On the Meaning of Sex 2: Don’t Believe in Modern Love

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]

  Budzis image

Oh, man. I thought I could do a chapter per week of this book, but there’s so much to go after in Chapter 2, “On the Meaning of the Sexual Powers,” that I can see I have to break it up. In his series on “What is Marriage,” Rob Tisinai compared Robert George’s argument to a broken staircase: “Every time you climb a step, it breaks. And if you ignore that and leap to the next one, it breaks too.” That’s how I feel reading this book, and I want to fix every damned stair. Tonight I’m only going to get through a couple of pages.

Let’s start with Budziszewski’s framing device, the way he eases into his argument. Last week we had him imagining one of his former students, Harris, into an intellectual punching bag. This week we get Budziszewski’s portrait of contemporary sexual mores:

Midnight. Shelly is getting herself drunk so that she can bring herself to go home with the strange man seated next to her at the bar. One o’clock. Steven is busy downloading pornographic images of children from internet bulletin boards. Two o’clock. Marjorie, who used to spend every Friday night in bed with a different man, has been binging and purging since eleven. Three o’clock. Pablo stares through the darkness at his ceiling, wondering how to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion. Four o’clock. After partying all night, Jesse takes another man home, not mentioning that he tests positive for an incurable STD. Five o’clock. Lisa is in the bathroom, cutting herself delicately but compulsively with a razor. She isn’t trying to kill herself. She doesn’t understand why she does it. She does it often.

Like I said last week, Budziszewski is dropping us into the inferno. Look at what the sexual revolution has wrought, he tells us. No one is feeling this more than his students, who he describes as miserable, worn out, trapped in a world of sexual libertinism that they hate. Budziszewski quotes Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities and Katie Roiphe’s “poignant” judgment of her generation in This Side of Paradise: “It’s not the absence of rules exactly, the dizzying sense that we can do whatever we want, but the sudden realization nothing we do matters.”

I could write 8000 words about the ways Budziszewski misrepresents his students, but I’ll try to keep it brief so we can move on to the meat of his argument. Here’s reality:

-Young people are waiting longer to have sex today than they have in years, and they don’t have more sex or more sexual partners.

-The teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low. Yes, all-time, as in going as far back as statistics have been collected.

-In case you’re wondering, that’s not because teens are having more abortions. The abortion rate has dropped like a rock over the past three decades.

-Young people are using fewer drugs and committing fewer crimes than their parents did in the 1970s and 1980s.

—But marriage is on the rocks, right? Aren’t divorce rates skyrocketing? No, they peaked around 1980 and have dropped moderately ever since.

It’s not all good news: more and more people are having kids out of wedlock, which is a bad thing on a societal level. And there’s a major wealth gap in marriage rates—better-off people are getting married as often as before, while poor people less so. But, in general, young people today are better behaved than young people were twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. So it’s no surprise that when Budziszewski goes looking for evidence about the sexual hell that is today, he finds it in anecdotes from books published almost two decades ago, about sexual experiences their authors had in the late 1970s, the 1980s, and the early ‘90s—the years before today’s college students were born. Roiphe is now 45; Wolf is past 50. These days Roiphe, like her contemporary Elizabeth Wurtzel, is haranguing young people for not being wild enough.

When I started this blog, I had a running series called “The Myth of Moral Decline,” in which I catalogued some of these types of statistics and social indicators. I let that series lapse, but the point was that kids today are no worse, no less moral, than kids in the past. I made that point because so many people today see Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga on TV and buy into the opposite notion. (Libby Anne has a great post this week on this topic at Love, Joy, Feminism)

“Buy into” isn’t the right term for Budziszewski, though: people like him actively propagate the myth of moral decline, against the facts. Why? Lots of reasons. First of all, the world has always had cranky coots who think that “kids today” will never live up to their elders. Plus there’s a mean Platonic streak in the Catholic Right, which holds that since the Fall, sin and corruption have multiplied with each succeeding generation.

But nothing gets Budziszewski and his ilk going like the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which challenged lots of traditional sexual values. I don’t think any idea has more currency with the Catholic Right than the notion that Pope Paul VI was prophetic in 1968 when he predicted that contraception (a signpost of the sexual revolution) would lead to “a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.”

And Budziszewski and his ilk had a case. In the early ‘90s.

Robert Bork wasn’t crazy when he published Slouching Towards Gomorrah in 1996, his notorious condemnation of what he saw as the effects of America’s crumbling morals. He was documenting more or less what Roiphe and Wolf were writing at the same time: that, after the sexual revolution, people took their newfound freedom and ran with it, often thoughtlessly. All kinds of social indicators looked horrible in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s lots of debate about why that’s so—the point is that it wasn’t a hard position to take back in the early ‘90s. Then those same social indicators started ticking up, and nobody revised their thinking.

To be fair, Budziszewski does acknowledge that not every young person is out having cocaine-fueled group sex with strangers every night anymore (which is how I imagine 1987): “At the opposite extreme, some of those who languish in the shadow of the revolution toy with the idea of abstinence—but an abstinence that arises less from purity or principle than from boredom, fear, and disgust.”

See how he does that? The kids having lots of sex prove that he’s right, and the kids having no sex prove that he’s right. Sheesh.

What he glosses over is that the kids who are practicing abstinence, or vowing never to divorce, are doing so without anybody rolling back the sexual revolution. We’re not re-stigmatizing divorce, we’re not putting gays back into the closet. Contraception is becoming more accessible and more effective, and yet people aren’t having more illicit sex (so, no, Pope Paul VI wasn’t prophetic). Roe v. Wade is still in effect, and yet we’re not having more abortions. Somehow, relative to the past few decades, we’re managing to be both liberated and good. Boring, if you ask Roiphe.

So right off the bat, Budziszewski has a problem: a tenet of his “natural law” philosophy is that we can judge the badness or goodness of an action by its effects in the world. And, right off the bat, Budziszewski sets this book up as a polemic against the sexual revolution. But the effects of the sexual revolution aren’t as bad as he wants them to be. What’s a natural lawyer to do?

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