Throughout history, defying norms related to sexual practice has been a common way to express resistance to the dominant moral culture. Every culture, either actively or passively, endorses a set of guidelines for sexual behavior. Sexual rebellion, therefore, has always been inseparable from political rebellion. This was true in the ancient world when the Hebrews devised a sexual ethic in stark contrast to the pagan one prevalent at the time. It was true in the Medieval period when a resurgence of cultic sexuality was a rebuke to the restrictions imposed by Christianity. Although the new ideas that arrived with modernity and the Enlightenment played a central role in weakening taboos against certain forms of sexual expression in the West, even modern thinkers and critics of the old order (such as the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) framed their sexual exploits as a form of sticking it to the man (or woman, as the case may be).
The sexual landscape has become fragmented. So fragmented, in fact, that people who claim not to have any sexual desires are advancing the absence of these desires as the core of their identities.
Sexual rebellion remained a political tool of the counterculture straight on through the 20th century. The free-love movement of the ‘60s challenged the purportedly constraining norms that encouraged premarital abstinence, monogamy, marriage, and reproductive sex. The transgressive performances on display in gay pride events represented an acknowledgement and parodic embrace of the non-normative culture of the LGBT community. However, it’s important to note that the genuinely transgressive character of both the free love and the gay pride movements was in effect evidence that the traditionally conservative norms for sex in America remained firmly in place.
Our new century has birthed an enormous constellation of sex-oriented advocacy movements, virtually all of which place what had previously been considered transgressive sexual behaviors and appetites at the center of individuals’ public identities. For example, there are people aggressively demanding ever-more “progressive” curricula for sex education in public schools. Platforms like Tinder have normalized promiscuity to the extent that finding a new sex partner is akin to ordering a pizza. An adversarial trans-rights movement now insists on making changes to English vocabulary and usage. Pornography has been entirely destigmatized after we raised a generation who had regular contact with it, often starting before adolescence. “Sex Workers” (a new, virtuous identity descriptor for the people we used to call “prostitutes”) now argue that their work should not be a disqualifier for serving in delicate positions of employment, such as teaching high school. Polyamorists continue to assault monogamy on the pseudo-scientific grounds that it is “against nature” (an assertion that is oddly reminiscent of some of the most inflammatory criticisms of homosexuality). Over the last few years, the percent of American babies born to unwed mothers stands around 40%, while, in 2016, the number of abortions performed in America hit a “historic low” at 623,471. That number makes one shudder to think what the “high” might be.
The sexual landscape has become fragmented. So fragmented, in fact, that people who claim not to have any sexual desires are advancing the absence of these desires as the core of their identities. The prevalence of these varied sexual interests and categories in public discourse should not be understood as evidence that these various sexual-identity activists are fighting for liberation from an overly restrictive set of sexual norms. On the contrary: this public outpouring of sexual identitarianism is evidence that the norms that formerly prohibited these modes of sexual expression have been thoroughly dissolved.
NON-CONFORMITY AND THE NEW ETHIC
The dominant sexual ethic now calls for an enthusiastic endorsement of as wide a range of sexual behaviors as possible. Refusal to offer a full, unconditional affirmation can be met with a range of informal consequences, both personal and professional. And although liberated attitudes about sexuality have become the new norm in elite circles, the enforcers of the new ethic continue to utilize the rhetoric of transgression in their advocacy. This rhetoric is no longer a justified venting of frustration about a repressive society; instead, it betrays nostalgic sentimentalism for a moment in the recent past when those fighting for new rights were embattled underdogs against a monolithic, unjust order. What’s more, this rhetoric of transgression works to maintain the illusion that there remain strictly enforced prohibitions at the institutional level of our society, which serves to valorize the people fighting these phantoms.
This rhetoric is no longer a justified venting of frustration about a repressive society; instead, it betrays nostalgic sentimentalism for a moment in the recent past when those fighting for new rights were embattled underdogs against a monolithic, unjust order.
Make no mistake: many of the victories of the LGBT movement, were a well-deserved and overdue redress for legitimate injustices imposed by a state that had not legally recognized the dignity inherent to people who did not conform to the heteronormative order. But somewhere in the last ten years, a shift occurred.
