Recently in Public Discourse, I challenged readers to defend the sexual revolution on the grounds that it has conduced to the common good. No one took up that challenge. It would be, I suppose, rather like asking someone to defend the forced collectivization of farms in the Ukraine, while speaking to ten thousand people in Kiev. It is not going to happen.
Still, I might have given the impression that the sexual revolution is to be rejected on utilitarian grounds. Since I believe that utilitarianism is a serpent that consumes itself—that it is a disutility to believe in it—I'd like now to base my opposition on something far more fundamental than, say, the harm of wrecked families and bursting prisons. The sexual revolution is a house built upon sand. It is founded upon a lie.
Let us consider the one form of sexual behavior that almost nobody defended before the sexual revolution, and that almost nobody opposes now: fornication. A few pastors may take the sin seriously, but mostly we all shrug and say, “Everyone's going to do it, so there's no sense making a fuss over it.” And yet what we are talking about is deeply destructive, because it is fundamentally mendacious. When we lie, we harm not only those we deceive. We harm ourselves. If we continue in this deception, we become hardened liars, in the end perhaps deceiving no one but ourselves. The thief knows he is stealing. The liar ceases to know that he is lying, and is trapped in the emptiness of unmeaning. The thief crucified at the side of Jesus knew he was a thief, and repented. The liars walking freely below no longer recognized their lies, and did not repent.
How is fornication a lie? The body has a language of its own. Although in one culture to nod means “no” while in another it means “yes,” the meanings we express with our bodies are not entirely arbitrary—indeed, are in some ways not arbitrary at all. The smile, the laugh, the embrace, the bow, the kiss, are universal. When Judas approached Jesus, that he kissed Him made his treachery all the more despicable; it was a betrayal, sealed with a sign of intimate friendship. When the boys in Huckleberry Finn prick their fingers to mingle blood with blood, we know they are engaging in a boyish but also solemn ritual of kinship. If a certain boy—say, Tom Sawyer's sissified brother Sid—were to engage in it while withholding his allegiance, thinking, “This is an interesting thing to do for now, and we'll see where it leads,” he would be making a mockery of the rite. He would be lying.
I know someone who at age nineteen was deeply lonely. He had always been awkward around girls, and unsure of his body. During his first year away at college, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman. She had been raised without any religious faith, and without any sexual scruples. He lost his virginity then. He knew, in the back of his mind, that he and she could not possibly raise any child that might be conceived; and he was too intelligent to believe that contraception could be entirely reliable. He also knew, again in the back of his mind, that he wanted to marry her, but that she probably would not want to marry him. He knew that his parents would not approve of what he was doing. Yet it felt good, and for a time he was not lonely, or at least he did not feel his loneliness so keenly.
What the naked body “says” when man and woman expose themselves to one another, not as patients to a doctor but as lovers, can be paraphrased thus: “This is all of me. I am entirely yours. I am giving you what is most intimately mine. You are seeing me, and touching me, as no one else now can. I love you.” Then the act of intercourse itself, the marital act—what does it say? What must it say, whether we will or no?
This is the act that spans the generations. The man gives of himself, something of his inmost being, the very blood that courses in his veins, from his father and mother and their parents before them. The woman receives that gift, taking it into herself, to be united with her own blood, from her father and mother and their parents in turn. It is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Indeed, the man and the woman who are fornicating while taking contraceptive steps know quite well that they are doing what brought themselves into being, because otherwise they would not strap on the barrier or swallow the pill. They are attempting to reduce an act that is transtemporal to something pleasurable for the moment.
And yet, somehow, they cannot even persuade themselves. I recall, at one of those useless meetings that my alma mater held for freshmen, we were supposed to discuss the morality of sex. There wasn't much discussion, and there wasn't much morality. The students concluded that as long as the sex wasn't “mechanical,” that is, as long as it involved some real feeling, it was all right. Then one granny-glassed bearded freshman spoke up. “I don't see anything wrong with mechanical sex,” he said. “It can be fun for both parties.” People looked at him with disapproval, but no one had anything to say, and the meeting ended.
Well, machines do not have sexual intercourse. Even the cool, abstracted actions the young man recommended could not be engaged in coolly and abstractedly. One must feign passion, even if one does not feel it. One must pretend to be making love, not like. One must appear at least to be giving all. One must be nude, even if not naked—unclothed, even while burying one's intentions and feelings under a mountain of blankets, along with the meaning of the act, which is not simply dependent upon intentions and feelings in any case.
It will not do to say, “As long as people are honest with one another, fornication is all right.” The point is that they cannot be honest with one another in that situation. The supposed honesty of detachment, or deferral, or temporizing, or mutual hedonism, only embroils them in a deeper lie. The body in the act of generation says, whether we like it or not, “I am reaching out to the future, to a time when there will be no turning back.” The body, naked to behold in love, says, “There is nothing of mine that I do not offer as yours. We complete one another, man and woman.” Such affirmations transcend the division between the private and the public. They are therefore only made in honesty by people who are married—who have acknowledged publicly that they belong forever to one another and to the children they may conceive by the marital act.
No one but a sadist could say, “I feel no love for you, but am using your body as a convenient receptacle, for the sake of the pleasure. Afterwards I dearly hope you will not trouble me with your continued presence.” Is that too strong? What about this? “I like you very much, and yet I have no intention of spending the rest of my life with you, or even the rest of this year.” Or this? “Let's pretend we are married, but let's not actually get married, because I might change my mind about you.” Or this? “I am bored, and you are here.” Or this? “You are very good looking, and we will get married, maybe, someday, not too soon, and if we do conceive a child, we'll deal with it then, I don't know how.” Or this? “I don't love you, but maybe if we do this a few times I can fool myself into thinking so.” Or this? “I want to love you, but I know you are too selfish to love me in return, or I'm not worthy of your attention, so I'll do what you like, and hope.” Or this? “I am drunk, so nothing of what I do or say means anything.”
We do not say these things aloud, because to be candid in this way is to admit deception. It is to admit not that we think highly of sexual intercourse, but that we think little of it. It becomes trivial to us, though we dare not say so. What happens, then, to people who make a practice of lying to the people they are lying intimately with? We do not feel pity for those we deceive. We feel contempt. Our hearts are hardened. We look upon the frequent results of the fornicative lie—a passionate attachment to ourselves on the part of the deceived, or children—as affronts to our freedom. We resent them. After years of deceiving and being deceived, we conclude that people are not to be trusted; we become not prudent but circumspect, not wise but cynical, not strong but callous.
“If you're not with the one you love,” they sang at Woodstock, cheering the evil of fornication, “love the one you're with.” A lie on both ends, that, and cold to the core.
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.