In their insightful and balanced posts at First Things, Carl Trueman and Greg Forster offer less optimistic assessments than mine about our future sexual opinions and practices. They are right that in the immediate future, conservatives have no reason for cheer about the return of traditional sexual mores. All signs suggest that further and more exotic sexual explorations will soon be gaining our collective approval. But I disagree with them on another point: I think that even in the absence of a near-term turnaround, a medium- or long-term victory for traditional sexual ethics is all but certain.
Trueman’s negative outlook stems partly from his pessimistic assessment of our moral discourse. In his view, our capacity for honest and civil dialogue has undergone a precipitous cultural decline—a decline so great that it may no longer be possible for us to understand and have a dialogue about the rationality of our ancestors’ more traditional sexual ethics. On one level, Professor Trueman is absolutely right: the demolition of our moral discourse has been tremendous in recent decades, and there likewise are wider cultural trends that will undermine our ability at any time in the near future to take a rational view of sexual restrictions. At the same time, the sentiment of inevitable and long-term decline that has become so popular among conservatives defies a larger body of historical evidence.
History might never exactly repeat itself, but its many phases do resemble each other. The historical record overwhelmingly suggests a return to stricter sexual standards. Numerous cultures have undertaken large-scale licentious experiments before, with similarly destructive results. Late-stage Rome is today a favorite example among contemporary conservatives, but eighteenth-century England and France were also debauched, as were twentieth-century Weimar Germany, ancient Persia, Babylon, and certain parts of classical Greece.
Of course, none of these cultures could do away with the consequences of their sexual explorations via the unprecedented contraceptive technologies and access to abortion we have today. Still, they did have other coping mechanisms that we lack. The Romans, for example, had fewer human rights scruples, which meant that they could simply expose babies and leave them to die on hillsides and in latrines. Similarly, eighteenth century and England could discard its wayward young women in abominable ways in its big-city alleys and slums. Successful as these coping mechanisms were, they did not permanently do away with the consequences of unbridled sexuality, and they did not ultimately prevent these societies’ sexual norms from eventually returning to normalcy.
There may not be any overarching or guiding rationality in our long-term social behavior, but human history does demonstrate repeated reversions to behavioral means. In the grand scheme of things, current sexual trends are so far outside the historic mean as to suggest that contemporary culture, out of raw self-protection, will eventually have to reel in its own excess. I am willing to be corrected, but I can think of no culture prior to about the year 2000 in which there was an official definition of marriage as anything other than a relationship between male and female—not the Greeks, not the Romans, not the Confucian Chinese, not the Aztecs, not the Inca, not the Maya, not the Mongols, not the Islamic Caliphates, not the Vikings, not the Communists, not anyone.
Revolutions Don’t Last Forever
When a large-scale social movement—such as the “second” sexual revolution of the last fifteen years—is so very, very different from all that has preceded it, it often is unsustainable beyond a couple of generations. Think of the French Revolution, America’s alcohol prohibition experiment, National Socialism, and even our world’s century-long flirtation with Communism. The forward momentum of the sexual revolution will soon encounter some major and chaotic consequences that will compel—not convince via discourse, mind you, but compel—our society to return to more normalized restrictions.
It might be argued that the remarkable inventions of our twenty-first-century researchers will be able to push the movement forward indefinitely—say, by growing “vaginas” and “penises” in a lab, by pumping transgender candidates full of rejuvenating hormonal cocktails, and by offering ever-novel virtual reality experiences for online consumers. But there are limits to science. Eventually, our efforts to innovate our way around biological realities will run up against some fundamental emotional and relational obstacles as well. Our technologies can only delay the consequences, not eradicate them. We are witnessing a fast-moving social movement that will eventually burn itself out through its own radically destructive tendencies.
To be sure, Greg Forster’s perceptive piece might be right: our sexual mores might eventually find some new and looser equilibrium that allows for a more freewheeling interpretation of human sexuality. But even here I think that Forster’s more moderate vision of our sexual future might not jibe with the revolution’s current trajectory. The runway is just too unstable and too fast. The most interesting thing about our great sexual adventure is the astounding pace at which it is now unfolding. When in history have so many humans so rapidly changed their opinions about such fundamental biological and relational issues?
Internet Pornography, Sexual Novelty, and Human Psychology
The last fifteen years have seen widespread experimentation with homosexuality, transgenderism, polygamy, incest, polyamory, and numerous other novelties. But this second sexual revolution would never even have got to the starting line without the invention of the internet. In terms of its sheer power to alter human opinions, no amount of rational argument can ever hope to compete with the raw habituating force of the internet’s thousands upon thousands of sexual novelties. In half an hour of web surfing, a dedicated pornography seeker can encounter more sexual innovations than his grandfather could witness in a lifetime. Nothing other than brute media habituation could possibly explain how it is that so many humans have changed their opinions so quickly over the last decade about fundamental sexual issues.
The habituating power of the internet and our other media devices has made the revolution’s trajectory too rapid and protean for its own sustainability. It’s not just about old-school sexual-revolution issues like premarital sex, homosexuality, or adultery any more. The movement’s cutting edge has passed far beyond these concerns. Now people all over the world are, on a daily basis, encountering a cornucopia of sexual novelties via their secret online lives. The whole movement has metastasized, spiraling beyond its original concerns and out of the control of the liberal and academic elites. No single country or class of people is in charge any longer. Underlying infrastructure and technology changes are driving the movement, with destabilizing, devastating, and unsustainable social consequences as a result.
Even apart from these devastating social consequences, there are limits to our psychologies and our bodies that suggest that the sexual revolution will not be able to continue in perpetuity. The novelty will eventually run out. Pornography addiction is characterized by a quest for a harder and harder chemical “hit.” Eventually, though, the experiences sought get old and clichéd, and no longer are capable of delivering the desired high. What could be more boring than nonstop, unlimited online nudity? Wendy Shalit got it right in 1999’s A Return to Modesty: there comes a point when the blatantly sexual just no longer seems so fascinating or trendy. At some point we will realize that our sexuality only becomes interesting once we decide again that we are no longer going to give ourselves to just anyone who happens to come along. Concealment, modesty, and restraint actually make sex more interesting and fulfilling.
Granted, we humans are pretty bad at predicting the future. Surely there were hardly any of us, in 1990 or so, who could possibly have foreseen that transgenderism would be so publicly lauded within thirty years. Today, we seem to be seeing a wholesale rejection of the natural-law view that it is possible, by observing the human sexual logos, to arrive at coherent relational principles. More generally, what is being discarded is the notion that nature offers us any sexual “givens” at all. Yet the belief that there are normative aspects of reality as a whole and of human sexuality in particular has shown itself across human history and culture to be so deep and so universal that it staggers the imagination to think that twenty-first-century persons could ever just permanently discard it.
If I were a broker and the sexual revolution were a stock, at this point, I would still be urging my customers to buy shares. But stocks don’t rise forever, and neither will the sexual revolution. Eventually, its chaotic and destructive consequences will cause things to swing back in another direction. At the end of the day, this great adventure is going to end right back where it started: in classical sexual restrictions.
Jeremy Neill is an assistant professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University.