my generation expected when it invented the sexual revolution. The game isn’t fun anymore. Even some of the diehard proponents of that enslaving liberation have begun to show signs of fatigue and confusion. Naomi Wolf, in her book Promiscuities, reports that when she lost her own virginity at age fifteen, there was “something important missing.” Apparently, the thing missing was the very sense that anything could be important. In her book Last Night in Paradise, Katie Roiphe poignantly wonders what could be wrong with freedom: “It’s not the absence of rules exactly, the dizzying sense that we can do whatever we want, but the sudden realization that nothing we do matters.” Desperate to find a way to make it matter, some young male homosexuals court death, deliberately seeking out men with deadly infections as partners; this is called “bug chasing.” At the opposite extreme, some of those who languish in the shadow of the revolution toy with the idea of abstinence—but an abstinence that arises less from purity or principle than from boredom, fear, and disgust. In Hollywood, of all places, it has become fashionable to talk up Buddhism, a doctrine which finds the cure for suffering in the ending of desire, and the cure for desire in annihilation.
Speaking of exhaustion, let me tell you about my students. In the ’80s, if I suggested in class that there might be any problem with sexual liberation, they said that everything was fine—what was I talking about? Now if I raise questions, many of them speak differently. They still live like libertines, sometimes they still talk like libertines, but it’s getting old. They are beginning to sound like the children of third‑generation Maoists. My generation may have ordered the sexual revolution, but theirs is paying the price.
I am not speaking only of the medical price. To be sure, that price is ruinous: At the beginning of the revolution, most physicians had to worry about only two or three sexually transmitted diseases, and now it is more like two or three dozen. But I am not speaking only of broken bodies. Consider, for example, broken childhoods. What is it like for your family to break up because dad has found someone new, then to break up again because mom has? What is it like to be passed from stepparent to stepparent to stepparent? What is it like to grow up knowing that you would have had a sister, but she was aborted?
A young man remarked in one of my classes that he longed to get married and stay married to the same woman forever, but because his own parents hadn’t been able to manage it, he was afraid to get married at all. Women show signs of avoidance too, but in a more conflicted way. According to a survey commissioned by the Independent Women’s Forum, 83 percent of college women say marriage is a very important goal for them. Yet 40 percent of them engage in “hooking up”—physical encounters (commonly oral sex) without any expectation of relationship whatsoever.4 Do you hear a little cognitive dissonance there? Can you think of a sexual behavior less likely to get you into marriage? The ideology of hooking up says that sex is merely release or recreation. You have some friends for friendship and you have other friends just for hooking up—they’re called “friends with benefits.” What your body does is unrelated to your heart. Don’t believe it. The same survey reports that hooking up commonly takes place when both participants are drinking or drunk, and it’s not hard to guess the reason why: After a certain amount of this, you may need to get drunk to go through with it.
The fact is that we aren’t designed for hooking up. Our hearts and bodies are designed to work together. Truly, don’t we already know that? A writer who interviewed teenagers who hook up supplies a telling anecdote. The girl Melissa tells him, “I have my friends for my emotional needs, so I don’t need that from the guy I’m having sex with.” Yet on the day of the interview, “Melissa was in a foul mood. Her ‘friend with benefits’ had just broken up with her. ‘How is that even possible?’ she said, sitting, shoulders slumped, in a booth at a diner. ‘The point of having a friend with benefits is that you won’t get broken up with, you won’t get hurt.’ ”
But let there be no mistake: When I say we aren’t designed for this sort of thing, I’m not just speaking for females. A woman may be more likely to cry the next morning; it’s not so easy to sleep with a man who won’t even call you back. But a man pays a price, too. He probably thinks he can instrumentalize his relationships with women in general, yet remain capable of romantic intimacy when the right woman comes along. Sorry, fellow. That’s not how it works. Sex is like applying adhesive tape; promiscuity is like ripping the tape off again. If you rip it off, rip it off, rip it off, eventually the tape can’t stick anymore.
The ruin of the adhesive probably contributes to an even wider social problem that might be called the Peter Pan syndrome. Men in their forties with children in their twenties talk like boys in their teens. “I still don’t feel like a grown‑up,” they say. They don’t even call themselves men—just “guys.”
Now in a roundabout sort of way, I’ve just introduced the concept of natural law. Although the natural law tradition is unfamiliar to most people today, it has been the main axis of Western ethical thought for twenty‑three centuries, and in fact it is experiencing a modest renaissance. The hinge concept is meaning and design. I said that we’re not designed for hooking up, that we’re designed for our bodies and hearts to work together. We human beings really do have a design, and I mean that term in the broadest sense: not merely mechanical design (this part goes here, this part goes there), but what kind of being we are. Because the design is not merely biological, but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, the languages of natural law, natural design, natural meanings, and natural purposes are intertranslatable, and most of the time interchangeable. Some ways of living comport with our design. Others don’t.
This excerpt is from J. Budziszewski’s latest book, On the Meaning of Sex (ISI Books, 2012)