Basic Instincts, Changing Habits image

Basic Instincts, Changing Habits

One of the characteristics of our era is to judge the past by the standards of the present: this has been especially the case in the verdicts – legal and social – handed down to showbiz figures from the 70s & 80s. The inverse of this is an assumption that people in the past held the same values as we now do, so every movie or TV depiction of an earlier age always features some kind of woke storyline and character.

But the past is a different country.

John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is one of those books that I seemed to be underlining more passages in than not. But in all the noteworthy arguments, comments and observations Gray makes, one small aside leapt out at me,

[William Empson] won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge…He was expelled in 1929 when one of the college porters found condoms in his rooms and his name was removed from the college books.

Today I would imagine you would be more likely to be expelled from a Cambridge college for not having condoms in your room. And this less than one hundred years ago. Mark Regnerus (Cheap Sex, OUP, 2017) observes that,

Whereas not long ago conservatives policed discourse concerning human sexuality, today liberal voices have replaced them. The only thing that has remained constant is the presence of policing.

This is an astute observation and applies obviously when it comes to attitudes towards LGBT+ issues. But, Regnerus argues, the focus on LGBT+ issues are simply an overflow of larger socio-sexual changes, primarily the introduction of the Pill in 1960 and the ubiquity of high quality (sic) porn.

Regnerus’ theory, backed up by extensive research, is that these technological developments have driven an extraordinary change in sexual behaviours. Whereas previously women were the gatekeepers of sexual access and sex was expensive – requiring men to demonstrate considerable commitment – the Pill made sex cheap. Suddenly sex became available in a way it hadn’t previously because of the severing of sex from conception. Modern dating technology and hook up culture accelerates this as men can keep swiping right until they find someone willing to have sex with them. And then there is porn, which makes sex as cheap as it possibly can be – a high-def, solitary experience requiring no cost or commitment.

The impact of porn is huge but so often overlooked by sociologists, either because of (on the right) freedom of speech priorities, or (on the left – which is where most sociologists sit) a commitment to freedom of sexual expression. Remarkably a recent large-scale survey of sexual behaviour that reveals declining rates of sexual activity in the UK (at least as reported by the BBC) makes no reference to the possible effects of pornography.

Cheap Sex is a rather depressing read: painting as it does a picture of a world in which most women still desire a stable, long-term relationship, but increasingly give sex away too cheaply; which means that men no longer work at commitment because they do not need to in order to gain access to sex; and in which more men are actually less confident in their interaction with women because of their exposure to porn. Regnerus concludes that the ‘Genital Life’, as he terms it, ‘is misanthropic, ultimately anti-woman, and not sustainable.’

As well as being a fascinating social study, Cheap Sex raises many questions that should be considered by policy makers – and that have ramifications for the mission of the church. Regnerus claims the evidence of his research is that, ‘Societies that disregard monogamous norms undermine their own long-term interests.’ This means that policy makers would be wise to do all they can to reward and encourage marriage, but such wisdom seems to have deserted the corridors of power. The larger challenge, however is technology,

We overestimate how effective scientific arguments are at secularizing people. Narratives about science don’t secularize. Technology secularizes. And sex-related technology does so particularly efficiently.

The challenge for the church is how to build communities that are robust enough to stand – and withstand – changing sexual technology: to re-establish the link between sex and conception, to minimise the impact of porn, to foster monogamy: in short, to make sex expensive again. And we need to tell a better story about sex, one that demonstrates to those caught in Tinder and porn secularism that godly life is more satisfying than genital life. That is the discipleship challenge of our day. The evidence is that at the moment we are not doing very well in it. Our habits need to change.


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