Like my dad with me, I’m having a hard time knowing what to say to my son about sex. This, right as the subject is becoming suddenly, urgently, genuinely interesting to him. For years he was aware of sex in something like the same way he was aware of New Zealand—look, there it is, you can point it out on the map—but he wasn’t much invested in it. I asked once if he thought about sex very much, and he said, “Yeah. You mean like boys and girls?”
“No, I mean like reproduction,” I said.
“Ew, no. Dad, that’s disgusting. Did you and Mom actually do that? I can’t believe it.”
“Yes, we did, Jack,” I said. “Remember, buddy: no S-E-X, no Y-O-U.”
I can’t make it my job to ensure he makes only good decisions, but I owe him a good example and loving guidance. My job is to help him steward his gifts and potential, try to teach him something true about his sexuality. Maybe one day he’ll want to talk openly about it with me. He’s had some sex education in school, probably more than I’ve given him at home. He goes to a decent school and he has good teachers, and I trust them, even if I disagree with them about some things. The teachers have been telling him some things I think are questionable, and I have already told him things that his teachers would no doubt find questionable.
But most of what he learns about sex will be informal. Most of it will come from entertainment, pop culture, social media, and Google searches, picked up by him and his peers and passed around as supposedly common sense. And nearly all of that is going to be some uneven mixture of strange beauty, half-truths, and lies.
For the myriad ways we are all encouraged to think of sex as a casual, harmless pastime, it’s worth starting with a basic reminder that sex is tied for first place as the most serious existential human experience (the other being death). For all the focus on pleasure, this is still where we get babies from, where you and I and nearly every single other human being began. Relentless safe-sex education plus condoms, birth-control pills, abortion, and the morning-after pill have all conveniently made the baby thing mostly optional, and we have all been encouraged to forget the connection between sex and babies. But the existential gravitas of the act itself has not magically disappeared just because a woman’s been taking her pills faithfully for at least two consecutive months or a man keeps a supply of Trojans by the bedside. We have mostly lost any real sense that sex is still a really big deal, even without the possibility of baby-making. But now and then we all get a great big reminder of the enduring personal and social meaning of sex, usually when it goes disastrously wrong. Like with Harvey Weinstein.
By the time my son is old enough to read this, Weinstein may very well be long gone from the news, our selectively amnesiac culture already doing its best to scrub him from the cultural record. Before he became the notorious symbol of the scourge of predatory male sexuality in Hollywood and beyond, Harvey Weinstein was once simply the name of a powerful movie producer. His vast, rich movie empire catastrophically imploded in October 2017, when the New York Times and New Yorker published articles with long lists of women accusing him of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, lists that continued to grow in the months following. What some dubbed “the Weinstein effect” went on to cripple or topple the career—or at least publicly humiliate and seriously mar the reputation—of dozens of powerful Hollywood men, including Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Richard Dreyfus, Dustin Hoffman, James Franco, Michael Douglas, Ben Affleck, Oliver Stone, Jeremy Piven, Geoffrey Rush, Charlie Sheen, Steven Segal, Tom Sizemore, Jeffrey Tambor, George Takei, James Tobak, and Morgan Spurlock. Less than a year after the Weinstein story broke, more than 120 famous men had made the list of guys with an unchecked, and potentially dangerous, libido.
Sex as a god is a tyrant, a monster.
It’s not like Weinstein was the first powerful man whose sex drive made life miserable for many of the women within arm’s reach. But when the Weinstein domino tipped, it started a thunderous movement, and politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, publishers, stage performers, authors, talk-show hosts, theatre directors, musicians, painters, and photographers—all men—started losing their jobs over accusations of harassment, assault, and rape; if not fired, then publicly accused, humiliated, and often shamed into quitting.
Jian Ghomeshi, another name-as-symbol, now largely erased from public view, was the charming, silky-voiced, baritone host of CBC Radio’s top-rated arts and culture program Q, until The Toronto Star published an article in 2014 in which a number of his former lovers accused him of sexual assault. Ghomeshi immediately defended himself, talking about his taste for “rough sex” and the right to keep those sexual tastes private. But the accusations against him accumulated in number and salaciousness, and the public conversation focused on whether the women had actually given their consent to Ghomeshi’s style of, ahem, “loving.” He was fired, publicly shamed, charged, and tried, and though he was eventually found not guilty, his voice in pop culture obliterated.
