Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex leaves little doubt: We need a corrective from outside ourselves
It could just be my kink—in the idiom of Christine Emba’s new book—but Rethinking Sex kept making me think about dessert.
The way Washington Post columnist Emba describes today’s sex and dating reminds me of the SnackWells effect. That’s shorthand for what went wrong in the 1990s when people thought low-fat SnackWells licensed indulgence without consequences. Some who went all in found themselves gaining unwanted pounds and health problems besides.
What seemed like a turn for the better actually made things worse. In terms of romantic coupling, the story Emba tells sounds like that. Free love turned out to be not terribly freeing. The author describes her generation as miserable with the dating prospects before it, men and especially women constrained to engage in uncomfortable or demeaning behavior with no whisper of discontent: “Our society may be more sexually liberated than ever before, but many men and women aren’t as happy with the new status quo as the broader culture would have you believe. . . . so that we feel bad for feeling bad—and also feel like there’s no room to protest.” Protest Emba does, giving voice to the many other protests that came to her unbidden, women at parties and coffee shops confessing to her the off-putting sex tricks their dates want to try.
Emba offers recognizably feminist criticism of this culture (Andrea Dworkin lends the epigraph), noting that women suffer most in this system, though it hurts men too.
This was not how women’s liberations were supposed to go: “Equality between men and women now looks like equal opportunity for women to be equal to the worst sort of man—cavalier about sex and disdainful of real feeling.”
Central to Emba’s protest is her conviction that consent is necessary but not sufficient as a sexual ethic, its floor and not its ceiling. Consent can be muddled, manipulated, or misunderstood. Pushed as they are by the paired demons of pornography and capitalism, our individual choices may be less free than we imagine. Emba skewers the cultural contradiction of treating sex as at once everything and nothing, essential component of adulthood but also so casual as to be meaningless. Contrary to popular assumptions, Emba asserts that men and women are different. And that sex is not just the use of parts disconnected from persons. And that we should do better by ourselves and our partners.
She is right. Her book is compelling. Things are as bad as she says. Predictions of what hookup culture would produce in environments stripped of norms convinced me long ago that times were bad. Others have offered diagnoses and solutions—real love and modesty—sold as sexy for a season, but on those terms reality and modesty were always going to lose. What Emba adds to familiar critiques is a distinctive voice from inside our current culture. What has gone so badly wrong, she wonders, that people would admit this stuff to a perfect stranger and be embarrassed not by the admission (a boyfriend who likes choking during sex) but by their own lack of enthusiasm for this behavior? I have all confidence that Emba is reading rightly the signs of the times.
I have less confidence than she in our prospects for positive change. To get us to something better the book invites readers to ask questions about their own desires. Emba wants us to ask ourselves, Why do I desire that? Where does that desire come from? This examen is supposed to help us desire what is better and then act accordingly. If our desires were trustworthy and beclouded only by porn and market forces, hers might be a promising solution. But I fear that some impediments to right thinking might be quite difficult to remove, especially if each of us, with our puny stock of insight and willpower, is left to arrive at right decisions by ourselves. We need a corrective from outside ourselves.
Emba offers some such outside resources, acknowledging her evangelical background and Catholic conversion while keeping counsel broadly accessible. In case readers worry that she would turn back the clock, she affirms, “[l]ess casual sex doesn’t have to equal no sex until marriage—that train left the station a long time ago.” Rather, Emba, following Aquinas (following Aristotle!) defines love as willing the good of the other, insisting that this “isn’t a religious concept” but “a basic suggestion for how to behave well.” That basic suggestion is powerful advice.
I am confident that following this one simple tip might fix sex altogether—if only all the right-swipes and dimly lit fraternity hallways were animated by willing the good of the other.
Again, my confidence flags. To will the good of the other in a way that really counts—not just confirming a hunch that the partner should like what I do so we both win—presupposes that each knows what the good is. The current culture of sexual exchange presumes that the only good we share in common is optimized choice and access to private servicing of preferences. The only common good is consent. What makes this model hard to displace is the blessing of cultural gate-keepers. Sex served this way has the approval of the cool people. When Tinder launched its branding campaign in 2018, Emba recalls, Washington was awash in posters approving this new way of coupling, endorsed by images of attractive singles smiling and winking and eating cake.
Emba jokes about the cake (“Always cake! Why so much cake?!”). But the cake is the point! The cake is the problem! The cake is what stands between the young people who confide in her and the relationships they really want—the fact that they, we, want to have the cake and eat it too. Emba is torch-bright in exposing the culture’s gorgon aspects, since identifying failures “is key to creating a new norm.”
Complete normlessness was a problem. But when transgression becomes the new normal, the battle is too uphill. Some may imagine we have created a world where one fun thing leads to the other, or where both kinds of fun can be had at once. We can sleep with anybody we want! And they want that too! And we never have to see each other again! And nobody cares! This sexual freedom might seem so expansive that when we choose to care about somebody, or if we want somebody care about us, we can do that too.
The author is inclined to think that most people probably do want the better thing: relationships that engage whole persons with respect and joy. I agree with her that this way is better. But I doubt that agreement can be retrieved out of our dramatically opposite habituation. Or that people are willing to give up liberated life even if better relationships are in the trade. If that other train has left the station, I am not sure why this one can be hauled back in. Theologian Jennifer Beste helpfully calls for rehabilitation of hookup culture with appeals not only to love but also justice, an approach compatible with Emba’s. A viable counterculture could arise from that rethinking, maybe.
In any case, licensed indulgence turns out to have consequences we will have difficulty overcoming.
Agnes R. Howard teaches in Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University, and is author of Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human.