The River-God Sex Cult behind the Contraception Mandate

by Matthew P. Cavedon:

“…when the floodwaters of the world are out, as they are today, it will not suffice to be borne along by the current, singing hallelujah to the river god.”—Russell Kirk

Something has happened to sex. It has always been a very important part of the human experience. But Western society cabined it, or at least public approval of it, to certain kinds of relationships. Stimulation, flesh, reproduction—these were matters reserved, at least in the polite mind, to the intimacies of marriage and family life. No longer. Now, sex is a political, social, economic, and personal force to be reckoned with.

We the Contraception

In lieu of the high-stakes battles that an overestimation of sex brings with it, we should realize the importance of reasoned disagreement about sex, our need to critique and be critiqued, and our identity as more than just sexual beings. As with many things this side of Heaven, utopia, or the Revolution, pluralism is the soundest way.

Sex has changed dramatically over the past half-century, with the advent and rise of modern contraception. Long-stayed taboos broke, one after another, as sex’s waves swelled higher. Divorce. Premarital sex. Abortion. Pornography. Casual sex. Open relationships. Homosexuality. It’s still going on, with fundamental rethinking of relationship exclusivity, the male-female paradigm, and biology as a basis for family life all ongoing. Today, the ubiquitous equal sign of the Human Rights Campaign. Tomorrow, who knows?

As the borders have shifted, so have the stakes. Sex is the new politics. One’s opinion on same-sex marriage has serious effects on one’s ability to bake cakes, code the internet, and direct musicals. Comments about babies and how they are made may have cost the GOP the 2012 Senate elections. And, of course, a multi-year battle over religious employers subsidizing the reproductive devices and methods of their employees ended at the U.S. Supreme Court last month.

Why does sex have such power? It isn’t as though people regularly face job pressure over their views on, say, gun rights. Or that the three branches of the federal government would go to a showdown about making people pay for their employees’ auto insurance, or their cable bills.

Sex is the “floodwaters of the world” right now because the old dams that kept it pent up have busted apart. It is no longer the domain of married couples. It is a normal part of the tension of everyday life. It is no longer a private talk among friends, but a significant marker of social status (and, consequently, a powerful marketing tool—see Section V of the link). It is essential to public interactions, group dynamics, and the economy.

Freed of the confines of old, sex has transcended being one life activity among others. It is now inseparable from people’s notions of who they are. Race, sex, and sexual orientation are treated as equivalent categories in recent anti-discrimination laws—the color of your skin, your anatomy, and who you engage with sexually are all seen as core parts of who you are. Regardless of whether choice factors in or not. (This is not, by the way, an exclusively leftist attitude. Right-wing churches exclude people on the grounds that their sexual choices were the final word for their identity.)

Sex is definitive of personal being and central to social life: it is, therefore, intensely political. If sex is who we are, then disagreeing about how someone explores it is the moral equivalent of racism or sexism. If sex is essential for a well-adapted life, then government needs to make sure that we all have as much of it as we like, and with as few consequences as possible.

If sex is happiness, then we all must sing hallelujahs to the river god.

But that will not suffice. There are real reasons to allow for sex the same kind of moral critique that marks every other human pursuit of happiness. Some people like to have casual sex. But that can deprive children of stable families into which to be born—even, through abortion, of their lives. Some people like having multiple partners, but this can lead to painful envy and jealousy. Some people like watching pornography, but this can create unrealistic and demeaning standards for their partners. Some people like rough and risky sex. But this can lead to lines even blurrier than a Robin Thicke song.

Besides all the problems that arise within sex, life is more than sex. Friendship is a great human good, one regularly overlooked. People for whom sex is relatively unimportant exist, and unlike in other cultures where celibacy has its own honored place, the floodwaters of sex has left them little refuge. And, for everyone, there are “things higher, warmer, and purer” than prurience. The place of sex in a well-ordered life is absolutely a subject worthy of serious consideration. And to cut people off from normal social and economic relations because of their views on sex is to shrink them down to mere caricatures of themselves.

Critique about sex is needed to really think through its consequences. It isn’t enough to just assume that it is good, existentially important, and ought to be celebrated in whatever form it takes. To take all critiques and other perspectives regarding sex as personal hatred. To see someone’s refusal to further your sexual ethic as a violation of your right to public approval of it.

