EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the September 15, 2003, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
In the England of the Forties, when my parents were courting, terms like “moral,” “decent,” and “clean living” applied primarily to sexual behavior. Immorality meant sleeping around (and how innocent the word “sleeping” now sounds!); indecency meant unsolicited advances; dirtiness meant whatever put the sexual object before the loving subject. Sexual morality issued from two firm and seemingly immovable premises: that the sexual act is innocent only when sanctified by marriage, and that marriage is a commitment between man and woman, to share their life, fortunes, and family, for better and for worse, until death do them part.
The Sixties put paid to that vision. Since then sexual freedom has proliferated, to the point where many people treat sexual conduct as though it were outside the scope of moral judgment altogether. It really doesn’t matter, it is often said, what people do together, provided they freely enjoy it. Sure, pedophilia is wrong. But that is because real consent requires maturity; anything that adults agree to do in private is morally unimpeachable.
Now you can take that line and still believe in marriage, as a uniquely valuable institution with a distinctive place in the scheme of things. You may recognize that children need families, and that families depend on marriage as their binding principle. You may recognize this, and still believe that there is nothing wrong with extra-marital affairs, or intra-marital promiscuity (i.e., orgies, swapping). However, you would also have to believe that marital love can endure without sexual fidelity, that jealousy can be refined away from sexual love and eventually discarded, that marriages can dispense with the kind of existential commitment whereby husband and wife consecrate their lives to each other. You would have to believe that sexual pleasure can be treated as an adjunct to our personal emotions, something that can be tasted in any circumstances and regardless of moral and personal ties. In short you would have to believe that human beings are quite different from those creatures described in our art and literature, for whom sexual desire has taken the form of erotic love and in whom erotic love has generally aspired to marriage.
Many people do believe all that. Persuaded by the “research” reports of the Kinsey Institute, by Margaret Mead’s fabricated account of sex in Samoa, by the Reich-Fromm-Norman O. Brown liberationist orthodoxy, and by latter-day antinomians like Michel Foucault, they have come to assume that the attempts to distinguish right from wrong in sexual conduct, to separate legitimate from illegitimate sexual relations, and to surround the sexual act itself with an ethic of “pollution and taboo” (as the early anthropologists described it) are both unnecessary and oppressive. The only correct response to the problem posed by human sexuality, they believe, is to recognize that it is not a problem. It is we who choose, in Foucault’s idiom, to “problematize” the sexual act, and we do so in order to fortify hierarchical and oppressive relations that do us no conceivable good. By discarding sexual morality we free ourselves from our “mind forg’d manacles,” so as to enjoy the harmless pleasures that the spoilsports have for so long taken pleasure in spoiling.
According to the gurus of sexual liberation, the real purpose of sex is not to express love or to generate children (which is another way of expressing love) but to obtain pleasurable sensations. Sexual initiation, according to their view of things, means learning to overcome guilt and shame, to put aside our hesitations, and to enjoy what is described in their literature (which is rapidly becoming the literature of “sex education” in our schools) as “good sex.” This can occur with any partner of either sex, and requires no institutional preparation and no social endorsement.
That picture leaves out of consideration the phenomenon that distinguishes us from the other animals, and that also generates the need for a sexual morality, namely desire. Sexual desire is not a desire for sensations. It is a desire for a person: and I mean a person, not his or her body, conceived as an object in the physical world, but the person conceived as an incarnate subject, in whom the light of self-consciousness shines and who confronts me eye to eye and I to I. True desire is also a kind of petition: It demands reciprocity, mutuality, and a shared surrender. It is therefore compromising, jealous, and also threatening. No pursuit of a mere sensation could be compromising, jealous, or threatening in this way. Here lies the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic. Erotic literature is about wanting another person; pornography is about wanting sex.
The interpersonal nature of desire explains why unwanted advances are forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and why they may be experienced as a kind of contamination. It explains why rape is so grave a crime: for rape is an invasion of the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the terms used by the advocates of liberation, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain. Which is why our society is now so confused about sex. We advocate a neutral, scientific view of sex, as a kind of pleasurable sensation in the private parts (which are rapidly ceasing to be private). And by teaching this view of things to children, we encourage them to a premature and depersonalized interest in their own sexuality. In effect we are endorsing in our heads a view of sex that we know in our hearts to be evil. For at some level we all recognize what our behavior denies, that true “sex education” consists not in permitting pleasure but in forbidding it, by fostering shame. And as our society loses its sense of shame, we begin to fear for our children, becoming hysterical at the thought of all those pedophiles out there — who are really the pedophiles in here, the very people who are eliciting in their children a depersonalized interest in sex.
