If You Want To Understand Modern Sexual Ethics, You Have to Talk About Prostitution

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My latest post at the Ploughshares blog focuses on an encounter I had in a Havana taxi with a middle-aged European sex tourist and his jinetera, or bought girlfriend.

It’s a story I’ve thought about telling on this blog several times, because we talk about natural law a lot here. And, sitting in the backseat, watching that fat, fatuous, hairy-eared old man paw the girl next to him, and knowing they would soon be in bed together because he was paying to make it so, one word came to my mind: unnatural.

I think that reaction is pretty normal. When I tell the story to friends, their response usually starts with a shiver of disgust. I think it’s fair to say that prostitution is less socially acceptable today than it has been in the past. There’s evidence, for example, that men are much less likely to pay for sex now than they have been in the past, and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have argued that falling demand for bought sex has drastically reduced prostitutes’ earnings over the past century.

We see this in cultural expressions, too: today’s lit world is hardly the same as the one where “Norman Mailer told Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style.”

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If folks on the religious right are going to stick to the idea that the Sexual Revolution has reduced our sexual ethic to consent, they need to reckon with that shiver. Denny Burk, for example, just responded to Belinda Luscombe’s new Time piece on the dangers of porn by lamenting, “We are at a place in our culture in which sexual morality has been reduced to consent.” Further, he says, it has “delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure.”

But the declining demand for prostitution suggests to me that, today, sexual morality has not been reduced to consent. When it involves adults, prostitution is consensual.

Further, the idea that this generation of men (more than previous generations!) thinks of women as objects for use and abuse is a truly bold and hard-to-defend claim. I’d say the reason visiting prostitutes has become less socially acceptable is because it’s harder and harder now to think of women as objects. I know that’s what got me in the colectivo: looking at the guy, I wondered, Why on earth would you have sex with a woman who’s only doing it for the money? Prostitution starts to become unthinkable when you care what the woman thinks.

IMG_0511In other words, when women have a voice in sexual matters, prostitution naturally tends to decline. The same could be said for other conservative freakout-bait, like incest and polygamy. While you may hear advocates for those things using the language of the Sexual Revolution, culturally, those things are less prevalent in modern societies than in traditional ones.

I don’t expect this to convince many on the right, who have invested so much in the narrative of moral decline that they can’t get their minds around any type of good news. If, for you, data showing teenagers are having less sex is a sign that we’re losing our cultural virility, then you can certainly see decreasing prostitution as a symptom of our porn-addled decadence. But I write it anyway, as a reminder that there is another vision of sexual ethics, and that there are other narratives to explain our world.

Plus, I’ll take any excuse to post photos from Cuba. Pico Iyer is right: it’s the easiest place in the world to take pictures.

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On What Our Ancestors Would Think

IMG_2627Anthony Esolen’s recent article at Crisis, “What Would Our Ancestors Think of Us?” is, well, classic Esolen. He starts by comparing modernity to an open sewer, then imagines a conversation between a modern time-traveller and his ancestors, who despair at the state of things in 2016. “How then shall we live?” Esolen imagines them asking.

In an off-key moment, Esolen notes that now “there are far more women in the workplace than ever before,” and that “we have cracked the back of public racism, so that there are no more segregated hotels or restaurants or schools or businesses.”

I assume Esolen includes these observations as concessions to things modernity has gotten right, though the part about women working might be intended as further indictment. There’s certainly no acknowledgment of the fact that these two (pretty important!) developments would shock and appall many of our ancestors.

If the time-traveler were to show his ancestors a photo of a black family in the White House, does Esolen imagine they would congratulate him? Or would their faces darken as one of them asks, again, “How then shall we live?”

