I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy. Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.
One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people. It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas. It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices. It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse. That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.
In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection. The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification. Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves. Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.
Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual. If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.
This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values. The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view. Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive. If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.
Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends. People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering. If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters. Collect sexual encounters and material objects. What else is there to life?
Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation. But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed. Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy. Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill needs that cannot be met. Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.
The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality. And that leads me to the other article.
Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):
• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm
This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.” They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values. The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.
I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t. I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it. The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed. Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.
To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality. Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways. The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear. Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.
Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible. Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning. And everything is better with meaning.