Traditional morality did not exist to prevent sexual pleasure, but to assist in the growth of sexual desire, as an individualizing bond between people. Shame was the barrier behind which erotic energy accumulated, to the point where it could overflow as desire. Marriage was seen as the institutional expression of desire, rather than a way of restricting or denying it. The first purpose of marriage was to consecrate the union of the partners, to make holy and inviolable what would otherwise be a merely secular contract of cohabitation. Such was the view of marriage that arose in medieval Europe, and that is enshrined in our own literature of love. Nor have other civilizations really disagreed, despite all the varied customs that distinguish them. Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, and Hindu cultures have all concurred in representing sexual desire as an existential bond rather than a fleeting appetite, to be hedged round with shame and hesitation until socially endorsed and ceremonially accepted.
As with all moral sentiments, however, this one concerning the connection between desire and marriage has both a subjective meaning and a social role. Its subjective meaning lies in the exaltation and ennobling of our sexual urges, which are lifted from the realm of appetite and reconstituted as rational commitments. Its social role is to facilitate the sacrifices on which the next generation depends. Marriage is not merely a tie between man and woman; it is the principal forum in which social capital is passed on. By tying sexual fulfillment to the bearing of children, marriage offers a double guarantee of a stable home: the guarantee that comes from erotic love, and the guarantee that comes from the shared love of offspring. It offers children durable affection, a secure territory, moral examples, and moral discipline.
This is all so obvious as barely to deserve mention. As James Q. Wilson has shown, being born to an unmarried mother is by far the most significant factor disposing children to a life of crime — more significant than IQ, race, culture, or education. All of us therefore have a deep and lasting interest in marriage, as the only known way to reproduce the moral order. We have an interest in ensuring that this institution is not trivialized or abused, not reduced to a Disneyland caricature or deprived of its privileged place in the scheme of things — which is, socially speaking, that of a link between generations.
Marriage in a religious society is a religious event: not a contract between mortals but a vow before the gods. Such a marriage raises the bond between husband and wife from the secular to the sacred sphere, so that whoever breaks the bond commits an act of sacrilege. Civil marriage (as introduced in modern times by the French revolutionaries) has gradually displaced the religious institution, so that marriage is now conducted by the civil authorities, and the change in status is not ontological, like the change from secular to sacred, but legal. In effect marriage has become a contract and has gradually assumed the provisional and temporary character of all merely secular arrangements. This was not the intention of those who invented civil marriage. In taking over and secularizing the institution of marriage the state was hoping to confer fiscal privileges and legal guarantees that would substitute for religious sanctions, and so help to make our commitments durable. It did this from the belief that marriage is vital to the future of society. The state in effect lent its aid to traditional sexual morality, by privileging faithful union between man and wife. And it did so for the very good reason that the future of society depends on this kind of union.
Now, however, the marriage contract is being enlarged to accommodate the permissive morality. Marriage is ceasing to be a sacrificial union of lovers, in which future generations have a stake, and becoming a transitory agreement between people living now. It is from this perspective that we should view the controversy over gay marriage.
This is not really a controversy about the rights, freedoms, and life-chances of homosexuals. It is a controversy about the institution of marriage itself. Can marriage retain its privileged place in our moral thinking when so effectively severed from the process of social reproduction? Already the secularization of marriage has led to easy divorce, serial polygamy, and growing insecurity among children. But marriage in its fundamental meaning is a form of lifelong commitment, in which absent generations have a stake. If marriage can be celebrated between homosexual partners, then it will cease entirely to be anything more than a contract of cohabitation, and the legal and fiscal privileges attached to it will seem both unjustified and dangerous, so many openings to litigation. Lovers’ quarrels, exalted into marital disputes, will be endowed with an intransigent bitterness, while transient crushes will be foisted on friends and colleagues as institutional facts. In effect, marriage, as the institution through which society offers its endorsement and support to the raising of children, will have ceased to exist.
The demand to make institutions conform to our desires, rather than our desires to institutions, is one of the great American failings. Thanks to their Puritan heritage, Americans regard hypocrisy as a serious vice, and sin as so lamentable a condition that it must be avoided at all costs. If the only way to avoid sin is to redefine your sins as innocent pastimes, that is what Americans will do. Elsewhere in the world people have learned to extol marriage as the only innocent sexual relation, while nevertheless failing to live up to it. The important thing for normal un-Americans is to keep up appearances, to acknowledge one’s own sinfulness, and to be prepared, when the crunch comes, to give up your lover for your spouse. La Rochefoucauld famously described hypocrisy as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. In the sexual mores of today’s America, however, hypocrisy is regarded as the only genuine sin. Which is why, in America, sexual virtue gets no tributes at all.