Popular magazines for teenage girls now encourage adolescents to engage in anal sex. Netflix is hyping 11-year-old girls as sex objects. Newly written reviews of rock records from 25 years ago are now discredited for having too many girl-meets-boy songs that affirm “normative monogamy.” At the present moment, the number one song in the country is “WAP,” an acronym for “wet ass pussy.” These trends show that the most-empowered voices in our society are no longer calling for more toleration, recognition, and inclusion on the part of heterosexuals and public institutions; they assert that “heteronormativity” is itself false and restrictive, and as such, must be attacked and deposed.
The term heteronormativity may be unfamiliar to some outside academia. The word typically refers to a mechanism of oppression that coerces everyone to adopt a heterosexual lifestyle. Critics argue that ideology, rhetoric, and social privileges incentivize and compel individuals to identify with heterosexual appetites and behaviors. Thus, they imply that without this coercive pressure applied by society, there will be a more equal distribution of homosexual and heterosexual desires among the population—and further, perhaps these distinctions will fall out of use entirely.
While I agree with these critics that heteronormativity is a real phenomenon, I don’t think it is a product of ideological coercion or false consciousness. Instead, heteronormativity is a “norm” simply because a majority of people tend to have heterosexual desires, most likely due to biological realities related to reproduction—a biological norm. When I say that heterosexual desire is a “norm” I do not mean that those who don’t reflect the norm should be stigmatized, marginalized, punished, or otherwise denigrated. Instead, I mean that norms are products of a numbers game: when a majority of any group share a certain set of characteristics or experiences, those are “normalized.” That does not constitute an injustice in itself. Injustice occurs when those who identify with the majoritarian norm actively exclude or deny social advantages to those who don’t. To say that heterosexual desire is the “norm” because it is more common is not to assert that other lifestyles are “abnormal” in the pejorative sense of that term.
Without question, people with different sexual identities or appetites have historically been victims of injustices in this nation. But while those individuals certainly still face some indignities in 2020, our culture on the whole now endorses a sexual ethic that looks upon them very favorably. What this means is that under the ascendant sexual ethic (which is endorsed by the most powerful people and institutions in America), formerly-marginalized people can no longer rightly be called non-conformists. Rather, it is now those who retain the older, traditional views on sex to whom this descriptor is more aptly applied.
ADVERTISING THE NEW ETHIC
The historical sexual norms of the nation are now roundly criticized in public education, the universities, the media, Big Tech, Hollywood, and public institutions writ large. There are mountains of examples that demonstrate how the new ethic is disseminated. Case in point: recently, I was trying to find Orwell’s birth year. I mistyped the name in Google, writing “orwl” instead. Upon clicking “search,” I was greeted by an entire page of results giving me tips on how to perform oral sex. My point is not that oral sex is deviant—it’s not. My point is that if Google does, in fact, think I misspelled “oral,” why does it assume that I am not looking for tips on oral hygiene? Even more troubling, if Google truly thinks I can’t spell oral, might that not be an indication that a child entered the search term? In that case, wouldn’t a list of links to various online dictionaries be more appropriate than an array of sites telling the child how to improve his or her oral sex technique? And before your raise the objection that the links that Google provides are aimed at adults or tailored to who they believe is logged into the browser, ask yourself who this bit of advice sounds like it was written for: “When you give a man oral sex you can stop at any time and it’s up to you to decide if you want to let him ejaculate (or cum) in your mouth.”
The fact that the new norms need to be advertised shows that their purveyors are engaged in the same sorts of ideological coercion and manipulation that they claim to be fighting against.
The fact that the new norms need to be advertised shows that their purveyors are engaged in the same sorts of ideological coercion and manipulation that they claim to be fighting against. The website called Slate was (for a short time) a respected left-leaning news and commentary site for intellectuals and those posturing as them. Today, Slate dedicates about half of its coverage to savaging Trump and mostly-imagined outrages perpetrated by the political right. The rest of the content amounts to a sex blog that disseminates the new sexual ethic.
Slate’s advice column “Dear Prudence” has always featured people preoccupied with sex. When Atlantic editor Emily Yoffe was the advice-giver, the column retained a shred of sexual restraint (though not always—check out her advice to incestuous twins). Since she was replaced by Daniel Mallory Lavery (a trans-man whose father was a Bay-area evangelist), the column has devolved into a series of apologia for any and all expressions of sexual desire or identity, with heavy doses of shame for anyone who doesn’t share that outlook. Elsewhere on the site, the “How to Do It” feature offers regular “advice” from a pornographic actress. The column is a non-stop advertisement for open marriage (and explanations of why if your marriage is “closed” it shouldn’t be).
