By Jeff Mallinson –
*Jeff is an Associate Prof. of Theology and Philosophy at Concordia University Irvine, the co-host of Virtue in the Wasteland Podcast, the Director of League of Faithful Masks, and a friend of The Jagged Word.
“There is no aphrodisiac like innocence.” – Jean Baudrillard
After almost two decades of teaching adolescents and young adults, I’m here to report that the kids today, when it comes to sexuality, are not alright. I wish it were otherwise. I wish it were that I finally got old, or that I’m not with the times. Alas, it’s much worse than that. The kids have lost something important: the art of being sexy.
If you react negatively to this last sentence, I get it. You would be right to reject the idea that we should refuse to sexualize adolescence, or encourage them to dress immodestly, or approve of advertisements that commodify sexuality to sell clothing. All of that nonsense is symptomatic of the larger problem. None of it is sexy. Throwing oneself desperately at a potential partner isn’t sexy. Pornography isn’t sexy. But the adolescent courtship dance is. It is a dance in which young people learn to love, whom to love, and how to love despite interpersonal conflict. Our kids are living in an age in which we’ve got too much porn and not enough authentic dancing. And if we want to do something about this, if we want to rescue the next generation from their erotic despair, we need to rethink how we communicate with young people about this subject.
Almost every generation laments the subsequent generation’s behavior. This time, it’s different. Gone are the days when hippies thought free love would be part of a new utopian era of harmony. Waning are the days when Generation X would shake off traditional thinking about marriage in favor of serial monogamy. Dawning are days in which nihilistic, random sex predominates. It is sexuality without either agape (unconditional love) or eros (desire). It is a bleak sexuality that seeks only gratification. It boasts of many sexual encounters, but can’t overcome loneliness. It’s not that the kids wouldn’t like something more beautiful, it’s that they have no reason to believe an authentic, spiritually mature eroticism—rooted in agape—is possible. And it’s our collective fault.
I’m not primarily concerned that the kids are doing naughty things. They are, by the way, and what they are doing is more unsettling than you might expect. Yet I’m more worried that their degradation ironically has led to the loss of seduction, in Baudrillard’s sense of the term, and in the dance we read about in the Song of Solomon. For Baudrillard, contemporary culture’s pornographic tendencies are problematic because they substitute a parody of eroticism for true romantic eroticism. He writes:
“When desire is entirely on the side of demand, when it is operationalized without restrictions, it loses its imaginary and, therefore, its reality; it appears everywhere, but in generalized simulation. It is the ghost of desire that haunts the defunct reality of sex.” (Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer, New World Perspectives, 1990, p. 5).
This ghost of desire, this ghost of eros, is all around us, and it serves only to mock us. There may have been a time when we could hope for love. Now we only have a shadow of love. This erotic problem, at its root, is a byproduct of our failure to understand and promote agape, unconditional love. Agape gives a couple confidences that they can authentically be unveiled to each other. It says, “I’d cross the desert for you,” and “I’d endure a thousand trials for our love,” but also, “I’ll be by your side when you suffer with clinical depression,” and “I love you so much, I’ll cuddle you when we are old and you have to wear adult diapers.” Incidentally, the loss of agape is largely to blame for the widespread phenomenon of middle-age divorce. Without the astonishing commitment of agape, the flame of eros dies out. But our bodies still desire physical gratification. The cheap answer? Fake it. Modern technology makes it possible. After a while, though, the imitation stuff seems as unfulfilling as anything. And the kids see this truth. They see it in us. They can sniff out the nihilism in our sexuality and reasonably conclude that they might as well just dispense with the pipe dream of deep, romantic eros. Hoping for such a fairy tale is foolish, they reason. So they cut right to the sexual chase. And the consequences are horrific. Too few of us realize they are in a living hell. But they know it; they just don’t know there is a better way.
They’ve unmasked the sad truth that modern sexuality is meaningless and hollow. What should we do once we realize this? In this post, I’m primarily hoping to alert readers to the problem: the kids have a debased approach to sexuality that isn’t just loose, it’s soul crushing. For all their efforts, they don’t seem to me to be having much fun. When it comes to sex, I hear a lot about sorrow and very little about fulfillment. Seduction, holding hands, flirting: these are lost arts for them. The seductive dance in the Song of Solomon demonstrates this mutual love and deep affection they lack. The true lover doesn’t manipulate, overpower, or bribe the beloved into intercourse. Rather, the lover entices the beloved, beckons the other to a holy connectedness, with a love beyond measure in order to attract the beloved into an almost mystical experience of passion and connectedness. I want this for the next generation as much as I want them to remain physically healthy.
Instead of telling a young adult to be chaste, or else, we might ask them some important questions. What kind of person do you want to be? When you look into the eyes of your beloved, how do you want to treat them? Who is more admirable, the person who chases an orgasm at the expense of love or the person who chases love only to find that superior orgasms come standard with that model?
Virtue thinking encourages us to stop asking what our genitals are allowed to touch and start remembering that if we get our hearts in the right place our genitals will follow.
If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that prostitutes often refuse to kiss on the mouth. Why? Because they, more than most, know that eros can’t really be for sale. And, by definition, agape has never been for sale. Only a parody of these loves is for sale. The real deal is free. It flows from a Gospel that promises that all is well. If we have the Gospel, we can’t help but love all those around us. In the romantic context, we are free to express special love for another individual. If we are lucky, this results in commitment, romance, and vows. We could love anyone, but we are called to love the one who, for love’s sake, stands vulnerable before us. So, look into another’s eyes with passion. Be enlivened by the joy that streams from the reconciling love of God. Kiss delicately. Flirt playfully. Love. Be sexy. But don’t let our nihilist age pull you or your children into the hellish world of sexual dissolution.