When Ghomeshi’s story broke, it struck me as an opportunity for some frank conversation, a time to take stock of our cultural understanding of sex, the sort of “fearless and searching moral inventory” that alcoholics make after they’ve hit rock bottom and decided to ask for help. But friends of mine told me that clearly I just didn’t get it. Sex, they said, had nothing to do with what happened. One told me that to broach the subject of sex in this situation was to conjure the outdated, oppressive, patriarchal tone of the Promise Keepers. Another said that sexual intimacy was really no different from emotional intimacy and that I should talk to polyamorous folks to get a better perspective. He suggested I shouldn’t go around telling other people what they can or cannot do, though apparently he himself was subject to no such prohibition. The progressive narrative, it seemed, had nothing to do with any kind of moral argument. I heard the same kind of thing all over again with Weinstein. Within days of his story breaking, a CBC interviewer said of him and his abuses, “This isn’t about sex. This is about power.”
I can understand the reluctance to actually talk about sex because genuine discussion isn’t going to be fun. It’s going to demand real, critical reflection, and that would mean we’d have to at least consider saying no to things we’ve come to feel entitled to. It would require us to humbly weigh our individual choices, preferences, and habits, be open to admitting genuine error, accepting responsibility, and making meaningful commitments to real change, all of which combined are about as much fun as having someone knock your favourite drink out of your hand and slap you on your sunburned shoulders while handing you four years’ worth of overdue tax bills. Even more difficult, it would force us to ask whether our culture as a whole has made some serious missteps about sex, especially in the past sixty years or so. But so far it seems that we would rather talk about power and strive to parse ever more precise definitions of the word “consent” than seriously question the dogma of unencumbered erotic licence. We’ve long ago left the harbour of old-fashioned marriage aboard the ship of entitlement to sexual bliss, we say, and even if we don’t really know where it’s going, and even though it seems to be leaving wreckage and suffering in its wake, anyone foolish enough to suggest calling it back to port must be prudish, puritan, regressive, or repressed.
To be fair, you don’t need to be a gender-studies scholar to notice some real, troubling sex-and-gender-based patterns in our culture, including blatant gender biases, unchecked and abusive masculinity, and fundamentally unfair contests for power, especially in the pseudo-reality and rarefied air of Hollywood’s rich and famous. I have no quibble with the talk about abuse of power and exploitation. At the same time it seems just plain stupid not to say something about sex, and I mean the reproduction, intercourse kind of sex, the kind that used to make my son go “ew.” That long-and-still-growing list of women filing their complaints about sexually abusive men are all recounting some measure of sex in their accusations of harassment, abuse, and rape, just as it is obvious that Weinstein et alia identified something sexual about what was going on.
The sexual revolution has played out long enough for us to take stock and ask whether we’ve got what we wanted, or whether the unintended social, emotional, and health consequences outweigh our liberated sexuality. Guys like Ghomeshi and Weinstein and the #MeToo movement are clear signs that something isn’t working, and it would be a mistake to squander all the suffering without taking some serious moral inventory. We have broad, systemic problems with sex, so let’s back up and ask some deep questions about what happened when we freed sex from the tradition and history of marriage. Having liberated ourselves from outmoded norms and having cast off the archaic moral language surrounding sex, we hoped to make it a casual pastime, no more or less meaningful than checkers or golf or watching an episode of Gilmore Girls. But no: this is not so. And it takes some serious, determined a priori grit to weigh countless accusations of men sauntering around in front of co-workers with their penises out or masturbating into potted ferns only to say, “It has nothing to do with sex.” (Maybe it would help if Hollywood executive offices replaced all their indoor plants with cacti or poison ivy.) History’s moral sages, who have always warned us to be careful, thoughtful, and disciplined with our carnal desires, clearly had at least one thing right: sex is incredibly powerful and therefore potentially incredibly dangerous, so handle with care.
