The New(?) Sexual Revolution

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on June 9]

I want documentaries to document. And I want tension: tension between viewpoints; tension in the progression of the story; tension between the filmmakers and the subjects. Propaganda may be interesting for any number of reasons, but not because of its tension. It has a single-minded purpose and a tunnel-vision perspective. It consciously excludes anything that argues against the obvious purpose. But human beings and the events they observe are complicated. So if there’s no tension, I’m not interested. And I appreciate it when documentaries can document that tension without turning into propaganda.

A documentary that documents a disturbing modern tension is Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution, which screened in April at the Newport Beach Film Festival. The story takes for its starting point the thousands of students who attend Spring Break in Florida. It begins by following a group of Australian boys as they plan out their drinking and partying. The foggy atmosphere of alcohol and sex probably won’t surprise anyone. What might surprise is the flippancy, arrogance, and casual attitudes of the people who appear in the film. But this isn’t a sanitized version of Girls Gone Wild. This isn’t voyeurism dressed up by pearl-clutching and gasping. The only emotion aroused is sadness. Here is the hook-up culture presented without varnish, and there’s nothing sexy about it.

Watch the guys count their conquests—not only without remorse, but without any feeling at all. They can’t remember the names of the girls with whom they’ve slept, and the laughter of the worst offenders isn’t the nervous kind. Listen to the girls try to say no to the animalistic impulses of six or eight guys in a circle around them. Listen to them talk about love: Is there such a thing as love? No; it’s simply a word invented to get them into bed. Watch the girl laugh when she’s asked if she feels safe at Spring Break. Ha! Of course not.

Leaving aside for a moment why anyone would want to go to a place where she knows she won’t be safe, it’s clear that both the young men and women have bought the sexual equality narrative hook, line, sinker, and reel. The boys know that the girls know that the boys are looking for sex. The girls know that they are supposed to feel the same way about sex as the boys clearly do. So they go along, because not only do they have any reason to think they should behave any other way, they have no support to help them resist the pull of so-called sexual liberation.

It’s obvious that Spring Break is not a good example of nuance and restraint; it is, we might think, at the extreme end of the cultural experience of sexuality. But you get the feeling from the more unguarded interviews in the film that it’s really not all that far outside the experience of these young people. (When you hear, as I have, a high school girl talking casually about “f***-buddies,” it’s clear we’re not in Mayberry any more.)

But the pressure is real: the guy pressured by his friends because he’s one of the last virgins in his group, and they have bets that have to be paid out by whomever that is; two girls tearing up, talking about the pressure that their younger sisters will be under, and how they don’t want that for them. But you can sense their desperation: what can they possibly do about it?

The film would point us toward an age of innocence, with narrative bookends longing for the freedom and innocent relationships of childhood. It laments that loss, but the experts who diagnose the disease have little more than platitudes when it comes to prescriptions for undoing the damage. As much as the experts in the film want to draw a thick—if not impenetrable—line between the free love of the ’60s and this “new” sexual revolution—for example, pointing out that though the ’60s involved promiscuity, there was still talk of love—it rings hollow. There is, I would argue, a clear and logical line of progression from sexual “freedom” hanging onto the vestiges of love-talk, to the jettisoning altogether of “love” in favor of pure hedonistic pleasure in the form of “hooking up.” Maybe love was a hollowed-out word already among those who engaged in it freely, and maybe this generation, formed by two generations of divorce and multiple parental figures, simply recognized it for what it was.

To be honest, I don’t think there is a solution. This can’t be fixed. It is the unrestrained result of considering sex to be an end in itself. Good luck convincing “liberated” people to subject themselves to the opposite, which they must necessarily view as slavery. The experts want to promote “safety” and “mutuality,” and true “equality,” but none of that changes the fundamental telos or goal of the sexual act.

Whether one engages in mutually consensual intercourse, or whether it is a result of unwanted assault, the goal remains the pleasure from the sexual act. (This is not to say, of course, that consensual sex and rape are equal—they are not.  But it is to say that, in our culture–whether on the part of one or both of the participants–both actions proceed toward the same goal.) Perhaps those speaking about a rape culture on university campuses have unwittingly identified the very thin line separating rape from what both boys and girls have been taught about sex from a very young age: that both sexes are essentially the same, even if autonomous individuals may prefer different things from romantic relationships.

Even if everyone agreed that casual, anonymous sex is not ideal (to put it mildly), we can never agree on the course to reverse such a trend. Once sex is irretrievably disconnected from both marriage and the creation of new life, there is—as we should have recognized by now—no way for our modern Pandoras to put anything back into their boxes. It’s easy to recognize the problem; it’s much harder to propose a solution because there is no end—no goal—in sight. If sex is the goal, then people are incapable of talking about it in any way other than how you do it: do it this way, not that way.

But there is not, and there cannot be, in our current culture any discussion of where sex belongs. The entire sexual revolution has been about consciously and intentionally dislocating sex. And if sex doesn’t have a home in a marriage consummated by a man and a woman exclusively, the center literally cannot hold. The way forward for the Church is not to try to influence directly public policy on sexuality. The goal can only be—as, perhaps, it always should have been—to bear witness in our own homes to the goods and ends of sexuality; not in itself, but as part of the good and end of marriage—which itself points to the goods and ends of both creation and redemption.

For release information, see


3 thoughts on “The New(?) Sexual Revolution

  1. From Esolen:

    That revolution ought never to be called merely sexual. It is the Lonely Revolution.

    Think of it. The conjugal act is the foundation of culture itself. It binds together the man and the woman, as man and woman, as representing all men and all women, because what they do makes the past present and ushers in the future; it is like a consummation of all of human history, and the seedbed of a world to come. This is not mystical thinking but plain fact. When I was thirteen years old and suddenly realized that I had changed, my first thought was not, “Now I can find out what is supposed to be so much fun,” because I hadn’t drunk in the poison. It was simply, with a quiet astonishment, “Now I can be a father,” meaning, I could enter into a new and permanent world of relationship.

    What the Lonely Revolution did, under the cover of words like “love” and “freedom,” was to detach the sexual from the permanent things. It was to riddle the permanent with transience. A one-night stand is a kind of compressed marriage and divorce. To “love the one you’re with,” as the jauntily vicious song put it, meant to forget the one you weren’t with. It is to become not a giver of self but a consumer of selves, even if the selves are willing also to consume and be consumed. It is to use and to be used, even to be used up. So too every “relationship” which mimics marriage, but hangs an exit sign over the door.

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