And then there’s this:

There is a country road that straggles its way over a mountain nearby. Lovers go there and pull over at a lookout, where they listen to music and engage in what is called ‘necking.’ It never goes beyond that, because most of them are pretty good kids and understand that bearing children is for marriage, and so is the child-making thing. That understanding allows them to be there in the first place. Innocence – even such compromised and sometimes failing innocence as we possess in a healthy culture – makes for freedom. You will have to tell the audience that there is no necking anymore. You will tell them that, as a rule, it is either sex or nothing. For the worst or the weakest among us, then, there is danger and heartbreak and, eventually, the protective callus of nihilism, even the shedding of blood. For the purest among us, and the most responsible, there is loneliness.

Marvel at that, reader. Seriously, re-read it. Of all the Anthony Esolen paragraphs in the world, it may be the Anthony-Esolen-iest.

As with many of Esolen’s points, it’s mostly disconnected from the real world. In the real world, teenagers are less likely to have sex today than they have been at any point in the past twenty five years. And in the real world, plenty of teenagers were engaging in the ‘child-making thing’ at those lovers’ lanes in the 1950s, when teen pregnancy rates were much higher than they are today.

The problem isn’t just that Esolen is wrong–the problem is that Esolen writes like he doesn’t know a single real, live teenager. Teenagers today don’t ‘neck’? Being ‘pretty good’ means a life of loneliness? I’d love to walk Esolen around the school where I work–a school full of good kids–to see if he could maintain those assertions afterward. Just like I’d love for Patrick Deneen to meet my students and still try to say that they’re “perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.

But the thing is, Esolen does know real, live teenagers. He teaches at a university; he has a family. He just doesn’t know real, live teenagers. You get what I mean? His hatred for modernity completely blinds him to the world around him. Which frequently makes his writing, well, kind of silly.

Which is a shame because his question, What would our ancestors think of us?, is a crucial one. I’ve been listening to an audio version of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar literary advice columns, on my drive home lately. Last week, I got to the devastating letter written by a man grasping for reasons to go on after losing his 22-year-old son to a drunk driver. “How then shall I live” is a good approximation of the question at the heart of that man’s letter.

Strayed uses her own mother’s death to connect to the man’s grief. “The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me,” she says, “is ‘Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother.”

You all know that in the past few years I’ve lost my mother and both grandmothers. I think about them often. Like Strayed, I think about how to be the person they and the generations before them raised me to be.

I think about my great-grandfather, too, whom I never met. Recently on Instagram I shared some letters he wrote, with doodles on the back, to my mom while he was touring Europe. I marvel at his voice, his humor, his knowledge of my mom and her interests. And I try to emulate that. Is my love for my daughter as clear to her as he made his love for my mom?

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So that question, What would my ancestors think of me?, stays at the front of my mind. It guides how I think, how I parent, how I teach.

But remember, Strayed is writing to a man whose life was centered in his kid. For him, she says, the goal is to “be the man [his son] didn’t get to be,” because “to be anything else dishonors him.” In other words, the influence can–it should go both ways. We can’t just ask: What would our ancestors think of us? We also have to ask: What will our children think?

When I make Esolen’s question personal, What would my ancestors think of me?, I don’t see a golden past uniting in a line of moral consensus that breaks down in my mom’s generation (or in mine). Instead, I see major disagreements between every generation. Not rancorous disagreements, but big ones, rifts that touch on the core values of race, religion, sex, gender roles, marriage. And I see that, in many of those disagreements, the elder generation was wrong. My mom’s outspoken opposition to racism upset some of her family’s very traditional southern understandings; my grandmother’s gender non-conformity (she was outdoorsy, tomboyish, independent, and raised my mom on her own) troubled my traditional and status-conscious great-grandmother.

To my ancestors’ credit, in many of those generational rifts, the elders recognized they needed to learn from their children. This happened not because they were weak but because they recognized themselves as fallible, and not because they didn’t care about their moral example but because they knew their moral example included the grace of admitting their errors. “He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,” said Whitman. “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Esolen uses LGBT issues as the ultimate measure of how far we’ve fallen. Explain Caitlyn Jenner to your ancestors, he says. Explain gay marriage. The thing is, many of us have done just that. After my sister-in-law’s wedding, my grandmother saw pictures online. “I didn’t know [my sister-in-law] had met a man,” she said when she called. She didn’t, I told her. She married a woman. My grandmother paused, and then replied: “Well, I think that’s lovely.”

