The Modern Sexual “Martyr”

According to Christianity, we are made for communion. Created in the image of a God who is Divine Communion, we are made to give ourselves to and for others. Without Eve, for instance, Adam could not enter into the communio personarum and so was not fully able to bear the image of God.

A recent Esquire piece by John H. Richardson, “The Martyrs of Sex,” sees it quite differently.

With an ear to scandal, Richardson intones a litany of martyrs—Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Petraeus, Anthony Weiner, and others—all sacrificed to “our hypocrisy and denial.” Patron saints of adultery, each reveals that “sex, be it adulterous or premarital or deviant or polyamorous, is a good thing … sex itself is the moment of grace.”

As is often the case, grace is rejected, locked out of “the invisible prison we build for ourselves,” although adultery is “a glorious terrifying truth that bursts through our barriers if we have the vitality to rebel,” lifting ourselves “up into an exaltation we still refuse to understand.”

Men are “geldings of civilization,” wives “indentured … into the role of prison guard … slowly killing” the vitality of the male in the name of social order. And just as Nietzsche proclaimed priestly morality to be cruel, so too we ought to pity the wives/prison guards, for “no free person would choose such a role … [t]heir cruelty is in direct proportion to their own suffering, as cruelty usually is.”

We’ve chosen civilization when we ought to have “declare[d] ourselves as gods,” instead allowing “mean little scolds who drag us down from the throne and tell us we are hateful, our desire is hateful, that our essential vitality is a sin.” Unlike “healthier societies,” we’ve enforced “denying that vitality” so to fit “into the three-piece suit of civilization.” In doing so, “it makes liars of us … we always make our dilemma worse by getting everything backward.”

The noble and bold include sexuality “in their definition of power … part and parcel of why the great become great in the first place.” The wives of the great know this: “Of course I knew what he was doing. I celebrate him! That’s the man I married, that’s why I married him, for the vital fire you pretend to despise.” So why do we geld our godlike status, our nature as “Big Dog”? Nothing is accomplished except “the ugliest need born of … civilization … declaring that which is most beautiful to be filthy, that which is most natural to be unnatural.” A “rage for order always invites destruction,” and the only way to avoid destruction is to destroy order, “to open the prison doors of civilization and finally learn how to live free.” Civilization or life, one cannot have both.

Modernity Brings Alienation When Nature Replaces God
As articulated by Luigi Giussani, founder of the international Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation, earlier periods had “an unfragmented conception of the person … the figure of the saint as the exemplary image … who has realized the unity between himself and his destiny.” The unity of sanctity, however, was expelled from our ideals during “the great change” of modernity. Offering a brief history, Giussani explains how Humanism offered instead “the divo, the successful man who relies on his own forces.” No longer was the ideal “projected … towards something greater” than the individual, an adherence to the “Voice of an Other,” but was instead achievement, accomplishment. But once worth was loosed from the objective love of God, “instead consigned to the mercy of fortune, what then?”  Fortune can be resisted, perhaps, wrestled by the very greatest of men, but time levels all mountains, overcomes all heroes, and humanism imbibed the tragic sadness of the ancients, “that sense of ultimate limitation,” the failure, in the end, to “lift myself above the earth.”

Unable to adequately ground worth in the divo, transcendence “must come from something else, something greater,” and, says Giussani, the Renaissance identified “the ultimate source of creativity … with nature.” From nature springs the “impulsive, the spontaneous, instinct,” now equated with the good. “Do what you will,” declares Rabelais, “because man is, by nature, driven to act virtuously,” which is, at the same time, “a subtle but real hostility to … a God who says yes or no, who seeks to regulate, to prune human instincts.”

Consequently, the last centuries bequeathed a legacy convinced “that success is what makes life worthwhile; that nature merits our complete trust (i.e., instinct is exalted); and, finally, that reason can bend nature … in accordance with its every wish and command.” For men and women so formed, freedom comes to be understood as “abandonment of one’s self to nothing but the force of one’s reactions, instincts, fancies, and opinions,” in stark opposition to “adhering to what is real … to being.” Enslaved to this distorted account of freedom, it’s unsurprising to find conflict between the individual and civilization, for civilization’s claims and limits must be understood as deeply restrictive of freedom. Civilization, so understood, must be overcome to maintain the natural, the free, the noble. Or, as “Martyrs of Sex” puts it, there’s no “vitality left after all the social and personal castration that we enact every single day of our miserable slavish self-denying lives.”