What does this mean? Politically, it means that the Supreme Court issued a sound decision in Hobby Lobby, respecting the ability of people to critique and meaningfully dissent from the sexual mores that are in vogue just now. It also means that recent successful attacks on a culture that defined people on the basis of their sexual choices—be it by deeming them irredeemable “queers” or unmarriable “fallen women”—were good.

On a personal level, it means that we need to think ourselves as more than just our attitudes toward sex. That, just as we disagree about finances and religion and partisanship without reducing one another to enemies, so too must we remember that each of us is more than our sexual mores and practices. That we can learn about the good by sharpening each other in disagreement, instead of expecting to win the culture wars once and for all, prisoners in tow.

The river god’s hallelujahs can seem so self-evidently good that we are ready to make everyone join in. Like any siren song, this cultish mentality must yield to respect for one another and appreciation that our sense of the attractive, and our subsequent decisions, can benefit from the insight of others.

 

Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

5 Comments

  1. A Tijuana bible that washed ashore says:

    Son, I don’t know… I don’t know how to explain this, but, human beings have engaged in perverted, even devious sexual behavior since ever. Like, humans being freaks is the norm. This isn’t even biotruths, it’s documented p. well throughout history. Also, son, the world didn’t spring into existence in Victorian times, so all those mores you’re talking about were a temporary phenomenon restricted to only a certain segment of humanity. And they were also really stupid and pointlessly repressive. Also, son, you’re acting like sexual politics is like a new thing, in a world 90+ years removed from the women’s suffrage movement. Basically you need to grow up and maybe get a bit of perspective before you yabber on like some kind of virgin boyscout or whatever character you’re pretending to be. I mean, who the hell are you pointing at other people, saying they think way too much about sex when you wrote like a billion words about it in what can only be described as… well, maybe you’re not ready to handle that just yet.

    • I’m not sure you even read this article. He didn’t say humans didn’t engage in all manner of behaviors; he is merely pointing out that societal attitudes about such behaviors changed. Are you really going to disagree with that?

      • A Tijuana bible that washed ashore says:

        Societal attitudes? People were just as much freaks during the Victorian era as they were today, they just felt more pressure to hide it in public. The mask changed, sure, but the undercurrent was always there. And he’s not even clear which “society” he’s talking about anyway. America’s a hella diverse place and can’t be summed up this way or that. But one thing that is universal is human sexual proclivities, whether they’re repressed or not.

        “But that will not suffice. There are real reasons to allow for sex the same kind of moral critique that marks every other human pursuit of happiness. Some people like to have casual sex. But that can deprive children of stable families into which to be born—even, through abortion, of their lives. Some people like having multiple partners, but this can lead to painful envy and jealousy. Some people like watching pornography, but this can create unrealistic and demeaning standards for their partners. Some people like rough and risky sex. But this can lead to lines even blurrier than a Robin Thicke song.”

        “Besides all the problems that arise within sex, life is more than sex. Friendship is a great human good, one regularly overlooked. People for whom sex is relatively unimportant exist, and unlike in other cultures where celibacy has its own honored place, the floodwaters of sex has left them little refuge. And, for everyone, there are “things higher, warmer, and purer” than prurience. The place of sex in a well-ordered life is absolutely a subject worthy of serious consideration. And to cut people off from normal social and economic relations because of their views on sex is to shrink them down to mere caricatures of themselves.”

        Here, here’s some substance. In one paragraph he denounces sexual behaviors as leading to various personal failings. Then he says “life is more than sex.” Well which is it? You just got done denouncing a whole swath of liberal sexhavers, now they shouldn’t be judged by that? Also who is he to say people shouldn’t be cut off from social and economic society? Like when single mothers were and are shunned? Like slashing benefits for single moms because they can’t stop having babies out of wedlock?

        Congrats, I found some more substance to this essay. Unfortunately it now looks worse.

    • The Jefferson Version says:

      Did you read the article?

      “Sex has changed dramatically over the past half-century, with the advent and rise of modern contraception. Long-stayed taboos broke, one after another, as sex’s waves swelled higher. Divorce. Premarital sex. Abortion. Pornography. Casual sex. Open relationships. Homosexuality.”

      See… Divorce, premarital sex, abortion, pornography, casual sex, open relationships and homosexuality were all invented in the past 50 years because of modern contraception.

  2. You know nothing, Jon Snow.

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