‘Platonic Parenting’ and the War on Love

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The latest step of our descent into selfishness and perversity is a trend called “platonic parenting.” A woman finds a stud male who is pleasant enough, who will be her “friend,” who will make no claims upon her, so that he can get her pregnant and they can raise the resultant experiment together while they are not together—not living together, not bound to one another for life, but casually together, perhaps by an agreement confirmed with a handshake.

When I wrote Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (2014), the single argument that my critics greeted with the most ridicule was that the acceptance of homosexual liaisons would “drive a deeper wedge between men and women.” “How can that be?” they scoffed. “Am I going to love my wife any less, just because two men are living together in the house next door?”

We do not reason any longer from principles, nor do we consider how those principles work themselves out in human culture and history. We are not serious people. Oh, we may be grim enough in our entertainment and angry in our politics, but we are not serious; heavy-hearted, but not grave and sober; Pharisees without the Law. The two principles that the sexual libertarians boast are no principles for moral action at all. One is that consent between or among adults makes a sexual act permissible. Such a position is deeply antisocial: as if the very thing by which a society comes to exist at all is not of social import and social concern. We would do well to revisit the arguments of congressmen who made statehood for Utah contingent upon the Mormon church’s rejection of bigamy. The congressmen understood that the principle of monogamy was at stake, and that if we gave way, we could expect reversion to barbarism, the chaos caused by bad example, and, a fortiori, the spread of the more natural evil: divorce. A state’s border is not a wall.

The other non-principle is that feelings are to be honored: they express what is most true about a human person. This is worse than antisocial. It is unreal. We hardly know what our feelings are; we deceive ourselves and others about them all the time. Feelings come and go. They are also immersed in our decisions, for at every moment of our lives we are feeling, thinking, and choosing creatures. If I am by nature given to being tight with money—because I have certain fears about security, or certain longings for wealth—I need not simply say, “That is what I am.” I can restrain, redirect, confirm, mollify, or reject those feelings. I can learn. If I am violent by nature, I need not steep my hands in blood. I can restrain, redirect, confirm, mollify, or reject my feelings. I can learn.

The principle of Sodom is that our bodies have no inherent meaning as male and female, created for one another, and indeed biological sex makes no sense and has no purpose otherwise. That principle has now worked its way into the dispirited and pathetically defiant minds of young people. I knew six years ago that you were more likely to see a young person blind drunk on a college campus than to see a boy and a girl holding hands. Pornography has supplanted romance. I did not foresee that the collapse of marriage would accelerate so quickly. Nor did I foresee that millions of young people would explicitly reject the very possibility of falling in love with someone of the opposite sex (after the ordinary way of nature), marrying, and having children. “Wasting time on romance” is what a recent article in The Guardian calls it; wasting time on what, in a real culture, next to religious devotion, is the single greatest motive for poetry and music and art.

The world ends, I see, not in tragedy but in farce, not with the cries of a Nietzsche, but with advertising slogans, taken internally. One of the sites facilitating “platonic parenting” calls itself PollenTree.com. Pollen. What else should we expect? When you say, “We are going to raise a child on purpose without love,” you have given up from the start, and have confined the child ipso facto into a sort of shallow and meaningless divorce. In so doing, you have done worse than to deny what sex is: you deny what a human being isYou make yourself and the child into objects of exchange or manufacture.

A human being is not a time-share at the seaside. A human being is more than a dog. A dog might be happy with Dad on Monday and Mom on Tuesday, and not miss a thing. But the human person does more than remember. He recollects; he keeps in mind; he makes memorialsHe is born, and is (or should be) embedded in history, especially the history of his family, extending back through his mother and father, and including uncles and cousins, grandparents, and their parents in turn. I am not speaking here about mere genetic material. A dog has that. I am talking about the family as a breathing, remembering, life-extending society, one that makes connections with other societies, and that possesses an order, for strength in the present and survival and proliferation in the future. Because we are the kinds of creatures we are, a child has the right to a real and not merely a notional family, just as he has a right to a home and not just a bed to sleep in. The child should be able to say of himself and his parents and his brothers and sisters, We.

A human being is also meant for love. I am not speaking about mere affection. A dog has that. I am not speaking about loyalty. A dog has that, and many a human being does not. The “platonic” couples, pasted together with a bit of glue and a sticker, do not. To love, for a human being, is to be for the welfare of the beloved, to place yourself entirely at his or her disposal, to say, “I am no longer my own.” As the poet Spenser says, referring to his marriage soon to come, “to enter in these bonds is to be free.” We become who we are meant to be by giving ourselves away. How, then, can the stiff-arm mother and the servile father possibly give the child an example of love, when they keep themselves daintily (but not chastely) secure from the welter of passion and the defeats and the triumphs of a man and woman attempting to build up a steadfast home for themselves and for their children? Do they truly love that child when they do not deign even to try?

And why should there be only two persons involved in the time-share? Why not three or four? Why not pitch the child from mother to father to mother to father? Or why should we not set up a Rent-a-Kid, so that people without the heart to love can get their hugs in?

The man and woman in the article say they have seen too much of the bitterness and anger of marriage and divorce. In their minds, they are sparing the child the pain that a real marriage and a real family would bring. “An admirable evasion of whoremaster man,” to use Shakespeare’s words. There is not honey enough in all the world to glaze the excuses that men and woman make when they want what they want, and to hell with anyone else. But there are things worse than bitterness and anger. Insipidity and indifference are worse. And fulfilling your duty is more important than procuring your pleasure. “What did I know, what did I know,” says the poet Robert Hayden, thinking of his father’s reliable and unthanked acts of duty on cold winter mornings, “of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Meanwhile, where is my Church? Where are her leaders? The patient is coughing up blood from lungs turned to sponges with consumption, and many a priest and prelate walks right past, smoking cigarettes and flicking the ash onto the dying man’s pajamas. But they are not heartless, no. They have eyes for the strapping fellow in the bed nearby, who insists on eating what is not food; he calls it “alternative alimentation.” So, they warn the nurses that they had better give him what he wants, or else. They linger so long at his side, chatting and commiserating, that they never do make it to the children’s ward. That’s a drafty and tumble-down barracks, anyway, and nobody wants to go there.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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