Note the “cultural bewilderment,” as Giussani terms it, in such statements. In declaring undifferentiated freedom the absolute goal, “man is powerless to be man” insofar as he is “free for nothing.” Consequently, the celebration of natural vitality alienates, cementing freedom as deep estrangement, for “if man is so free as to be the measure of reality, he is condemned to an abysmal loneliness … a stranger to everything that is,” particularly to culture and civilization, which cannot but appear as stultifying.

While Richardson presents his vision as one of vitality and life, just as Nietzsche did, Giussani sees through such façades, noting instead “spiritual sickness … the loss of the taste for living.” True, sickness is couched in the language of life, power, or strength, but this is “temper tantrums in the fact of being.” The freedom they seek is estrangement, “cut off from any relationship with things, with others,” and even with themselves. They speak life, they live death.

This last statement needs more explanation, I suspect.

Christianity Rejects Moralism and Proclaims Communion with God
What is morality, sexual or otherwise? How this is answered decisively shapes, I should think, whether civilization is viewed as alienating and enervating or a source of life and joy. As loving embrace with Another, or a slavish martyrdom.

Giussani states that “moralism is the forced adherence, voluntaristically stressed, to the ideals of humanity approved by the dominant culture,” which “requires a guilt-inducing conformism.” Richardson would agree, claiming his a noble attempt to throw off the shackles of culturally induced guilt in the name of vital freedom and power, and, moreover, identifying the Faith as a (the?) noxious host for much of the guilt and hypocrisy.

But the Faith is not a moralism. It does not force, it is not voluntaristic, and it pays scant heed to the ideals of dominant culture. Moralism posits norms and rules for action—commanding this, obliging that—while Christianity proclaims communion.

The Faith values freedom to act, of course, but its understanding of action is non-reductive, refusing to limit the meaning of action to the rules or strictures of a social group. Instead, human action has an origin not of its own making and a purpose far outstripping the measure of man. We act because we seek some good; we seek, it seems, because we lack; our restlessness and longing reveals our desire for fulfillment, for meaning, for the good we lack. We sense, too, that the good intended is rather more than this or that particular object of desire—the raise, the house, the toy, the sexual conquest is not enough, not “full enough” to satisfy that completion for the sake of which we act. (Richardson knows this, thus professing power or greatness rather than sexual satisfaction as his fundamental motivation.)

Our desire is excessive, it would appear, always going beyond the particular objects, always reaching farther than our grasp. We desire complete fulfillment. In the Christian articulation of this experience, our desire is for God, and, moreover, our desire takes the form of love. That is, we seek relation: loving, intimate union—communion.

Christian action springs from a loving desire for communion, and in love of God the basic principle of Christian morality takes its meaning—Love your neighbor as yourself, which is to say, nurture, allow, and do not impede as others freely seek communion. Absent the loving reaching out for communion, however, morality becomes moralism, “something that derives from laws and from the coherence of an understanding of life validated by power.” So understood, “moralism always points an accusatory finger at man.”

If this is true, then Richardson is not entirely incorrect in viewing civilization as a yoke, for, as Giussani articulates, unless “one’s behavior flows from the dynamism intrinsic to an event to which one belongs [like love of communion],… it is an arbitrary and pretentious selection … among which the choices most publicized by power will dominate.”

Richardson Mistakes Moralism of Distorted Civilization with Christian Love
Ours is a deeply fragmented and contradictory civilization, exalting the bold conqueror, deifying authenticity, instinct, and self-importance, while simultaneously condemning inequality, naked aggression, and open disdain for the weak. Of course men like Richardson experience alienation and angry estrangement, for he’s been commanded to seek freedom as the purpose of life, especially to follow his own unique nature and proclivities—which urge him to hit, to rut, to achieve, to overcome, to dominate—while the very same culture insists also that he be nice and privilege the voice of the marginalized. He’s had enough of the fragmentation, choosing his nature over the gentler voices, and in this way striving to bring his splintered self together, to be fully human again. It’s a temper tantrum, but can the culture provide him anything better?

