By Jonathon Van Maren
And all around us in our society we see the price that people pay for their addictions: a sense that no pleasure is forbidden, but all pleasure is stale.
–Sir Roger Scruton
A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with anti-porn activist Gabe Deem. Deem spends a lot of time doing research into the impact of digital porn on the brain, the spike in young men under thirty struggling with porn-induced erectile dysfunction, and the increase in hyper-violent material that now dominates the world of Internet porn. A handful of academics have been pushing back against a growing body of evidence that porn is harmful, and I asked him why he thought that was. Simply put, Deem replied, it’s the fact that these academics do not want to stigmatize any type of sexual behavior, ever. For many of them, total sexual liberation is key to cultural happiness. Any evidence that the Sexual Revolution has made us miserable must be immediately discredited.
Deem’s analysis reminded me of a 2017 documentary, Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution. Filmmaker Benjamin Nolot (who also produced Nefarious: Merchant of Souls) follows several college students on Spring Break in Florida, and in a series of shockingly candid interviews, young men and women begin by gloating about the freedom and the parties and the casual sex—and then, one by one, admit that hookup culture has left them cynical, bitter, and above all, empty. The camera records the familiar scenes: Swarms of scantily-clad men and women partying on the beach, groping one another, grasping for flesh. Most never bother to discover each other’s names. That, they tell the camera, is the point of Spring Break.
The soundtrack to the film is not so much the omnipresent pulse of the dance tunes being pumped across the sand, but the coarse, rough laughter that comes from a combination of carnal ambition and alcohol consumption. It is the sort of laughter that is devoid of tenderness, and it sounds crude, hollow, and mean, emanating from a desire to consume. This cackling is well-known to most, if not all. Many young people who watched the documentary commented that, to their stomach-twisting shame, they recognized themselves. The nonstop laughter is one of the hardest things to watch, especially when reflecting on one’s own contributions to such conversations. It is, above all, cynical. Over and over again, the partiers explain that love doesn’t exist. They have come to conquer, and then to leave.
The interviews with the muscular, beautiful and hungry young men and women reveal the crushing fact that they have simply given up on one another. Genuine, loving, tender relationships are unattainable, the girls tell Nolot. To replace those, they head off to the beaches and into the clubs to play with fire on the battlefield of the 21st century sexual hunger games. We see men step into hotel rooms to briefly have sex with someone they met moments ago, and then duck back out again, laughing and crowing to their friends while the young women stumble, dissatisfied, across the sand back to their own lodgings. Even lust isn’t sated, because there was no purpose to what occurred. The coitus was fundamentally masturbatory. It is like watching thirsty youths guzzle salt water—they’re going through motions, but desire is only inflamed.
Nolot takes his cameras into the clubs, which by night transform into playgrounds of predation where young men and women—some of them scarcely more than boys and girls—strip down, lubricate themselves with alcohol, and engage in loveless and cannibalistic mating rituals that involve consuming shots and each other before retiring to nurse their hangovers and regrets. Men, as many of them tell Nolot, are attempting to use the bodies of women to prove their own masculinity to each other, while the women are using their bodies to secure a brief and ugly imitation of the thing they actually crave: To be loved and desired. As it often does when alcohol and lust are mixed, things often get out of control. Nolot’s film ends with chilling examples of sexual assault, with women getting groped against their will, manhandled, and sometimes raped. In the void left by a total absence of genuine human affection, violence is inevitable.
In the end, nobody is happy. One of the young women Nolot interviews, who headed off to Spring Break with a bucket list, breaks down as she explains that what she really wants is someone to care about her—but that young women no longer believe such relationships are possible. When she brings up her little sister, who has just become a teenager, she is filled with despair. How can anyone be expected to navigate this sexualized culture without getting deeply hurt? A culture where boys are told they must be buff and sexually aggressive and girls are told that their worth is defined by their sexual desirability and output? As a mounting body of evidence indicates that porn is poisoning a generation and the #MeToo movement exposes the ugly underbelly of the Sexual Revolution, the fact that this revolution has eaten its own children is obvious to all but the ideologues.
Despite the party tunes and the laughter and the shots, it is heartrendingly clear that everyone is hunting—with more than a hint of desperation—for something they cannot find, but that they have been told they can find here, at Spring Break. One guy tells Nolot that he can date twenty girls at a time. And with so many sexual partners available, nobody ever explores the depths of a single person. Some of the guys tell Nolot that they are trapped by a conveyer belt of options, and always they are searching for “a better deal”—someone with a more perfect body, bigger physical attributes, more sexually adventurousness. They can be intimate with dozens of girls without ever being intimate at all. They do not have the freedom that monogamy brings, and they do not know how to attain it.
Instead, they skate along the surface, never figuring out what sex is actually for. The magnificent writer Malcom Muggeridge, who nearly destroyed his marriage with a string of affairs, reflected on the ludicrousness of the Sexual Revolution in his unparalleled memoir, Chronicles of Wasted Time. It struck him when he discovered that his wife was expecting a child:
It was at this time that Kitty first became pregnant. I found the whole process utterly wonderful; her stomach gradually swelling up, and the thought that out of our fleshly gyrations…should come this ripening fruit, this new life partaking of us both, and breaking out of its cocoon—her womb—to exist separately in the world. I have seen death, now I was to see birth. A white stomach rounding out, and inside something growing, moving, living. It gave a point to every touch and caress…like print in a foreign language, laboriously spelt over, until suddenly it says something one understands. How beautiful are the Magnificats, the songs of birth! How desolate and ultimately disastrous and destructive is the pursuit of Eros for its own sake! The sterile orgasm; the bow passed across the strings and no music coming, the paddle dipped into the water and no movement following.
That is precisely it. Only by committing to one person can true liberation be experienced. My grandparents are both in their nineties, and I remember watching them holding hands and smiling at each other and thinking: It takes decades to create a love that strong. The young men and women out on the sand in the sun with the cheery tunes providing the soundtrack to their wargames do not know what they are missing. Most of them think that love stories like that are fairy tales, and porn, hookup culture, and the bitter fruits of the Sexual Revolution have done much to confirm their suspicions. It is sad, really. They see so much of so many people without really seeing any of them.
And that is the answer to all of this. To see one another again. To seek liberation in the confines of a lifelong commitment to one person, with whom you might make more little persons, half you and half her. To stop consuming people, because they are people and cannibalism—even of the sexual sort—will make you sick. There is a better way. We all used to know what it was, before the Sexual Revolution promised us we could be free—even from the burden of loving one another. As it turns out, love and happiness are intertwined–but happiness and pleasure are not.