The modern West is in trouble. Birth rates have been declining in the most developed countries for years, and the United States, like much of Europe and Asia, is no longer able to replace its own population through natural reproduction. While immigration, both legal and illegal, continues to make up population numbers, it is concerning when a society is unable to produce enough offspring to replace itself generation after generation.
The bad news continues. Pew Research finds that “27% of (American) adults ages 60 and older live alone, compared with 16% of adults in the 130 countries and territories studied.” More individuals than in previous generations are living in isolation from each other. This is not just a problem facing aging adults: this Forbes article surveys recent studies of loneliness in young adults, considering the extent to which it was exacerbated by the Covid-19 shutdowns. Rather than cause loneliness, Covid revealed the lack of strong connections within statistically measurable bodies of young adults.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” or, in this case, the western world. Young adults are coming of age in the most sexually permissive era yet known to humanity, but they are having less sex and fewer babies, and everyone is lonelier. We need to rethink our approach to sex, and to human relationships more broadly.
Enter Christine Emba’s recently published Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. Emba’s mix of personal narrative, investigative journalism, and cultural commentary builds a clear argument: the dating life of young professionals contains far too much “bad sex” resulting from bad premises. Emba provides a solution to her diagnosis, but her answer fails to match the strength of the problem. Rethinking Sex is well written, and leaves the reader with a claim to ponder: perhaps easy sexuality comes with a price, and that price reveals something about the complexity of human nature.
The dating scene as Emba describes it places sex before relationships. That placement, Emba argues, results in a lot of bad sex. She writes that “the fact that so many women around me relate so deeply to stories of harrowing dates and lackluster encounters show that a lot of us are having a lot of bad sex. Unwanted, depressing, even traumatic: if this is ordinary, something is deeply wrong.”
She argues that while much effort goes into teaching college students to view sex through a lens of consent, such education misses a crucial element: the stories her friends tell “are not stories that are primarily about consent. Rather, they’re about care or the lack thereof, about the responsibilities we have to each other.” Developing a higher ethic requires “making substantive claims about what we believe about sex, if only so that they can be considered, critiqued, and revised to eventually get to something approaching the truth.” Consent alone is insufficient; developing a stronger sexual ethic becomes Emba’s goal. Emba makes a limited claim: she’s not confident that society will find truth, but critique and conversation move in the right direction.
To achieve that goal, she spends several chapters exploring her dissatisfaction with the status quo. She writes that “far from having achieved a sexual renaissance, the leading sex research journals consistently find that people are having sex less frequently than they used to.” Liberation from traditional morality is not resulting in more sexual interaction over time; instead, the lack of framework puts people in an “open field that now rolls out before us” where “everyone feels a bit…lost.”
That open field leads to a dating scene that lacks “a shared set of norms for sex beyond the minimum of consent…” Emba traces the rise of this sexual culture to the Sexual Revolution’s promises of liberation from traditional relationships and roles, concluding that “what we need for better sex might be more connectedness, more interdependence, a greater acceptance of the realities of our contingent existence. The best sexual world is perhaps a less free one.” The Sexual Revolution promised gender equality, but delivered only disappointment: “sex became less a venue of liberation than another exhausting venue in which to perform that achievement.”
Emba focuses on two problem areas: Tinder, and porn. Tinder fosters an appearance of emotionless sex, reducing such an encounter to the material. Human beings have complex moral and spiritual lives, but Tinder turns romance into an online shopping experience. Encouraging people to ignore those deeper dimensions invites heartache. Porn functions as sexual education for many, and the kind of techniques it highlights (Emba focuses on strangulation) are both dangerous and demeaning. Emba writes that “if porn is a form of pedagogy for so many–and it clearly is–we should question whether what it teaches is true or false, whether the preferences it champions are positive or negative, and whether what it presents is what we as a society want to be learning or not.” Here as well Emba appeals to critique as the method for change.
Emba makes two movements towards solutions. The first is a call to reflect more deeply on the nature of desires and ask if they are right or wrong. In the current moment, we tend to treat desire as “immutable and unimpeachable.” Emba wants to shift that immutability and asks her readers to evaluate their desires. She expects pushback: “Because if we agree that some things are normatively good or bad, that some acts are morally acceptable and others are always wrong, or that some preferences and appetites might be unhealthy, that would mean that we might have to do ‘good’ things that we don’t want to do, or that we might no longer be able to do the ‘bad’ things we enjoy.” In this context, Emba brings up pornography and the dehumanizing practices it glorifies, suggesting that a Kantian consideration of human dignity could help with developing this ethic. “But with effort we can question, critique, and reconstruct our culture and thus our desire. And we probably should.” Emba shies away from defining specific acts as right or wrong; she poses the question, but does not draw the conclusion.
The second movement Emba makes is to recommend “radical empathy.” She suggests that “willing the good of the other might be the better sexual ethic we’ve been looking for.” Radical empathy begins with “imagining ourselves in the other’s stead and considering what they might feel about the encounter, not just in the moment but in the days to come.” This approach “involves a certain level of maturity and self-knowledge on our own parts: an understanding that if we aren’t able to do this, in the moment or more broadly, maybe we shouldn’t be having sex.” Were radical empathy to be widely practiced, Emba implies, the harms described throughout her book would lessen.
