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Has secular sexual freedom sowed the seeds of social disintegration?

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 5 February 2004


The contraceptive pill was introduced in the early '60s and has now become part of everyday life for married and single women in the West. Its popularity comes from its reliability and ease of use. While the pill did not produce the sexual revolution, it was certainly a contributing factor. The old authorities that insisted sex was only proper within marriage, were loosing their grip on the behavior of the young - the pill just made it that much easier. Sex became severed from monogamy, marriage and family and became a leisure activity. In the face of a media saturation depicting free-range sex in the name of “liberation”, parents allowed boyfriends and girlfriends to “sleep over” thinking that it was necessary to move with the times. This is the post-pill paradise of sexual freedom.

While most married couples recognise the corrosive effects of adultery, it seems that the unmarried are to have as many sexual partners as the want without expecting a negative effect on their future relationships. The one proviso is that these relationships are serial; that they pay some lip service to monogamy. This marks the boundary between promiscuity and responsible sexual behaviour. However, while these assumptions may be shared by the older generation who may never have experienced such freedom in sexual affairs, they may not he embraced by the younger generation for whom the sexual handshake has become the norm. These issues and how they have effected the quality of marriage and hence the prevalence of divorce have been canvassed by Leon R. Kass in his article The End of Courtship. Kass deftly tells us of the contemporary obstacles to the formation of permanent and satisfying marriages and family. The list is extensive and includes easy contraception, the cult of individual rights, the crippling of sexual imagination, public sexual education that is reduced to physiology/safety and the demystifying effect of science that robs sexuality of its mystery.

While this article takes the more extensive treatment by Kass as a given, I am going to concentrate on one aspect of our dilemma that has yielded to the penetrating theological analysis of John Howard Yoder in his article entitled One Flesh until Death: conversations on the meaning and permanence of marriage. Yoder was a Mennonite theologian who specialised in Christian ethics. He died in 1997. The centre of Yoder’s argument focuses on the proclamation of God (Genesis 2:24) that Adam and Eve will become one flesh and the subsequent repetition of those words in the mouth of Jesus when he talks of marriage (Mark 10:8). But most surprisingly, Paul also uses the phrase “be one flesh” in 1Cor. 6:16 when he talks about sex with prostitutes. It is clear that marriage is essentially a sexual union and it occurs whenever such a union takes place. This means that there is no such thing as premarital sex, all sex is marital, even that with a prostitute. Furthermore, Yoder argues that these marriages are indissoluble contra the Roman Church. The warrant for this conclusion is biblical but it is also a psychological reality. While we may behave as if we do not carry our personal history with us, the exact opposite is the case. When we leave each sexual encounter we leave a piece of ourselves behind. We have shared an intimacy that leaves a trace in our memory and our affections. Even if the encounter is a one-night stand in a strange city, we remember, a place is left in our hearts that holds tenderness and concern for the other. To live as if we can have sexual encounters that do not leave such a trace in us means that we either lie to ourselves or that we have become emotionally castrated. Yoder thus argues that our experience of multiple partners is not serial monogamy but is more like polygamy because these other relationships continue to be present in memory, they continue to exist.

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Of course, spouses die and marriages break down. The social wariness of hasty replacement speaks a truth about the time that is necessary to retrieve those parts of ourselves that have been left behind in the previous relationship. For a person to be free of a marital relationship they must proceed with the work of disentanglement, a process of grieving that takes its own time and sets aside, for a time, the proclamation of God that “It is not good for the man to be alone”.

When this generation of young people hop from one bed to another, either in search for sexual gratification or as a contorted form of courtship, or simply slide into cohabitation, they rob themselves of the very things that have traditionally kept marriage sustainable. They miss the erotic allure of the long-sought partner. They miss the community support provided by a public pronouncement and celebration of marriage with its attendant advantages of shared purse, orderly habitation and most essential of all, children. For the sexual union is not enough to sustain married life, that requires the shared responsibility for other lives and the attendant maturity that develops with it. In marriage we encounter the neighbour at close quarters and we learn that the path to full humanity lies in our dying to that person, that we displace ourselves. That some couples are barren and yet still maintain their marriages does not counter the argument, they are to be congratulated. Neither does the argument run aground in the face of singles who live rich and faithful lives. But to marry and choose not to have children seems a sin against the very centre of what marriage is about. Despite our rage about the individual’s right to choose, this choice condemns couples to immaturity and loneliness as they proceed through life without their own children and their grandchildren around them to transcend their own deaths.