When I was a university student, I encountered all kinds of enthusiasm for vague, sentimental notions of freedom. It was in the second half of the ’90s, less than a decade after the Velvet Revolution, the collapse of Communism, and the supposed triumph of Western, liberal, democratic society. Mandela was out of prison, free markets were booming, and the internet, not yet overrun by commercial interests, porn, gossip, and toxic tribalism, promised to be a tool of political and social liberation. A prolonged “war on terror” was still years away, nothing but a backup plan in the hawkish minds of American generals and politicos. “Freedom” was a rallying cry, vague enough that no one was going to stand up and declare themselves against it.
But even as an undergrad I was never all that worked up about the sanctimonious enthusiasm for the generalized “freedom” I heard from the mouths of profs and students. Freedom for what? More toothpaste options and cheaper T-shirts? Or freedom from what? The great, terrible burden of history, including the long line of political, cultural, social, religious, and philosophical traditions that had brought us the very university we were studying in? How free did anyone actually want to be? And how free did we actually want everyone else to be? Rousseau told us, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” but I saw no real evidence of oppressive chains among my comfortable, well-fed, chain-smoking, binge-drinking peers or our tenured, spouse-swapping, idealist, left-leaning professors. We were all living in the safest, healthiest time in human history in one of the most affluent and comfortable regions of the world. Even in my early twenties I could see that my life was good and free precisely because we lived with specific ideas of freedom. We necessarily limited our options by enacting our freedom; having chosen, we had closed the door to endless choice. My loudest, most activist-oriented peers were by and large a bunch of reckless teens who, having recently stumbled into twin privileges of legal drinking and intro sociology, seemed to think the very notion of boundaries was an offence to our right to be ourselves, whatever that might mean. But to me, their idea of freedom looked aimless and weak. “Freedom” as they used it sounded like a word for a self-righteous mob to chant to itself as it marched around campus, paper tigers roaring at all the cultural and historical artifacts that had made their lives so easy and comfortable.
I’ve got plenty of room for arguments about power imbalance and abuse, but attributing all our problems with sex simply to power strikes me as a lazy excuse for not having to actually think.
Let’s consider another supposed liberation to make sense of how there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing, including freedom: food. For about as long as we have been living with liberated sexuality, we have also fairly comprehensively figured out how to liberate our eating from most of its old-fashioned constraints, like family and community and context, history, tradition, norms, and self-discipline. We are free to eat whatever we want, whenever we choose, and as much as we desire. But that freedom has proved very costly. Our “liberated” eating requires massive, inhumane, heavily polluting feedlots, GMOs, massive agrarian monocultures that depend on countless tons of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides sprayed on our food crops, just to make sure we can buy strawberries at the grocery store in January and pick up a Happy Meal for the kids any time of day, 365 days a year. Industrial food production has freed us from the constraints of history and tradition. But everyone knows it’s been bad for us in all kinds of ways.
The CEOs and stockholders in the ag and chemical corporations still think industrial food is good, because it puts heaps of money in their pockets. Travellers can enjoy a Big Mac and a Coke anywhere in the world, and I can put fresh raspberries on my cornflakes in the middle of winter. I’ve read enough Wendell Berry that I live with a lot of serious guilt about those sorts of things, especially the imported fruit on my breakfast cereal. Now, I can’t say that all of these are entirely bad, even as they bother my conscience. But the immutable law of unintended consequences means that when you tinker with one part, you tinker with the whole. For better and for worse, what you put into your mouth is connected to everything: pick up a loaf of bread, and you’ll discover that the whole earth is connected to it. Our liberated food also means we get regular food recalls for listeria outbreaks and warnings about E. coli on our lettuce leaves. We’ve got trans fats in our birthday cakes, unpronounceable chemicals in our breakfast cereal, high-fructose corn syrup in the kids’ “fruit” juice, sixty-four-ounce Slurpees with a quarter pound of dissolved sugar, and Doritos with a coating of sodium so thick it actually does mask all the artificial chemicals and preservatives the lab adds to the “recipe.” We have a cornucopia of liberated food. But it has not made our eating better. And it’s been bad news for our health. The deleterious effects of our great, gastronomical trickle-down have to pool somewhere, and where they most obviously wind up is in Western society’s epidemic rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity, all of which suggest that our bodies are paying the hidden fees for our cheap food. Other less immediately visible costs are paid by our kids not knowing how to prepare and cook meals from basic ingredients, the dwindling livelihood of local farmers, the failing health of farming communities, polluted watersheds and depleted soils, and dirty, smelly, poisonous air, all the kinds of things Wendell Berry has been warning us about for the last sixty years. Real freedom is a gift, but vague notions of “freedom” are untenable, dangerous, and destructive.