 

Myth of Moral Decline: Whiskey Edition :)

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[photo from http://gardenandgun.com/blog/where-drink-seventy-year-old-whiskey]

“Even thirty years ago, bourbon was better than it is today,” says Garden & Gun Magazine. “Grains soaked and fermented in water that came from wells, not municipal water supplies. Ancient oaks supplied the wood for the air-dried barrels that held and mellowed corn spirits. Low demand kept most whiskeys small-batch, and distillers who spent two or three decades at their posts had time to refine and adjust their recipes.”

They go on to cite super-chef Sean Brock, who is opening up bottles from his own “whiskey library” to customers at his Husk Nashville restaurant. “People come to the restaurant to experience Southern food,” he says, “and I want them to experience what whiskey used to taste like. This stuff is going to be extinct soon. It’s a part of our history, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Look. You all know how I feel about the narrative of perpetual decline—the fogey-ish idea that everything is always and forever getting worse, women’s suffrage and Civil Rights and Outlander be damned. The idea gets under my skin… it steams me up… it makes me so, so, so…

Meh. Screw it. If Sean Brock says whiskey is getting worse, it’s probably true.

By the way, folks, I defend my dissertation in less than two days. Friday afternoon, come joy or devastation, I’ll be eating barbecue and probably having a bit of whiskey—though more contemporary stuff than what Brock is offering. Wish me luck!

Women Reading: Fragonard and Carrie Schneider

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In Touchstone Magazine, Arthur W. Hunt meditates on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1776 painting “A Young Girl Reading” (pictured below). Hunt, a professor of Communications, compares the girl in the painting to the students in his classes. Of the girl in the painting, he writes:

If Fragonard’s painting apprehends the ideal as imagined by French-speaking families, then one must ask, Who is this girl? I would suggest that she is a portrait of civility, intelligence, and virtue. In her, a suitor would find refinement and the embodiment of what was best about French culture, such as it was prior to the American Revolution. Her depiction is not, however, isolated to the tastes of Paris. She would be the ideal in Philadelphia as well. No doubt there existed a hundred like her within a mile of Franklin’s print shop.

His female students, in contrast, are girls with gadgets. Obsessed with their smartphones, they don’t read anymore, at least not deeply, Against Fragonard’s painting, Hunt offers us images of women from iPod commercials: “The iPod girls groove to music, for which the device was originally designed. They crank their arms and shake their booties. Today these devices serve multiple purposes—taking pictures, watching movies, checking email, and playing video games. The iPhone and iPad also serve many of these same functions. You can even use them to read books. But whether girls actually use these gadgets to read books is another question.”

From all of this, Hunt foresees the end of civility, which he illustrates by telling us that he recently saw a girl belch on campus while her friends laughed. The young girl reading is gone, and with her “all that she signifies—sophistication, depth, urbanity, intelligence, refinement.”

First, let me say: I share some of his concerns about the addictive power of smartphones, and about the rhythm of modern life, and the possible effects of these things on our collective attention span.

That said, Hunt’s article shows all of the trademarks of the Myth of Moral Decline: hyperbole, a blindness to goodness in modernity, and a fatal case of confirmation bias. By taking Fragonard’s girl reading as an emblem for an entire era, he’s overlooking all of the other images that time period might provide: of shopkeepers, farm girls, slaves—many of whom would rarely have had the time to lose themselves for an afternoon in a book, and who probably could not have regularly managed the three hours per day (which seems like a lot to me!) the average contemporary college student spends reading, according to a survey that Hunt cites. And taking the dancing girl from the iPod commercial as an emblem of modern life… Well. Don’t get me started.