It may seem that I’m cherry-picking examples with Slate and Google. But careful observers of the culture can see this phenomenon manifest on CNN, in the New York Times, on ABC Family, in popular music, political discourse, and of course, omnipresent internet porn. Readers might also argue that none of this cheerleading for the new ethic actually has any effect on public attitudes or behaviors. But how else to explain the fact that, apparently, a young generation of women has defined the natural, procreative conclusion to sex as the one-uncrossable-moral-line? (It used to be the “money shot” that was viewed as a denigrating act in pornography. Now it is internal ejaculation. How times have changed.)
So, why is the cultural left so determined to popularize the new ethic? There are a number of likely reasons. Perhaps the most obvious one is that embracing the new ethic would require either a rejection or weakening of any traditionalist religious belief, which remains a barrier to the left’s cultural aspirations. Further, widespread adoption of alternative sexual lifestyles is an effective way to undermine the integrity of the nuclear family—a prerequisite to the socialist statism that is relentlessly pursued by American progressives. There is a host of other reasons for the advertisement of the new standard. But the most urgent question for conservatives is: What can I do to resist the new ethic?
NORMIE SEX AS REBELLION
The advocates of the new set of sexual norms aren’t seeking toleration—they are seeking converts. And if you have reservations about the goodness or healthiness of the new ethic, then it is your conversion that they are seeking. What to do in the face of this aggressive proselytizing? You protest it. How? In the same way that people have always countered coercive political power when it tries to force its way into their bedrooms: sexual rebellion. What this means in 2020 is recognizing that traditional sex is now transgressive sex and enjoying it as such.
The advocates of the new set of sexual norms aren’t seeking toleration—they are seeking converts.
I’ve been with my wife for 21 years. We have a “closed” marriage. Despite the way that this novel term suggests that we’re unsophisticated prudes, our exclusion of others is an affirmation that no one else can share what we have. We wouldn’t want them to. We’re jealous—not of one another, but for one another: we care for and serve one another and make time for each other. This jealousy—an extension of the love we share—flies in the face of the new ethic that insists authentic sexual liberation rules out personal belonging and ownership. My wife and I belong to one another. We’re really one unit—not two. And certainly not three or four. The exclusionary nature of our relationship is a repudiation of the new norm, and its advocates are infuriated by it. I have two children with my wife. I want to raise them with her, not with “a village,” especially given that so many people in the village now seem to be openly disdainful of our valuation of the nuclear family. Whereas the couple in the open marriage shares the fleeting memory of a debauched night with a new “partner,” my wife and I share a history. That has a transcendent meaning that the new norm has no use for, making it that much more special to us—and inviolable.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s underappreciated novel Mother Night, the main character serves as a template for those dedicated to these new forms of sexual rebellion. A playwright, he tells of a manuscript that he “never intended” to be published. He “regarded it as unpublishable—except by pornographers.” He continues at some length:
It was called Memoirs of a Monogamous Casanova. In it I told of my conquests of all the hundreds of women my wife, my Helga, had been. It was clinical, obsessed – some say, insane. It was a diary, recording day by day […] our erotic life—to the exclusion of all else. There is not one word in it to indicate even the century or the continent of its origin. There is a man of many moods, a woman of many moods. […] The book is not only a report of an experiment, but a part of the experiment it reports—a self-conscious experiment by a man and a woman to be endlessly fascinating to each other sexually—To be more than that. To be to each other, body and soul, sufficient reasons for living, though there might not be a single other satisfaction to be had.
To those hawking the new so-called “liberated” sexual ethic, this will seem romantic, old-fashioned tripe. But it points at something to be had that their norms can’t offer—something placeless and timeless, personal and shared, by virtue of its exclusivity.
In the America of 2020, authentic sexual rebellion is heterosexual, married, monogamous sex. This isn’t to say that this type of sex is necessarily better or more virtuous than other forms; it’s merely to point out that it is transgressive in that it offers things that the new ethic cannot provide and doesn’t think you should want. The advertisers of the new norm can tolerate you adhering to the old ethic, but only so long as you experience it as a kind of limitation and imposed self-denial. That’s why they have to give such a hard sell: they need to convince you that you’re missing out. Don’t let them. Because our traditional ethic values privacy when it comes to sex, we can’t flaunt our disobedience to their face. But they know it’s there. Secretly, in your bedroom, your “old-fashioned” sex is heaping coals on their heads. Enjoy it. Heartily and frequently.