I grew up on a farm ten miles outside a town of about three hundred people, a community where freedom was always constrained by necessity. Freedom was one value nested among others, like neighbourliness, civility, and hard work. I grew up with a good number of conservative fundamentalists, some of whom could sometimes be just as closed-minded and belligerent as the stereotypes would suggest. But nearly all the ones I had any interaction with were generous, helpful, neighbourly men and women. One of the many gifts of my small-town upbringing was that, to a large extent, everyone had to work out ways to get along. There wasn’t much use in trying to find a tribe of like-minded people because there just weren’t enough people to choose from. We had to live with what was given. Everyone in school, religious or not, got a little red New Testament from the Gideons in grade five, and all of us fundamentalist church kids took high school science from the atheist, evolutionist science teacher. My family helped our self-described redneck neighbour with his harvest exactly the same way, two weeks later, we helped our gay neighbour with his. We shared fences with the boozy brawler and sold livestock to the praise-Jesus-hallelujah rancher-cowboy preacher. My family was socially and culturally conservative, as was my church, and we weren’t silent or sorry about what we believed, but we didn’t get to pick and choose who we lived with and interacted with. We always worked with people who were different from us. And sometimes we had to work with people we didn’t like and who didn’t like us; sometimes those people were family. Most of us weren’t working from an abstract, philosophical respect for others. It was out of need, neighbourliness, and genuine care.
I don’t mean to pine nostalgically for some imaginary good old days, as though we could sidestep all the most common hang-ups and troubles of sexuality if each of us just moved back to the kind of small town I grew up in. But in contrast to my childhood, my son is growing up in a densely populated city full of strangers where the day-to-day exchanges of life are divided up enough that he and I and the rest can go through our days acting for the most part under the illusion that we are, in fact, individuals. Because one can only ever really know a tiny portion of people in a city—their names, the details of their lives, their experiences, their history, their work, and so on—it’s harder to see others as real, full, complex human beings. Compared to what I grew up with, city life is big, fast, and efficient, and when I go about my day, it feels like I’m in a machine, that the world hums along oblivious to me and my needs, interests, sorrows, loves, just as I am oblivious to all of that in others. It feels like I don’t really need other people, like I am fairly independent, free from others, sharing civil space with other free individuals on the basis of rights and laws, respect and tolerance.
But the sense of independence is an illusion. And like a sad, drunk guy at a party who boasts too loudly, too long, and too openly about his cringe-worthy string of “conquests,” culture may praise its sexual freedom as virtue, but it sounds awfully forced. Something’s missing. Pundits championing liberation preach that sex is simply about genitals and orgasms, with options and consent. They preach an impoverished, diminished, half-hearted view of sex, treating it as nothing but a pleasurable pastime, a fleshy way to relieve stress, a hobby. They devour a fast-food burger and declare it a feast.
It’s true that boundaries hem in our freedom, but we are discovering, painfully, that a fundamental commitment to freedom is out of balance. We are, in fact, served by boundaries and limits; we need to have some real ideas about where we can go and where we can’t. Food and eating is serious enough, to be sure, but, as noted above, copulation is tied with death itself for the blue ribbon in the hierarchy of timeless existential biggies. We act as though reproduction is tangential to intercourse, because we want oh so badly to believe our parents or grandparents were right to liberate sex from all its antiquated, fuddy-duddy encumbrances. But the truth is you’re always just one missed pill or one slipped condom away from reproduction, which is just one of many reasons that, when it comes to sex, the existential stakes for women have always been higher than those for men, pill or no pill, “safe” sex or otherwise. No question, that’s part of why the list of complainants coming forward with sexual-harassment allegations these days are almost all women.