Rather than writing a rebuttal to his post, though, I want to point you all to the gorgeous photographs from the series “Reading Women” by Carrie Schneider, featured this week in Slate. Schneider, like Hunt (and like me!), is anxious about our changing reading habits: “We are entering the era of the end of the printed page!” she says. And: “I think there is something physical, visceral about reading a book that is unlike anything else. And again, there is something rare about the depth of concentration that can be experienced while reading. Living in a culture obsessed with speed, ‘progress,’ consumption—these moments of pure immersion, belied by stillness, are rare, political, and powerful.”

So her photos are idealizations, like Fragonard’s painting, but they present a broader ideal. Schneider photographs diverse young women, reading texts from a diverse array of authors: Gwendolyn Brooks, Catherine Malabou, Edith Wharton, Angela Davis. And the images are undeniably, thrillingly modern. Whereas Hunt imagines Fragonard’s girl with a book providing stimulating conversation for her husband, it’s impossible to imagine Schneider’s women limiting their aspirations to that.

Maybe, looking at Schneider’s photographs, it’s easier to have a little more sympathy for modernity—to believe that the girl glued to her iPhone on the subway really could be reading a philosophical treatise, or that the girl laughing with her friends on campus might then retreat to her dorm room to get lost in Virginia Woolf.

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(By the way, the same issue of Touchstone contains a more… um … strident attack on modernity, from our good friend Anthony Esolen, including the phrase “addled, sub-marital illuminati.” It’s pure-dee, unfiltered, high-octane Esolen. Read it at your own risk.)

(3 x 2) + 1 Things for the Week Before Christmas

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Okay, okay. I got behind on my posting again, and as penance I’m going to share seven things, instead of three, for you to read as you relax with your family and friends this Christmas.

1. Michael Boyle has been putting together a masterful series of posts that he’s calling “Another Theology of the Body.” It’s something I’ve long wanted to see: a thoughtful, extensive (but still entertainingly bloggy) engagement with the ideas behind John Paul II’s brilliant and incredibly influential, but deeply flawed, “Theology of the Body.” Boyle takes the theology of the body approach seriously but, unlike traditional theology-of-the-body-ers, doesn’t shoehorn his readings of the body and its sexual nature into ready-made conclusions (Hey! Tradition is right!). What’s more, he points out that one of the best parts of JPII’s theology of the body—the idea that “sexual and romantic love is, despite some qualifiers, a good thing in and of itself”—is irreconcilable with much of Christian tradition and that, therefore, if you hold want to hold that position you have to “tear down the whole structure of Christian sexual morality and start from scratch.” It’s a must-read series, a real contribution to conversations on Christianity and sexuality, and I plan on citing it a lot from here on. For now, I want to point you to his latest post in the series, Another Theology of the Body, Part VIII: Making Peace with Sexual Desire.

2. The theme of that piece, obviously, is sexual desire, which puts it into conversation with this post by Maureen Mullarkey over at First Things. Starting from the premise that “[e]vangelization originates in compassion for the world, not disdain for it,” Mullarkey defends the goodness of sexual desire against the reductive view of the ultra-traditional Neocatechumenal Way. She talks about the “solace of sexual attraction” and—a phrase I love—the “generosity of divine intent.” And she concludes, “If the Church is to lead [young people] toward a humane understanding of the gift of sex, her spokesmen must first respect it for its intrinsic goodness, not solely for a procreative function shared with every species on the planet. Their counsel has to acknowledge sexual desire for the sweetness that it is—a fructifying promise—before it can plausibly direct it toward covenanted love.”

3. Did you know that John Coltrane was sainted by the African Orthodox Church? I didn’t, even though I mentioned him in this post last year. I did know that this year (this month, in fact!) marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark album A Love Supreme. S. Brent Plate, at Religion Dispatchesrecalls the time when, having stopped going to church, he started listening to A Love Supreme every Sunday. Why? Because:

When he is pouring his breath into the saxophone in the midst of “Pursuance,” part III of A Love Supreme, distinctions between music and musician, instrument and player, and music and listener, break down. Maybe it’s a mystical experience, God reaching to us through the music. Or maybe it’s just the musical arrangement itself, some deliciously delicate balance of sounds that settle and unsettle all at once, reaching our eardrums and resonating through our bodies. I’ve since lost my Sunday ritual of listening—no, experiencing—A Love Supreme. But from time to time, when I think I might need it, or when something beyond me is pushing me in new ways, I find my copy of the album, now digital, and allow the transportation to take place. Getting lost in the music and getting found in the sound.

