Since the 1960s, we have witnessed an incredible liberalization of sexual mores. The ubiquitous use of sex in advertising, movies, television, and fashion—sex as entertainment, sex as economic incentive, sex as substitute for thought, for communication, for edification—has given a green light and public blessing to the unashamed use of sex as a crass commodity of self-gratification. Sexual gratification is often valued more than physical and emotional well-being, and the pursuit of the former has generally led to the neglect of the latter. Glamorized by the media and by celebrities, premarital and extra-marital affairs, together with the emergence of the “hookup culture,” no longer carry the stigma of social or moral opprobrium. Such practices tend to insinuate themselves into our public consciousness with little or no effective opposition.
During this time, we in America have seen myriad examples of plays, films, and TV shows evincing (overtly or covertly) envy and admiration for men and women engaging in adultery or promiscuity. Bernard Slade’s famous play (later adapted into a movie), Same Time Next Year, a story about extra-marital love, ran for years on Broadway. The award-winning movie The Bridges of Madison County (1995), a story about the happiness a lonely farmer’s housewife enjoys with a photographer, won the ASCAP Award for the “Top Box-Office Film” of 1996. The ever-rerunning TV serial (adapted from Candace Bushnell’s novel), Sex and the City, spotlights four professional women in their thirties and their big city sexual escapades as they search for the “perfect orgasm” and “Mr. Right”—in that order.
What lessons are learned from such shows? What do they teach us about self-respect, honoring commitments, and personal boundaries? The four sirens of Sex and the City may be sympathetic and amusing, but their affairs—however kooky or disillusioning—are romanticized and prized. Sex is portrayed as a desirable but short-lived commodity typically spoiled by attempts to transform it into a meaningful relationship. It seems that sex uncoupled from relationships has become the norm for many, and several studies bear this out.
Of course, it is true that many plays, movies, and TV shows often express a nostalgic regret for lost innocence and tarnished integrity. Nevertheless, the focus on casual sex in the entertainment industry and in society in general (also sometimes referred to as “hooking up,” “non-relationship sex,” “recreational sex,” “friends with benefits,” “no-strings-attached relationships,” “one-night stands,” and “sex without dating”) has become obsessive. The existence of this phenomenon alone is likely sufficient to promote the acceptance of adultery and sexual promiscuity—not because it is right, but because it is viewed as “natural,” “normal,” and something everybody does.
But what is the effect of this culture? As hookups increase, traditional dates decrease; “post-hookup, a follow-up date is rarely expected.” And as dating has waned, so too has marriage. Many young adults do not seem to have developed the ability to psychologically and socially settle down. Although young adults are becoming sexually mature at earlier ages, people are marrying later. In many cases, they do not marry at all. Family compositions have changed, and children are frequently born to parents at older ages than in previous generations. Divorce rates have skyrocketed, particularly for those who engage in premarital sex. Studies show “the odds of divorce are lowest with zero or one premarital partner” and “marriages preceded by non-marital fertility have disproportionately high divorce rates.”
These facts provide evidence that the well-known sexual prohibitions of the Bible are not as irrelevant as many seem to think. In fact, a growing number of young people—led by thoughtful college professors and mentors—have come to see the value of both sexual abstention prior to marriage and sexual fidelity during marriage.
Changing the Dating Definition
Boston College professor Dr. Kerry Cronin has helped bring about this reawakening. About twelve years ago, in an effort to counter the common practice of “hooking up,” Professor Cronin created an unconventional assignment in her classroom: she required her students to go on a first date and write a report about the experience.
This assignment was intended to counteract the hookup culture in which the connection of the parties involved is “intended to be purely physical in nature” and where the two individuals shut down “any communication or attachment that might lead to emotional attachment.”
Cronin found that many of her students were clueless about the actual process of dating. Because the hookup culture had become so dominant, “going on a date became a weirdly countercultural thing to do.” Professor Cronin thus concluded that “the social script of dating was really long gone.” So, she created a series of guidelines to teach the students how to ask someone out on a date and what to do during that date. These include asking for a date in person (“texting is the devil. Stop it.”), avoiding physical contact (except possibly an A-frame hug at the date’s conclusion), and forbidding the use of alcohol or drugs on the date. According to Cronin’s rules, the person who asked the other out must pay for the date, and the asker should have a plan for the date rather than asking the other person what to do. The first date should be relatively short and inexpensive. The key assignment was to establish real communication between the two individuals and allow them time to get to know each other.
Her program became so noteworthy that this past April a documentary film featuring Professor Cronin, The Dating Project, was released. The ninety-minute film follows five single people, ages eighteen to forty, as they attempt to navigate their way through the “dating deficit” that has been created by hanging out, hooking up, texting, and using social media. The film presents a sobering picture of what the culture of sexual liberation and free love has done to today’s youth. The film’s message is that hookups objectify the participants and leave both parties empty and unfulfilled. Today’s hookup culture makes it much more difficult to build lasting, emotionally connected relationships. True relationships take time and work, but they can be incredibly fulfilling. They enable us to grow our humanity in genuine self-giving love.
The film’s writer and producer, Megan Harrington, observed that “people are so connected and not connected at the same time. So many young adults are lonely. We all want relationships, but the superficial masks we wear on our social media platforms do not present our true selves.”
Even though Dr. Cronin is a practicing Catholic, her college course and the subsequent movie on dating have resonated with secularists who have come to realize that the “sexual liberation” they bought into has created confusion about stable intimate relationships. This intimacy crisis has effectively disconnected intimate sexual behavior from emotional connection.
Is Sex Spiritual?
Although social trends may change, values—such as disciplining and channeling sexual impulses—are timeless and universal. Today’s social practices do not reinforce the development of these unchanging values. To encourage healthy, committed relationships, we must strive to create social conditions designed to strengthen and encourage robust families. This is an essential and basic principle of the Seven Laws of Noah, a common worldview underlying Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Through her assignments, Professor Cronin is encouraging her students to follow the standards of sexual morality that form the basis of these three Abrahamic faiths.
As John Paul II put it, “Self-control is not needed because the body is evil—the truth is just the opposite. The body should be controlled with honor because it is worthy of honor.” Because our bodies are sacred property created by G-d within which resides His Holy Spirit, we effectively defile the Divine within us when we participate in the hookup culture (or in other sexual proclivities such as pornography or prostitution). A person’s body and soul are not possessions to either abuse, harm, or destroy. Lev. 19:1 commands us to “be holy,” a directive that carries strong ethical and moral implications for humanity as we strive to imitate Him.
Unmoored from a committed and loving marital relationship, the unchecked sex drive harms both the individual and the society in which he or she lives. The Noahide Code teaches us that both our bodies and our souls are entrusted to us by G-d and are Divine property. This perspective reinforces the Biblical concept that we are made in the “image of G-d,” thereby giving moral context to the psychological matrix of the human personality that involves a complex interrelationship of body, mind, and soul.