Giussani warns of the Church failing mankind, offering merely “a narrowed moral horizon, the boundaries of which are those stemming from the dominant conception of the life of the society.” When this happens, the Faith “ends up becoming a pretext for some concern or other that wins the consent of the mentality in power.” If we merely scold Richardson but cannot show the way of love we risk perpetuating the fragmentation, choosing moralism rather than love, siding with the narrow concerns of this or that element of the disintegration.

We’ll create martyrs, as Richardson thinks them, those who, in the name of their own dignity and wholeness, however misconstrued, revolt against the incoherence and arbitrary shame foisted upon them by a distorted civilization, and these noble martyrs will be unable to distinguish the Faith from the bent culture, and not without some cause.

Instead of moralism, Giussani notes, Christianity “must offer the living God. Not the god of the dead, or of human intelligence, but the living God,” an “all-embracing fact.” And since God is communion, and since the all-embracing, full desire of our restlessness is love of this communion, the living God is offered and known as “the experience of a great love.” Only love coheres, only love unites our splintered selves, only love orients morality towards our full humanity as beings for communion with ourselves, with others, and with God. Only love is credible.

Somewhat strangely, then, we must be saints so as to avoid creating martyrs.

Editor’s note: The figures pictured above, from left to right, are Anthony Weiner, Tiger Woods, and Bill Clinton.

R. J. Snell


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

  • JGG

    Richardson describes moralizers as “mean little scolds who drag us down from the throne and tell us we are hateful, our desire is hateful, that our essential vitality is a sin.” There’s a reason I don’t read Esquire. Richardson could have made much more of his piece if he’d talked about abusive sex or the hypocrisy, rather than the meanness, of many moralizers.

  • Alecto

    It seems Richardson doesn’t view marriage as a contract: a mutual exchange of promises, and yet it is, “I promise to love, honor and obey.” The first promise is to love the other person: forsaking all others. If the person is competent, he or she makes it freely, fully understanding the nature of the promise. Therefore, a man who enters into the married state must be seeking to forsake all others in order to establish with one woman that communion of souls in love, is he not? When either party breaches this promise by committing adultery, it demonstrates failure to love the other person. There are consequences including feeling remorse. Those feelings are natural and Richardson is telling men not to feel this? I do not see how that improves a man?

    Richardson is telling them not to feel what is the natural consequence for breaking a promise. I wonder if Mr. Richardson would tell business people who cheat others and break promises of much less consequence not to make good or pay up? I suspect not since he illogically views these types of promises as sacrosanct, unlike the promises of marriage.

    • Kevin McCormick

      This is an important point but should be clarified. In fact, Christian marriage is more accurately described as a covenant. In a contract the two parties involved sign a document and promise to uphold the agreement but, as with any legal document, they may at a later date wish to revise or get out of that contract. In the marriage covenant, the man and woman ask God the Creator to seal the union. This means that the two persons are united in love and bound to their vows for life and that the bond cannot be unsealed except by the death of one of the spouses.

      The distinction between “covenant” and “contract” lies at the root of much of the misunderstanding between the Church and the secular culture with regard to natural marriage, adultery, divorce and same-sex marriage.

  • hombre111

    Excellen essay. Christianity is a counter culture. In the old days, Christians did not expose their infants at the whim of the father. They refused to worship the emperor. Today, Christians make a different kind of stand. But yesterday and today, there is a price to be paid.

  • Richardson says we should “make ourselves as gods” ? Hmmm…. that sounds horrifyingly similar to Satan in Paradise Lost. “Tis far better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”

  • Tony

    Moment of Schadenfreude — soft nihilism doesn’t stay soft. But poor Nietzsche of the softened brain, and poor stupid John Richardson, reduced to making gods out of slobbering mean selfish little cads and louts. It ain’t as if Tiger Woods ever exhibited any of the old pagan virtues, let alone faith, hope, and charity — and he by far is the least noxious of the pests above.

