No generation in history, I suspect, has ever experienced as much change as we have experienced in the past 60 years.
That change is not just in the areas of science, technology, medicine, travel and communications; it is especially in the area of our social infrastructure, of our communal ethos. And perhaps nowhere is this change more radical than in the area of how we understand sex. In the past 70 years we have witnessed three major, tectonic shifts in how we understand the place of sex in our lives.
First, we moved away from the concept that sex is morally connected to procreation. With few exceptions, prior to 1950 sex was understood as constitutively connected to procreation, at least in terms of our moral and religious notions around sex. This connection wasn’t always respected of course, but it was part of our communal ethos. That connection, while still upheld in some of our churches, effectively broke-down in our culture about 60 years ago.
The second severing was more radical. Up to the 1960s, our culture tied sex to marriage. The norm was that the only moral place for sex was inside of a marriage.
Again, of course, this wasn’t always respected and there was plenty of sex taking place outside of marriage. But it wasn’t morally or religiously accepted or blessed.
People had sex outside of marriage, but nobody claimed this was right. It was something for which you apologized. The sexual revolution of the 1960s effectively severed that link.
Sex, in our cultural understanding, has become an extension of dating and one of the fruits of that is that more and more people now live together outside of marriage and before marriage, without any sense of moral implication. This has become so prevalent today that sex outside of marriage is more the norm than the exception.
More and more young people today will not even have a moral discussion on this with either their parents or their churches. Their glib answer: “We don’t think like you!” They don’t.
But the shift in our sexual ethos didn’t stop there. Today more and more we are witnessing, not least on our university campus, the phenomenon of “hook-up” sex, where sex is deliberately and consciously cut off from love, emotion and commitment.
This constitutes the most-radical shift of all. Sex is now cut off from love. As Donna Freitas (author of “The End of Sex”), among others, has documented, more and more young people are making a conscious decision to delay looking for a marriage partner while they prepare for a career or launch that career.
While in that hiatus, which might last anywhere from 10 to 20 years, they plan to be sexually active, but with that sexual activity consciously cut off from love emotion, and commitment (all of which are feared as time-demanding, messy, and in the way of study, work, fun and freedom).
The idea is to eventually tie sex to love and commitment, but first to split it off for some years. Sadly, this ethos is taking root among many young people today.
Of course, again, as with the other shifts in our understanding of sex, this too has always been around, to which the phenomenon of prostitution and singles bars attest. But, until now, no one has claimed that this is healthy.
What’s particularly disturbing is not that there is sex taking place outside of its prescribed Christian ground, marriage. Human beings have struggled with sex since the beginning of time.
What’s more worrisome is that more and more this is not only being held-up as the norm, it is also, among many of our own children, being understood and hailed as moral progress, a liberation from darkness, with the concomitant understanding, often voiced with some moral smugness, that anyone still holding the traditional view of sex is in need of moral and psychological enlightenment. Who’s judging who here?
This may not make me popular among many of my contemporaries, but I want to state here unequivocally that our culture’s severing of the non-negotiable tie between sex and marriage is just plain wrong. It’s also naïve.
I once attended a conference on sexuality where the keynote speaker, a renowned theologian, suggested the churches have always been far too uptight about sex.
She’s right about that. We’re still a long way from healthily integrating sexuality and spirituality.
However, she went on to ask: “Why all this anxiety about sex? Who’s ever been hurt by it anyway?” A more-sober insight might suggest: “Who hasn’t been hurt by it?” History is strewn with broken hearts, broken families, broken lives, terminal bitterness, murders and suicides, within which sex is the canker.
Our churches have, admittedly, never produced a fully healthy, robust theology and spirituality of sex, though nobody else — secular or religious — has either. However, what it has produced, its traditional morality and ethos, does give a fair and important warning to our culture:
Don’t be naïve about sexual energy. It isn’t always as friendly and inconsequential as you think!
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.