There are times in any columnist’s life when you worry about being too much oneself, too on-brand, too likely to summon from one’s readers the equivalent of the weary line delivered by a colleague listening to J.R.R. Tolkien read aloud from his Middle-earth sagas: “Not another [expletive] elf!”
The appearance in the same week of a Politico magazine essay on how conservatives lost the culture war over pornography and an Atlantic cover story on the decline of sexual intercourse makes me concerned about this possibility — that if I weave both pieces into an argument about our culture’s decadence, my readers will find it to be a little bit predictable, a little, well, too much.
But like Tolkien with his beloved elves, I’ll persevere, because the articles are worth the recommendation. For Politico, Tim Alberta tells the story of how the internet essentially killed off the anti-pornography movement, by making pornography so ubiquitous and porn use so pervasive that trying to regulate it in any meaningful way seemed like giving orders to the tide.
Then Kate Julian’s Atlantic examination of what she calls the “sexual recession” looks at a surprising reality of life in the sexually liberated West — the fact that despite (or because of?) our permissive culture and the sweeping availability of entertainments that cater to every kind of sexual desire, the sexual act itself has fallen somewhat out of fashion, along with its usual accompaniments (relationships, marriage, childbearing), while onanism and long-term celibacy are on the rise.
What both writers are describing is a post-sexual revolution landscape that almost nobody expected — with one notable exception, to be discussed below.
Conservatives didn’t expect it because they believed that sexual liberation would inevitably lead to social chaos — that if you declared consent the only standard of sexual morality and encouraged young people to define fulfillment libidinally, you would get not only promiscuity but also a host of dire secondary consequences: teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates rising together, a pornography-abetted spike in rape and sexual violence, higher crime rates among fatherless young men ... basically everything that seemed to be happening in the 1970s and 1980s, when the anti-porn crusade Alberta describes was strongest.
But many of those grim social trends stabilized or turned around in the 1990s, and instead of turning teenage boys into rapists, the internet-enabled victory of pornographic culture had, perhaps, the opposite effect. Rates of rape and sexual violence actually fell with the spread of internet access, suggesting that the pleasures of the online realm were either a kind of substitute for sexual predation, a kind of sexual tranquilizer or both. And that tranquilizing effect seems to extend beyond predation to the normal pursuit of sexual relationships, because some combination of Netflix, Tinder, Instagram and masturbation is crucial to the decline-of-sex story that Julian’s Atlantic essay tells.
So the pornified, permissive post-sexual revolution order today seems much more stable than conservative pessimists expected 30 years ago, with no social collapse looming on the horizon.
But liberal optimists were wrong as well — wrong to expect that the new order would bring about a clear increase in sexual fulfillment, wrong to anticipate a healthy integration of sexual desire and romantic attachment, wrong to assume that a happily egalitarian relationship between the sexes awaited once puritanism was rejected and repression cast aside.
Instead we’ve achieved social stability through, in part, the substitution of self-abuse for intercourse, the crowding-out of real-world interactions by virtual entertainment, and the growing alienation of the sexes from one another. (“I’m 33, I’ve been dating forever, and, you know, women are better,” one straight woman in Julian’s story says. “They’re just better.”)
This isn’t the sex-positive utopia prophesied by Wilhelm Reich and Alex Comfort and eventually embraced by third-wave feminists. It’s a realm of fleeting private pleasures and lasting social isolation, of social peace purchased through sterility, of virtual sex as the opiate of the otherwise sexually unsuccessful masses.
And the one person who really saw it coming was Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World,” the essential dystopia for our times, which captured the most important feature of late-modern social life — the way that libertinism, once a radically disruptive force, could be tamed, domesticated and used to stabilize society through the mediation of technology and drugs.
True, none of our pharmaceuticals quite match his “soma” — the “perfect drug,” a booster calls it, with “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol” but no hangover or religious guilt. (Our own versions are more dangerous and unevenly distributed.) But our hedonic forms of virtual reality are catching up to his pornographic “feelies” and his “Violent Passion Surrogate.” (“All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”) And on the evidence of many internet-era social indicators, they increasingly play the same tranquilizing and stabilizing roles.
Above all Huxley nailed the way that a society sufficiently far gone into hedonism will lose even the language to describe clearly why, say, “a single-use silicone egg that men fill with lubricant and masturbate inside” (a recent Japanese innovation mentioned by Julian) might not be a positive development.
The people trying to argue against porn in Alberta’s article, or the people struggling to articulate their sexual and romantic discontents in Julian’s, are trying to find their way back to a worldview that takes moral virtue and human flourishing seriously again. But they inhabit a society that often recognizes only arguments about pleasure versus harm, and that at some level has internalized the logic of Mustapha Mond, one of the Controllers of Huxley’s world civilization: “Chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”
Pleasant vices and stability: With some technological assistance, that’s the sexual culture we’ve been forging. The only good news, and the best evidence that we might yet escape Huxley’s trap, is that we retain enough genuinely human aspiration to be unhappy with it.