Most of the accused men have been quick to defend themselves, calling the accusations exaggerations, fabrications, or outright lies, and asserting their fundamental allegiance to and support for women. But saying the right thing is no substitute for some serious, reflective soul-searching. If our culture wants to make meaningful changes, we’ve got to consider that some of our dogmatic ideas about sex are mistaken and that sex, severed from personal and social context, community, history, tradition, mores, and self-discipline, is dangerous and unhealthy. Our “liberated” sexuality is actually profoundly diminished because it admits to no real boundaries or limits. It’s just one example of how we’ve been seduced by the endless promises of more, rather than learning how to be satisfied with enough.
The problem with liberating ourselves from long-standing constraints and norms is that we still haven’t figured out how to liberate ourselves from our perennial capacity to consciously and deliberately get up to some harmful, nefarious trouble.
Without ignoring some of the historical problems with the institution of marriage, it’s worth restating some of its basic social value. Weinstein and Ghomeshi and the lot prove that men can be beastly, but the fact is that most men contend with thoughtless, unloving, animal sexual impulses and desires that, unchecked, can be harmful to others, especially women. It should be abundantly clear that we cannot unleash sex from the narrow, restricting, repressive bonds of marriage without real personal and social consequences. Saying that sex has its place, and its place is within marriage, necessarily pressures men to constrain their indiscriminate lusts and help them pay attention to their other non-sex activities (i.e., the rest of their lives), which should help keep more women safe from unwanted sexual attention from feral male sexuality. It certainly isn’t a perfect arrangement because (1) bounded sex is still risky and (2) married men don’t necessarily abide by the bonds and bounds of marriage. But the suggestion that we should have at least some boundaries around sex for everyone’s well-being seems basic. Everyone draws some set of boundaries and lines, even if they draw lines at different places.
The traditional idea of marriage as “forsaking all others / till death do us part” at least helps keep men from acting like Weinstein, Spacey, and Louis CK. Marriage helps section off an appropriate place for sex and sexual expression, which also helps section off those places where it’s unacceptable. When I was twelve years old, I could already tell that sexuality was volatile and wild, and I also knew that sheer willpower and determination could get pretty knock-kneed in front of my lust. It was the fear of God, respect for my family, and pressure from my religious community that kept me from doing too many reckless, stupid things. That we men are often horny and that our sexuality can be truculent is a given; that we need not be necessarily frightening, and that we can behave in ways that are authentically loving, is a hopeful possibility.
At least one of the intended results of marriage is that sex is socially, culturally, morally bounded, which means there is a fairly narrow range of sexual expression and a vast zone of sexuality that’s off-limits—namely, married people are not supposed to run around having sex with other people. The boundaries and norms of marriage are fragile and breakable, but even when they don’t work, even when men (and yes, back in the old days of marriage and norms, it was mostly men) went off philandering behind their wives’ backs, there was a clear boundary line to point to. We’ve chucked marriage as a limit for sexual expression, unshackled that blissful, natural, expressive sexual human nature from all those dusty old oppressive confines of marriage, and then—oops!—there goes the place where we made, fed, raised, and cared for the children, and—oops again!—there goes the boundary line that demarcates inappropriate sexual behaviour from appropriate. Now the best marker, supposedly the only marker we really need, is consent. If that’s the best we can do, it is a depressingly impoverished, oversimplified, anemic rendering of something so astonishingly meaningful.
I’m making a conservative argument because I’m confident there is still plenty in marriage worth conserving. I agree in sentiment with the #MeToo movement, that the status quo is untenable. But unlike #MeToo, I don’t think we can right all our sexual wrongs simply by adding a layer of legalese to our liberated ways and simultaneously shaming the horny men by outing them via caustic retweets. I don’t believe the supposedly progressive narrative here because I think that, for the most part, it’s a cheap, self-satisfying, sanctimonious way to avoid deeper, careful reflection. Current public discourse about sex funnels immediately into a narrow track of now-familiar chatter about patriarchy and male privilege, but nobody seems willing to actually talk about sex because, as I mentioned, that would require us to go back and take a second look at some boring, old-fashioned wisdom. I’ve got plenty of room for arguments about power imbalance and abuse, but attributing all our problems with sex simply to power strikes me as a lazy excuse for not having to actually think.