Yoder contends that the high divorce rate may find its causes more in how we begin our marriages than how we end them. When couples proceed from one sexual partner to another, even if serially, and even if with the intention of finding a life-long mate, they accustom themselves to divorce. While they know that it is painful, they have done it before and know that it is possible. What we have in effect is not a courtship followed by marriage but a series of maimed marriages that do not have the resources to survive. There is no way that couples can distinguish between marriage and cohabitation when life continues as usual after the marriage ceremony. The danger is that the dynamics of cohabitation set the scene for the marriage: one stays as long as things are going OK but one reserves the right to leave unilaterally when the going gets rough.

While we may point out the sociological reasons for early cohabitation, such as the extended time that it now takes to become trained and to begin gathering resources for a new family, this does not alter the effect of this style of getting together.

The Roman church and conservative Protestants have tried to hold the line; however, Liberal Protestants have moved with the flow and have excused sex outside of consecrated marriage on the basis that it is alright as long as love is present. Ask any teenage couple necking in a car in a laneway if they are in love! Of course they are, at the moment, and there is no barrier against consummation in the back seat. This is not only a shallow understanding of what marital love is, it is impossible to make a decision about whether we love the other person once the blood is up.

The only position the church can take is to counsel chastity before marriage. Liberal Protestantism dodges this conclusion because it desires to be accepted by the world, to show itself as nonjudgmental, affirming and realistic. It offers itself as an alternative to the moralizing of the Roman and conservative Protestant churches, insists on an existential understanding of the gospel and ignores the teachings of Jesus.

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Liberal churches have joined the modern bandwagon that tells us that the most important things are freedom and equality. But the freedom and equality championed by secular culture, following the revolutionary movements in Europe, are not the same as the freedom and equality of the gospel. While secular freedom leads us into a void, stripping all away, the freedom of the gospel comes about only after the metaphorical death of the self and the rising again to a new life in which the self is de-centered, leaving room for the neighbour. Secular freedom holds the self and its desire as the ultimate goal and leaves no space for the neighbor, neither does the idea of individual human rights. Secular notions of equality strive to make all the same while the gospel recognises the nobility of individual gifts in various stations of life. It is time that we recognised that secular trumpeting of individual rights, vacuous freedom and “what about me” equality is as corrosive to marriage as it is to community.

The church believes that our salvation lies in the gospel of Jesus Christ, i.e. That the teachings of Jesus bring health and wholeness. This is why mainstream churches teach celibacy outside of marriage. It would be a mistake for liberals to see this as the imposition of law over grace; that is not the case. Rather, it takes seriously the promise of the gospel as we see it in the teachings of Jesus. We ignore these to our peril because they are deeply rooted in human reality. While this conclusion has large support in the church, it flies in the face of a huge cultural movement that treats sex as just another bodily function. TV sitcoms treat sex as a kind of indoor sport, cohabitation is the accepted conclusion of often short and shallow courtship. The church, when it dares to speak on the issue, is condemned as old-fashioned and regressive. Education focuses on the medical. But as Kass remarks, “Safe sex is the self-delusion of shallow souls”. Sex should be the most dangerous activity that we have, what could be more dangerous than to lose yourself to another person and to enter into childbirth and parenting? When we lose this import, sex is reduced to advice on how to achieve orgasm proffered by the near porn of teenage magazines, partners cease to hold the promise of lifelong love and are reduced to the means of gratification. This becomes anti-eroticism.

Legislators despair at the extent of social breakdown and the amount of money needed to fund single parents, the family court, and deal with the criminality of despairing parents and lost children. Ironically, the separation of church and state, that failure of diplomacy between the sacred and the secular, inhibits the state from finding the healing that is desperately needed. This is why sex education in state schools focuses on the medical, because we have been forced into the sterile corner of values-free education. This is really no education at all but a recipe for disaster as students are expected to “make up their own mind” whereas they should be trained in the disciplines of living. If we are to make any progress at all in this then the church and the state will have to find ways of working together.

Post-pill paradise or seeds of social disintegration? What looked like freedom has turned out to be the tightest bondage to a false eroticism and turmoil in marital affairs. The way forward is not necessarily a return to old forms that were themselves faulty, as feminism has pointed out, but a retrieval of the deep insight into the workings of the human soul that we find in the gospel.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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