The sexual revolution is finally complete.
At least it is among those interviewed for a chilling feature in the September issue of Vanity Fair, "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse.'" For these millennial graduates of elite colleges who are living and working in New York, the anything goes, non-judgmental attitude about sex that's spread throughout the culture since the mid-1960s has combined with technological advances (smartphones and dating/hook-up apps like Tinder, Happn, and Hinge) to produce a way of living unthinkable until about five minutes ago in civilizational terms.
Welcome to a world in which sex has been completely disconnected from norms of fidelity and courtship. At work and at play, men and women spend their waking hours gazing at their phones, continually swiping left or right, dividing potential sex partners into two categories (Yes or No) on the basis of a snapshot. A handful of messages later — for some the exchanges consist entirely of pre-verbal flirtation conducted with emojis, for others it includes photographs of genitalia that serve as a kind of second interview — and a "date" has been set. It's often a date without dinner or a movie or a show or a walk or a concert or even a single conversation. Just copulation with an optional kiss.
Then it's over, maybe in less than an hour, maybe to be repeated again in a few days, weeks, or months, but in many cases not. With so many willing partners to choose from and so little at stake emotionally or interpersonally (between ubiquitous birth control and easily available abortions, no one involved needs to spend so much as a moment contemplating consequences), moving on to the next micro-affair is often easier and more alluring than meeting up with the same partner more than once.
Author Nancy Jo Sales and her editors have done what they can to try and drum up tension or drama in the essay. A sub-headline declares ominously, "As romance gets swiped from the screen, some twentysomethings aren't liking what they see." And sure enough, some of the subjects express a vague longing for a deeper connection. Occasionally a woman rolls her eyes about a creep proposing rough sex. Several people remark on the strange fact that lots of the young men living out this fantasy of promiscuity seem to be struggling with impotence (or "erectile dysfunction").
But the overall impression left by the piece is that these young people are pretty content with the new order of things. Passing complaints aside, no one on either side of the gender divide suggests a dramatic change of behavior. No man expresses unambiguous regret about an absence of romance or conveys a hope for a steady girlfriend or wife. No woman indicates she's inclined to begin withholding sex until she gets to know her partners a little better and they demonstrate an interest in sticking around a little longer than the time it takes to reach an orgasm.
Sex drives are just too powerful to resist when satisfying them is so easy. And then there's the ego boost and endorphin kick that comes from an endless series of strangers pronouncing that you're desirable enough to f-ck. The downside costs just can't compare to that.
For a traditional religious believer, this sounds like the behavior of barbarians (which how Rod Dreher described it on his blog). For someone like author Dan Savage, who actively aims to dismantle the norms surrounding monogamous marriage, it's a dream come true.
But I'm more interested in the reaction to this development among older mainstream liberals: those who have always favored the sexual revolution but whose own lives have remained relatively conventional, including exclusive dating, marriage, and childrearing, possibly a divorce and remarriage, with the ideal of lifelong companionship still active in their minds and imaginations.
I suspect many of these liberals — Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself) — will find this vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There's just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey's sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality — including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation — that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.
What the article describes is largely our doing. This is the world we made, furnishing it with our mores, our freedom from judgment and consequences, our wondrous technological toys. Just because we arrived too late to "enjoy" it as fully as those who've graduated from college during the last decade doesn't make us any less responsible for it. And nothing demonstrates our complicity more than our incapacity to react with anything sterner than a furrowed brow or more compelling than, "As long as no one gets hurt..."
It's good not to get hurt. But without references to fuller standards of human flourishing and degradation, "hurt" gets reduced to brute physical and egregious mental harm. Thankfully, no one in the Vanity Fair story gets hurt in this sense. Everyone consents.
But is it really true that no one gets harmed?
That's the question that haunts me as I raise my own kids, aged 9 and 13. The world recounted by Sales — or, more likely, a world even less judgmental and even more saturated by even more advanced forms of technology — will be their world. And yet I want so much more for them than that. Though "more" isn't really what I mean. Not quantity. Quality. Something higher, nobler, less tawdry, more deeply fulfilling and longer lasting than a life devoted to satisfying fleeting desires for physical pleasure and status.
I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that's pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.
But of course all of this presumes the existence of a stable standard of excellence that tells us which goods are higher and which lower, allowing us to rank ways of life and modes of behavior. Religious traditions provide such standards. The idea of "nature," in its older teleological sense, does something similar.
"God? Nature? Won't the world be better off without those musty old ideas limiting our freedom, hovering over our heads, judging us, weighing on our conscience?"
That's what we asked. And the twentysomethings of Vanity Fair are the answer.
Is it really the answer we were hoping for?