Sexual harassment is about sex, and it’s also about marriage, and it sure as hell is also about sin, another archaism we’ve been told we can jettison because all it did was make people feel bad about themselves. What we’ve discovered is that the word “sin” actually gives us a marker to measure drift. No one can go off course in a free-float; identifying bad behaviour depends on an idea of good behaviour. We who think we’ve outgrown the usefulness of sin language no doubt remember feeling naughty and ashamed when we were kids. We grew up and figured we had outgrown sin, but often what happens, I think, is that we grow up and end up simply abandoning ideas that might still be meaningful. It’s foolish and reckless to get rid of sin talk simply because you don’t like it. It’s perfectly fine to try to get beyond the shame and guilt you felt when your parents or some church minister scolded you when you were four; reflexively waving the word “sin” at something that makes you uncomfortable can be just another way of avoiding actual thought. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more mature, sophisticated ways to talk about sin. It’s no use blaming your religious system for the fact that you were once young. We are properly outraged when reckless, violent ISIS warriors raze museums of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts, and yet we consider ourselves liberated and “progressive” for jettisoning similarly ancient Middle Eastern wisdom and teaching about how to conduct ourselves properly in society.
I do not believe in moral progress because it suggests that we’re moving out of our propensity for getting things wrong and there’s just too much evidence to the contrary. “Sin” can be a damaging term when wielded by narcissistic, power-hungry religious leaders bent on keeping the oppressed masses in a state of grovelling subservience. But used wisely, “sin” is a term that willfully dips into metaphysics to try to get a handle on why you and I sometimes deliberately go out of our way to lie, cheat, and steal to satiate our selfish longings. “Sin” says you ought to set aside time for your own fearless and searching moral inventory. I had breakfast with a friend shortly after he’d left his wife. He was pretty matter-of-fact about things, seemed reconciled to the situation, was quick to judge his ex as perfectly equally culpable in the precipitous situation and in the divorce itself. “You know what I’ve realized though?” he said. His eyes welled up with tears, and he paused. “I’m not a bad man.” I’m sure his therapist told him that, and it looked like it was working for him, like it helped him balance the obvious sorrow and struggle of his situation: I’m not a bad person; therefore, I can move on. But I wondered: What if you’re wrong? What if now is the time for a massive reconsideration of your entire sense of self and your place in the world? Maybe you are, at least some of the time, a bad man. In light of your pending divorce, the unravelling of your life and that of your ex, and considering the immeasurable, unseen costs for you, her, and your children, you damn well better take stock of who you really are because wishful thinking and optimism might prove catastrophic. Everyone is a mixed bag: good, yes, but now and then also really, really bad. That means the kind of people who do bad things includes you, me, your MP, your bus driver, the librarian, loud-mouth anarchists, sweet-talking volunteers, and, yes, movie moguls, stand-up comedians, actors, and journalists.
A healthy dose of right and wrong, of oughtness and ought-not-ness, is at least partly a good thing because the supposedly free, unbounded person with unlimited possibilities can’t really be trusted. The problem with liberating ourselves from long-standing constraints and norms is that we still haven’t figured out how to liberate ourselves from our perennial capacity to consciously and deliberately get up to some harmful, nefarious trouble. And sheer willpower plus up-to-date, progress-oriented education about consent won’t be enough to tame the beast. “All human beings are to some extent greedy and cruel—and angry without cause,” said Kurt Vonnegut. “I am not pure. We are not pure. Our nation is not pure.” The only reason the inexcusable, unwanted sexual philandering of all these guys is so surprising is that we foolishly bought the illusion that we can get out of this state if only we can fill our minds with the right set of ideas. “A monogamous man is like a bear riding a bicycle,” writes the now-disgraced Garrison Keillor. “He can be trained to do it but he would rather be in the woods, doing what bears do.” Most men have at least something of a wild beast within us, and human culture, with its thousands of years of careful social conditioning, has helped us behave with a bit more love and civility.
The wedding ceremony, especially a religious one, is a final layer of meaning, a piece of community-oriented theatre that acknowledges the many layers of meaning intrinsic to it.
