Teenagers today face a harsh relational landscape: our current cultural moment is one that prioritizes and idealizes hypersexuality. Not every single teenager is hypersexual, but the lens our culture offers is a sexual one. Teens are flooded with sexual propaganda and have little room to take in anything else. This problematic understanding magnifies the innate longing that teenagers have for genuine relationships. Relationships are the connective tissue of society, but in a hypersexualized culture, relationships devolve and separate sexual behavior from its inherent quality of uniting human beings. Our culture’s sexual lens distorts the raison d’etre of society, leading teenagers to believe that the body and mind have no tie.
Robert P. George refers to this phenomenon as “gnostic liberalism.” Gnostic liberalism is the ideology that “human beings are non-bodily persons inhabiting non-personal bodies;” that is, bodies and souls have no tie to each other, and therefore the actions of the body have no intrinsic moral value. By claiming that the body is soulless and the soul is bodiless, the seemingly harmless ideology of hypersexuality devalues the whole person, body and soul.
When individuals are not valued as a body-soul composite, we begin to overvalue the body. This forces teenagers to combat a culture where everything has now become either sexual or nonsexual. Media’s fixation on physicality, in essence, negates the foundational principle that human relationships reach fulfillment through companionship. The purpose of relationships is not one of self-propagation. True relationships are ordered toward the giving of self; they are neither self-centered nor selfish. As George writes:
We cannot serve the common good unless we seek higher things. We must seek to order public life in accord with metaphysical truths higher than the ersatz ends of maximizing utility, encouraging dialogue, and promoting diversity.
The metaphysical truths of relationships ought to be applied pragmatically now. The manner in which people behave in relationships must be kept in line with the way relationships ought to be ordered. For example, sexual behavior required in a marital relationship would be completely inappropriate in any other kind of relationship, since sex must be ordered to its proper end. As Thomas Aquinas writes: “If a thing is ordained to another as to its end, its last end cannot consist in the preservation of its being. Hence a captain does not intend as a last end, the preservation of the ship entrusted to him, since a ship is ordained to something else as its end, viz. to navigation.”
Society continues to encourage and even legalize the idea that all marital relationships are ordered purely towards sex. Using these current ideologies, marital relationships can now only be defined as a relationship between a man and a woman who have sex. This results in all male-female relationships being ordered toward sex, and once sex is isolated for the sake of itself (not for the unity of souls or the reproduction of children) it is no longer ordered. When relationships are neither ordered for the sake of intimacy or reproduction, sex is no longer limited to male-female relationships. This distorted perception of reality then bleeds into friendships being sexualized, as well. Our eyes then become ordered toward this “new and improved” natural law we have created, of unlicensed sex, in place of the outdated and radically traditional natural law, of sexual behavior being reserved for a marital relationship.
In short, relationships have been distorted as self-propagation of the individual human person, on account of an overriding focus on hypersexualism. We lose much when we fixate on the purely physical. With this innate longing that is in each of us, teenagers try to use the physical to somehow reach some kind of metaphysical experience (even if they do not acknowledge it). But an excessive focus on the physical blinds us to other goods and, as a result, relationships suffer. We need the body in order to love, but we cannot forget to love past our bodily selves.
Happiness, which can be found in our relationships, is not something random or relative. Eudaimonia is the term that Aristotle uses when discussing happiness; however, eudaimonia is more concrete than simply saying “happiness”; specifically, eudaimonia means “flourishing” or “well-being.” Unlike happiness as understood today, eudaimonia is a constant state of flourishing or wellness of the soul. Eudaimonia is what Aristotle would call our “telos,” or purpose. As an analogy, think about this in terms of plants: for a plant to flourish, it needs nutrients and it needs to be able to take in these nutrients and use them to keep it alive and well. There are specific nutrients that a plant can take in (soil, water, sunlight), but then there are also nutrients that a plant simply cannot take in because the plant is not ordered that way. You can say then, that those specific nutrients are ordered toward the telos of the plant. The plant, therefore, is flourishing when it has the nutrients it needs to be “well.” In the same way, humans need certain “nutrients” to contribute to their well-being, but there are only some nutrients that work.
Human beings flourish through relationships because they make us happy and well. In the same way that plants can only flourish with outside materials, humans are also ordered to flourish through things outside themselves. This is why relationships that we order to serve ourselves do not work. Relationships that are ordered outside ourselves work in accordance with our nature because, like plants, we can only flourish outside ourselves. However, even when we have the right tools, we can misuse them. There is an order to humans and there is an order to relationships. Relationships must be first ordered in our minds and then used according to the ordering of our souls, so that we may flourish and be happy throughout our lives and our children’s lives, not just on a Friday night.