Why should two men who are sexually attracted to one another not be allowed to pretend that they are married? That we are even asking such a question is the result of our having accepted the premise of the sexual revolution, which is, essentially, that what people do with their bodies is their own business, so long as no one is harmed. By “no one” we mean none of the people involved in the sexual act, and sometimes, though much less reliably and without a great deal of concern, no unwitting spouse who happens, at the moment, not to be in the bed but, perhaps, shopping for dinner, or laying pipes at a construction site. By “harm” we mean obvious physical or psychological violence. So we frown upon rape and, after two generations of knowing smiles and winks, pedophilia. Everything else goes.
Now the odd thing about this premise is that, despite its being so widely taken for granted, it is astonishingly weak. The person who proclaims it severs himself, in effect, from all considerations of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. For he says, “With regard to sexual behavior, so long as no one is being coerced into the act, and, perhaps, so long as no spouse is being betrayed, the claims of virtue do not apply.” The justification of the sexual act is located in the desire itself, and the desire is taken as a brute fact, a given. But this is a premise we would reject out of hand in any other sphere of human action. We know, indeed, that the very reason why we inculcate the virtues in ourselves and in our children is so that we will do the right thing despite what we happen to desire, and, more, that we will learn to desire what is right, because it is right, just as we should wish to know the truth because it is true. We would not say, even to a man of independent wealth, “Your desire to spend twelve hours a day playing video games should be respected, because it is your desire.” We would instead say, “You should not be doing that; it is a truncation of your humanity; it is the wrong thing to do, and you should learn to desire something else.” We would not say to a person who spent a thousand dollars a month on shoes, “If this is what you want, I must respect it.” We would instead say, “You are squandering your money, which could be put to far better use. This also is a truncation of your humanity. Of course I know that you want to do this; that's the very problem. You should learn to want something better.”
Now the playing of pointless games and the buying of rooms full of shoes are trivial matters in comparison with our sexual behavior. About trivialities, the law should have little to say. But our sexual behavior is far from trivial. In fact, the same people who, in one way, claim for it such triviality that it must fall beneath the notice of the law, in another way, exalt it as the lodestone of human life, such that any curtailment of sexual autonomy must strike to the very heart of our beings. We cannot have it both ways at once. Indeed, I can conceive of no other thing more deeply determinative of what a society will be like, or even whether it will be a genuine society at all, than our folkways regarding men and women, their courtship, their marriage, their duties to one another, and their raising of children. Sex—both the distinction between man and woman, and the act that unites man and woman in the embrace that is essentially oriented towards the future—is a foundational consideration for every people. When we ask, “Will a man be allowed to have more than one wife?” or “Will husbands and wives be allowed to divorce at will?” or “Will unmarried people be encouraged to behave as if they were married?”, we are asking, whether we understand it fully or not, “What kind of culture, if any, do we want to share?”
And that sharing of a culture brings me to the crucial point. It is a plain fact that what two people do in a bedroom is not confined to the bedroom. The most obvious evidence for this fact can be seen around us everywhere, walking on two legs. They are the creatures known as children. After a great deal of scientific investigation, conducted by people of unimpeachable honesty, diligence, and intelligence, it can now be declared that sexual intercourse between a healthy man and woman has the natural and predictable consequence, built into the structure of the act itself, of producing children—it is the obvious biological meaning of the act. Perhaps, in less enlightened ages, people believed that it was a prelude to rain or to strife among nations, but now we really do know that when John and Mary get together, Baby is a-waiting to make three.
Now, it is also a plain fact that children deserve to be brought up by both a mother and a father. This ought to be no more controversial than asserting that they deserve to be fed well and dressed warmly and loved. The boy needs a father to teach him to be a man; the girl needs a father to protect her and to affirm her worthiness to be loved by a man; and, as for a child's need for a mother, it is so obvious that only madmen and modern educators would dare to deny it. If we would deny that children should be brought up in stable families, with mother and father, we need only look to our bursting prisons, and ask how many of the men incarcerated actually grew up in unbroken homes. In other words, when we are talking about sex, we must talk about the common good. How we treat our bodies when they grow ill—that is surely a matter of the common good, the good that is so by virtue of its being shared, enjoyed by all not as individuals alone but also as a people together, a genuine society. We are a fundamentally different people—not as individuals alone but as a people—if we cast our ill to die in the ditches, than if we care for them with the dignity they deserve, not because they may live to profit us or themselves, but merely because they are human and therefore holy. So, too, how we treat our bodily desires—that is also a matter of the common good.
And that is where the revolutionaries fail. They began, in the hoary old days of Herbert Marcuse, by justifying the new “virtues” of freedom of sexual expression, on the grounds that we would be a looser, friendlier, sweeter, less violent, and more beautiful society. Well, that certainly didn't happen. Aquarius had a cracked pot. Look at Baltimore, look at Detroit, look at the fatherless families, look at the plague of divorce, look at the snarling contempt of one sex for the other, look at the prisons, look at the sewage of mass entertainment, look at the “knowing” and jaded children, look at the venereal diseases, look at the sheer boredom evinced by the women's magazines boasting the next hottest sex tip or five new and improved ways to get what you want out of your bedmate. The sexual revolutionaries have for too long simply begged the question. They say, “We should be allowed to do this, because every sexual desire short of rape and (sometimes) adultery should be tolerated—no, encouraged, even honored in law.” But that is to justify the sexual revolution by saying that the sexual revolution is justified. Let them do more. Let them argue that the sexual revolution—in its entirety—has conduced to the common good. Let them argue that a society, if it can be called one, wherein a ten-year-old boy knows all about sodomy is a better place than one in which he hasn't the faintest notion of it, but is too busy collecting baseball cards. Let them argue that a society in which a ten-year-old girl must wait once a month to see her father, if his new bedmate doesn't get in the way, is a better place than one in which it never occurs to her that her mother and father may ever part company.
In other words, let the sexual revolution be justified on grounds of the common good. I believe it fails that test miserably, with evidence that is weighty, obvious, manifold, logically and anthropologically deducible, and clearly predictable by wisdom both pagan and Christian. Let them make their case, rather than asserting a principle that, in reality, would destroy the very idea of the common good. For if we cannot appeal to the common good in a matter so fundamental, I do not see how we can appeal to it in any other.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.