“Some things I’m sick of,” joked Louis CK in front of the packed house at the Beacon Theatre back in 2011. Transcribed here, and without the punctuations of crowd laughter, it could be mistaken for a sincere confession; considering what we know about him now, perhaps it actually was. “I’m sick of just the constant, perverted sexual thoughts. It makes me into an idiot. That’s really a male problem, not being able to control your constant sexual impulse. Women try to compete; they’re like, ‘Well, you know, I’m a pervert. You don’t know. I have really sick, sexual thoughts.’ No, you have no idea. You have no idea. You get to have those thoughts; I have to have them. You’re a tourist in sexual perversion; I’m a prisoner there. You’re Jane Fonda on a tank; I’m John McCain in the hut. It’s a nightmare.” We laughed when it was a joke, but when we found out that he wasn’t actually joking, we were outraged.
Every child is like the whole of civilization compressed and in miniature, beginning as a squawking, grunting, untamed barbarian. Culture, with its institutions, tradition, and moral instruction, teaches us to be human, necessarily constraining us and restricting our freedom. Intertwined with our culture’s unquestioned dogma of sexual liberation is a less obvious faith in progress, which ultimately leads to perfectibility. We assume that as a society we are capable of determining for ourselves what ought to be and then educating and instructing everyone in that kind of behaviour, which is how progress ratchets up. Over and over we say, “We ought to know better,” and yet when the same shitty situation comes up over and over again, rather than questioning our faith in progress, we quickly crucify the bad guys and double down on our commitment that they are the bad people and we are the good people. Sex, we are told, has been liberated, so any suggestion that sexuality is anything but beneficial or at least benign as long as it is consensual is surely a modern heresy. Any suggestion that there might be some broad, male problems with sexuality is also heresy because we’ve “clearly” established that gender is nothing but a social construction, and on that we cannot give an inch. We’ve already decided that the problem is power; therefore, we cannot entertain the possibility that men have a sex problem and not only a power problem.
Nonsense, I say.
I had a lot of nightmares when I was a kid, some nocturnal horror show every few weeks. Weird, evil stuff: decapitation machines, demons that would dance and taunt, diabolical ritual sacrifices in the garden behind my house. I noticed a marked decline in the frequency of my nightmares after I got married, and I attribute that psychic healing to the loving presence of my wife.
I still have a whole suite of recurring dreams that range from the innocuous and playful to the truly existentially terrifying. None of my recurring dreams have the quality of those nightmares, which would always wake me up with a start, my heart pounding, my waking imagination filled with drawn-out terror. One of the recurring dreams is like a journey through a kind of civilization built into the side of a hill with long, winding staircases on the left and right sides that reach all the way to the top. The buildings on the way to the top are more like stores or displays than homes, like Disneyland for grown-ups. But at the top is a vast room full of some kind of dark magic and sex. Of course I’m interested and intrigued, and every time I have the dream I make my way to the top to have a look around. But when I get inside, it’s not like the Playboy Mansion. It’s a dark, broken wasteland: doors off the hinges, windows blown out, garbage and leftovers from something that happened a while back. There’s no grand power inside, no miracle. It is hollowed out, vacant, decimated.
I don’t have to dig very deep to extract some meaning from that one: male sexuality that strives to reign is a dead, empty space. Louis CK’s “I’m sick of just the constant, perverted sexual thoughts” got a good laugh when he said it in front of an audience, but his point is deadly serious. When he acts the pervert—well now we know he wasn’t joking. He could tell us about the wasteland; now that we’ve seen it, we ignore his warning at our own peril. Sex as a god is a tyrant, a monster. Good sexuality owes its allegiance not to pleasure and satisfaction but to the transcendent: to goodness, beauty, or truth—or, best of all, to genuine love.
A while back I was recounting to a friend of mine how I had just heard about five marriages of young couples in my church that were suffering or disintegrating, and he said, “What do you expect? You load up marriage with so much religious language, this rhetoric of covenant and till death do us part and all this guilt and weight. You make it all so heavy; how do you expect anyone to be able to survive that?”