4. Speaking of the spiritual dimension of secular music (although I’m not sure Coltrane counts as secular), I’ve got my fingers crossed that somebody gives me an Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or Book People gift card this Christmas. If they do (frankly, even if they don’t), I’m going to buy David Zahl’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock n’ RollHere’s Zahl explaining the impulse that led him to write about faith and dirty music together:

I hate to say it but that phrase “Christian approach” often implies an agenda, unspoken or unconscious, that culture is valuable only insofar as we can harness it in some way, or how it stacks up against the standards of our faith. But to quote someone I admire, I’m convinced that “any goodness, beauty, truthfulness, or enlivening candor we have the wit to discern is something for which we have God to thank.” That is, that it’s already been harnessed. So this isn’t a Christian “take” on secular music, at least as I see it. The artists I wrote about are the ones that have spoken and continue to speak to me rather than vice versa; I talk more about what I’ve learned from them than how their work filters through a pre-existing framework.

5. Let’s see… We’ve covered sex and rock n’ roll. Why not some talk about drugs? Specifically about how little of them the kids these days are doing? Call it “The Myth of Moral Decline, Narcotics Edition”: it turns out that high school kids are doing fewer drugs and drinking and smoking less than kids in the past. That’s not really surprising if you’ve been following these things over the past few years. What is interesting is that kids are using these things less while perceiving them to be less risky than kids in the past did. For example, less than 50% of 12th graders think there’s a “great risk” in smoking pot regularly, compared to almost 80% in 1991. As Olga Khazan writes, “In other words, pot is readily available, in some cases legal to have, and kids don’t think it’s harmful. Yet they aren’t using more of it.”

6. Speaking of the Myth of Moral Decline: there’s a decent point in this article at Crisis Magazine, about the way beauty teaches us “to appreciate the being of things rather than merely their utility.” Of course, it’s buried beneath stuff about men riding into battle with their lady love’s image on their heart, and sentences like this, which always make me grumble: “Who today, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, has the need for a quiet walk through woods in the early morning just as the sun begins to pierce through the fog and nature’s symphony is at its peak?” That view of modernity is posed against “Once upon a time in the Western world,” when “exposure to ‘the beautiful’ was an important element in the development and formation of men.” In particular, the author cites the Romantics of the 19th Century who “who had the capacity to be intoxicated by the beauty of nature.” Jeez, Catholic Right. Why do you always have to do this? Couldn’t you make this point without turning it into a diatribe against modernity? The Romantic poets weren’t representative of society in the early 1800s—they were countercultural back then, too. Just like, later in the century, Thoreau was considered an oddball. We humans have always needed reminding to get our heads out of the daily grind of eating, drinking, working, and sleeping so that we can appreciate the beauty around us. This is nothing new.

7. Listless, Leggy Dolls: When I grumble about the Myth of Moral Decline, I don’t mean to come off as a progressive Pollyanna, arguing that everything is always getting better and better. I just hate the reflexive worship of the past, when people were neither more nor less moral than they are today. I think there’s plenty to criticize in contemporary culture. For example: Sonia Soraiya at Salon goes after the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, not for being too sexy but—get this!—for not being sexy enough. It’s a trenchant critique of the way that sex loses its humanity when it gets attached to consumerism and, therefore, isn’t sexy anymore. “While the mannerisms and behaviors are all hypersexualized,” Soraiya writes, “the content of the show is so plastic and empty that it feels robotic.” It’s the kind of observation that ought to find purchase on both the left and the right. Have a great Christmas, everybody. I’ll try to be back later in the week with a post on Reilly’sMaking Gay Okay.