23 October 2017 |TREVOR MERRILL | TAC
“It’s practically axiomatic: Whenever supposedly oppressive religious limits are cast aside in order to give freer rein to individual desire, harsher and less livable imperatives emerge in their place. “Thou shalt not kill” has given way, in our age of assisted suicide, to “Thou shalt not be a burden to others”; meanwhile, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s donkey” has become “Thou shalt keep up with the Joneses.”
Perhaps nowhere, however, is the axiom more vividly illustrated today than in the realm of love, marriage, and sex, where “It is better to marry than to burn” has been replaced by “Thou shalt play it cool.”
“Young Americans are now more apt to experience and express passion for some activity, cause, or topic than for another person,” writes Mark Regnerus in a recent First Things article. That observation, made almost in passing, gets at an aspect of contemporary courtship familiar to many twenty- and thirty-somethings: the Millennial-era ban on intensity.
Strangely, this inability to express, and even to experience, passion coincides with the very conditions most theoretically favorable for doing so. Secular urban singles enjoy an untrammeled freedom to shape their love and sex lives in whatever way they please.
Yet among this group, expressing strong romantic feelings is now so taboo that even (and perhaps especially) if you take a strong fancy to someone, you may be better off concealing the fact, merely out of strategic precaution.
Writer Alana Massey describes a fog of “chill” that “has now slithered into our romantic lives and forced those among us who would like to exchange feelings and accountability to compete in the Blasé Olympics … Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings.”
Demonstrations of passion scare others way—that is why it is necessary to avoid them. Yet without tokens of romantic investment, long-term bonds may never materialize, and the ill-defined opening stages of love can drag on indefinitely. At least at the outset, pursuing a committed relationship today seems to require acting as if you had no desire to be in one.
This catch-22 is discernible in the individual cases Regnerus includes in both the abovementioned article and Cheap Sex, his recent book on intimacy in America. There he argues that today’s women approach sex more like men, offering easy access while demanding little in the way of commitment or sacrifice in return.
For many women, this has made the path to marriage depressingly slow and rocky. It has also deprived men of a much-needed incentive to drop the PlayStation controller and grow up.
Cheap Sex shows how contraception use, Internet pornography consumption, and online dating have created an environment in which men and women struggle to develop flourishing love relationships.
The lens of sexual economics, through which people appear as utility-maximizing agents exchanging resources for mutual benefit, gives the book a strong theoretical backbone. Yet that approach, whatever other virtues it may possess, is ill-suited to mapping the dynamics that result in what Massey calls “chill.” Those dynamics are the key to understanding why free love doesn’t work.