I think he’s looking at it backward. It’s not the ceremony and ritual of weddings and marriage that makes it meaningful: the language, customs, traditions, and social expectations of a wedding ceremony are not what load it with weight. The wedding ceremony, especially a religious one, is a final layer of meaning, a piece of community-oriented theatre that acknowledges the many layers of meaning intrinsic to it. The ceremony marks the meaning that’s already there. Same with religious moral language around marriage; take these classic religious injunctions from the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s husband or wife. These aren’t simply hard-to-follow rules from a narcissistic killjoy God with a bias against pleasure and orgasms; these are religious directives that acknowledge the bare facts of human and community life. Anyone in a healthy, well-functioning community knows that life together is simultaneously fragile and strong. Adultery in a community is not simply a private matter of two people rubbing their crotches together, and the rest of you can just go off and mind your business, thank you very much. Community life depends absolutely on qualities of loyalty, trust, truth-telling, and kindness.
The fact that certain ideas are old does not mean they’re wrong, and just because they are unpopular and uncool does not make them untrue.
So I have to say something to my son about sex and lust and love and desire. Maybe once he’s ready to carry the weight of fatherhood—the burden of lifelong care for another human being, starting with months of sleepless nights and years of diaper changes, all the way up to adulthood, till death do you part with your own child—then he’s ready to start having sex. It doesn’t matter that you, I, and even the pope all know it’s a cinch to get it on without anyone getting knocked up. The church’s long history of rules and restrictions around sex have nothing to do with being grand erotic party-poopers or trying to control women’s bodies; the rules were for the men too. No, all those dos and don’ts were put in place because sex was—and always has been, and always will be—serious business.
Liberated, casual, safe, risk-free sex sounds like a lot of fun to me. But I don’t believe any of those things are true about sex. I don’t believe that sex can ever be liberated, casual, safe, or risk-free. I think pursuing sex with those ideas in mind damages men and women, families, children, communities, the way we think of ourselves, and the ways we interact with one another. I think the kids have suffered most of all. And my son is coming of age in a world where those kinds of untruths are coming to fruition. In not too many years he’s going to start making important decisions about his sexuality, and he will need to think carefully and discern what is wise, what is good, what is true. He’ll have plenty of encouragement to try new things and free himself from the outdated ways of the past. But the fact that certain ideas are old does not mean they’re wrong, and just because they are unpopular and uncool does not make them untrue. His decisions in life will make him into a certain kind of man. I want him to be a good man. I want to help him see what is right, and learn to trust him to make his decisions wisely.
A few years back he was with me in the van on a run to the lumber store. There was no pressure, no agenda, just some time for us to be together. On drives like this I like to let him pick the music, and we play it loud. We were blasting some Mutemath when we drove past a big, conspicuous orange sign. “What’s that, Dad?” he asked.
“It’s a restaurant.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I remember when we went there.”
“Uh, no, we’ve never been there before.” I pulled up to a red light.
“Are you sure? I’m pretty sure Mom took us there one time. Yeah, look Dad, it says, ‘Kids eat free on Mondays.’ I’m sure she took us on a Monday.”
“I’m sure she didn’t. Mom’s never taken you there. I’d know if she did.”
“Did you take us there once, Dad?”
“No, I’ve never been there,” I said.
He paused. “Why’s it called Hooters?”
I thought about that conspicuous pair of o’s in the logo, carefully shaped to suggest more than letters, and I wondered what might be going on inside his still-innocent mind, probably not all that different from mine when I was his age. I’ve never eaten at Hooters, but it definitely crosses my mind when I drive by. I have not stopped in for a sandwich, and I won’t, because it goes against a long list of things that I care deeply about and have committed myself to, and I know that the regular practice of small, seemingly innocuous decisions is, in part, training and rehearsal for big moments when the stakes are really high. I practice my commitments because I hope to gradually become the kind of husband, father, and man I want to be. I don’t eat at Hooters, not because I’m a good man, but because I don’t really think that I am a very good man. My lust burns at a pretty average temperature, which, as a man, means I think about sex way, way more than I’d care to admit or am comfortable with.
He was only ten, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t already have all those cerebral-vascular-chemical-physiological connections that turn curious boys into selfish, lustful, sexually free men. Was this going to be one of those moments that sticks in his memory?
The light turned green. I kept driving. “It’s called Hooters,” I said, “because they hire women with large breasts to work as servers, and then they make those women wear tight little shirts.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” he said.
How he will live as a man is something I cannot know. But when he said that, it did give me hope that he already had within him all the potential to grow up to be a good, gentle, wise, and, above all, genuinely loving man.