Emba closes her book considering the implications of her argument: “What if the answer is less, not more?… What if the answer was to have less casual sex? For that matter, what if the answer was to have sex under the standard of love?” Emba describes her position as “an argument for restraint. In every other situation common to the human experience–eating, drinking, exercise, even email–we have realized that restraint produces healthier results. Why not here too?”
In weaving her biography through the book, Emba explains that she is not returning to a pre-Sexual Revolution morality centered on marriage. Raised Baptist, Emba converted to Catholicism in college; she embraced the purity culture of her youth, and resisted entering the sexual rat race until late in college. She did eventually do so: “I held on to my abstinence for a while, and then let it go, jumping into the opposite end of the pool.” As she entered post-college years, Emba discovered the emptiness of excessive sex: “If I was honest with myself, neither total abstinence nor assimilation to mainstream sexual culture would help me obtain the connection I truly desired, and neither coincided with my sense of self.”
Emba’s goal is to find balance: “How do we accord sex a privileged position in our lives without either putting it on a pedestal as the ultimate expression of agency–a personal achievement, a level unlocked–or walling it off as something purely holy and ineffable?” There is still a place for casual sex in Emba’s schema: carefully selected, reasonably reflected upon sex with the benefit of the other in mind. Just not too often.
Emba’s diagnosis of the problems in contemporary sexual culture is far more persuasive than her proposed solutions. Radical empathy boils down to “just think about it from the other person’s perspective.” Emba’s solution does not seem equal to the problem, given her own discussion of the power of sex and the allure of sexual pleasure. While her book is valuable as a contribution to conversations about the meaning of sexuality, Emba’s unwillingness to wrestle with the moral implications of her argument is a flaw.
She hints that pornography, BDSM, and other sexual acts demeaning to the person are wrong, but the strongest term of moral condemnation she uses to describe pornography is “amoral.” Similarly, she fails to wrestle with the way traditional morality answers her critiques of post-Sexual Revolution dating. There is a custom practiced by every human civilization known to history, with clear roles, responsibilities, and privileges governed by moral norms and community accountability: marriage. In one sense, Emba’s volume reads like a work that is moving towards a clear conclusion: the Sexual Revolution did not deliver happiness as promised; we should therefore evaluate the premises of the Sexual Revolution; if those premises were wrong, then we should return to the pre-Sexual Revolution state where marriage was normative. Instead, Emba shies away from the implications of her own argument.
Read from a traditionalist perspective, Emba’s book functions as an argument for why the modern world should recover a high view of marriage and relocate sexual practices within it.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, marriage begins with the creation of humans in Genesis 2. It is a divine ordinance given as a blessing. Within marriage, the core problems of Emba’s analysis are solved. Here is a structure where care, love, and empathy create the grounds for sexual congress. The natural fruit of such congress, children, have a place to grow and thrive. The lifelong commitment of a man and woman to each other stands in stark opposition to the habitual one-night stands Emba describes. Located within the overlapping legal and faith communities, marriage entails standards of accountability for behavior. Where the Sexual Revolution painted marriage as confining, traditional wisdom likens marriage to a fireplace: unconstrained, fire destroys a home. Constrained, the fire warms and contributes to the conditions of life.
This ancient view also suggests that pleasure contributes to a healthy marriage, but is not a sufficient purpose. Sex within marriage meets at least three equally ranked purposes: companionship (life is long), children (life can be lonely), and pleasure (life can be good). Attempts to reduce sexual congress to only a pleasure-based activity without relational constraints reduce the complexity of both the actors and the action involved. Sex is a powerful force, and left unchecked can ruin the potential for happy living. Channeled into marriage, it contributes to the conditions conducive to happiness. It’s worth mentioning that sex is only one part of a healthy marriage; elevating sex beyond itself is an additional flaw of a sexually obsessed contemporary moment. Sex for what it is, within marriage, is a human good, but it makes a terrible god.
Contemporary sociology reaches the same conclusion: marriage channels sexuality into the essential building blocks of family and home, leading to a society able to build wealth and pass that on within generations. Mark Regnerus and W. Bradford Wilcox both study the sociological function of marriage. Regnerus argues that marriage is a matter of social justice: without marriage, wealth is not transferred; encouraging people to delay or avoid marriage, Regnerus suggests, is an effective tactic of the wealthy to prevent the poor from rising to the middle class. Marriage matters, within or without a traditionalist worldview. Channeling sexuality into non-marital outlets or lifestyles ultimately creates significant social problems (like the declining birth rate), suggesting that the ancient morality is more than convention. For humans to flourish, they must learn to live in alignment with the moral law.
Emba’s work furthers the national conversation on the nature of sex and the nature of the person. She asks vital questions. What is at stake when two humans come together? How can we have these relationships without harm? While Emba outlines much pain and anguish in the contemporary dating scene, her solutions point to the need for better answers. Emba is not willing to push her argument to its logical or moral conclusions, but her book is a step in the right direction. There is value in naming the problems, and her solutions point to the need for older sources of wisdom to aid our modern malaise.