  • ace

    Ugh! Why do we give John H. Richardson the time of day? He’s the one who in 2009 wrote a somewhat sympathetic article about late term abortionist Warren Hern – how passionate Hern is about the work he does, how his momma, wife, and kid love him and the “compassion” he has for women… yeah, that must have been a feather in his cap to endear him to his favorite audiences…

    The real martyrs of sex? Women, who by having abortions or by using estrogen-progesterone pills have increased their future risk of cancer or who made their partner wear a condom but still got herpes or HPV (and more women die of complications from HPV than from HIV). And this doesn’t even begin to speak about emotional damage, the damage of reputation, or the damage when a woman is intimidated or otherwise bullied for not having sex. And it’s all OK because supposedly “power imbalance is what excites us in the first place”. What bunk! Even in a monogamous marital relationship, voluntary sought after sexual submission of one spouse to another is a far cry from marital rape or emotional humiliation or bullying to “force” the sexual act or some type of sexual behavior.

    But anyway, Richardson did get one thing right: “A rage for order always invites destruction.” St Paul agreed with this when in Romans 5:21 he said: “The law entered in so that transgression might increase…” Unlike Richardson who concludes that we should therefore wallow in and embrace filth, St. Paul states: “…where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through justification for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

  • ace

    R. J. is spot on to bring Nietzsche into this; a man who ultimately went mad and a true prophet of irrationalism, but nevertheless, not original in the sense that like many others, he was a man of his time and culture. Unfortunately, someone else who came into his own during the European “Fin de Siecle” and was greatly influenced by Nietzsche was C. G. Jung. And it is Jung who we can thank or blame for an impetus towards much of the bunk of New Age spirituality and neopaganism, which, unfortunately, has made its way into some forms of Catholic spirituality – and yet, Jung wanted to do away with Catholicism…
    For example:

  • poetcomic1

    Actually, I find the article not shocking at all but rather accurate. This is the world of sex without God and without a fundamentally sacramental relationship between human beings. I don’t even feel very offended but know from experience that this male ‘dance of animal spirits’ and ‘healthy unimpeded drives’ is a dandy trope of freedom but …. let us say your cancerous prostate is removed, you are impotent and your ‘so-called prison guard wife’ is ‘stuck’ with you and there is nothing to ‘protect’ you from any more?

  • Pingback: Laetare Jerusalem()

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Richardson does capture a certain mood; one much better expressed by Swinburne

    For the crown of our life as it closes
    Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
    No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,
    And love is more cruel than lust.
    Time turns the old days to derision,
    Our loves into corpses or wives;
    And marriage and death and division
    Make barren our lives.

  • CadaveraVeroInnumero

    Poor Richardson. So unoriginal. Truly without imagination. Think he’s being revelatory. The man’s not. We’ve been here before. In the past century Richardson’s mush and puff was propagated by Aleister Crowley, especially at his abbey of Thelema, Palermo, Italy.

    We’ve seen it all before.

    Richardson is just repopulating a mass-market venue with the tired doctrines of Sex Magick. Crowley, in the Book of Law, proclaimed in darker terms where such sexual hankerings originate – the dogma of Sethian Luciferianism (in short, the priesthood of Ancient Egypt). Quoting Crowley: “The Book of the Law solves the sexual problem completely. Each individual has an absolute right to satisfy his sexual instinct as is physiologically proper for him. The one injunction is to treat all such acts as sacraments. One should not eat as the brutes, but in order to enable one to do one’s will. The same applies to sex. We must use every faculty to further the one object of our existence.”

    Like Richardson, Crowley had a nasty habit of setting free that which destroys the truest of liberties – things as they are within the Natural Law. Such doctrines must be warred against. Even a fascist fool like Mussolini had the good sense to expel Crowley from Sicily and lock the door to his notorious Abbey.

    But the Thelemities live on. Charles Mason, for one, sucked on the teet. So did Jim Jones of Jonestown. One could go on and on, from rock to rap, to installations in edgy galleries Westside of Eastside of Manhattan. And now modern Berlin and Warsaw as today’s first-order mecca for a Sex Magick consuming its own tail and trailings.

    Poor Richardson – the man thought he was being so clever.

  • Pingback: Anonymous()

  • PalaceGuard

    Mr. Richardson should have titled his piece “50 Shades of Grime”.

  • Pingback: First Links — 3.12.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog()

  • Pingback: Moderna martyrer och gudar | Kultur & Religion()

  • dch

    Dinesh D’Souza.

    That’s the guy who should have been in the center picture spot!