Brave New World and the Commodification of Sex

by Shivani Radhakrishnan

5333-brave-new-world-thumb-100x152-5331-thumb-150x228-5332.jpgIn an effort to catch up on some summer reading (and to fill gaps in my own reading), I started Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World a few days ago. I was surprised to find just how pro-family the book is, particularly as the commodification of sex is presented as an especially dystopian aspect of the “brave new world” that Huxley describes. 

Huxley’s state eagerly rewards pursuing sex without commitment–characters like Lenina find it unthinkable that someone would require exclusivity or permanence before sex. But the heroes of the work are Bernard Marx and the Savage, two characters who find Lenina’s view of sexuality disturbing. Marx, for instance, wishes she wouldn’t consider herself just “another piece of meat.” The Savage, too, finds Lenina’s view inhumane–he consistently constrasts her lack of sexual restraint with the love of Shakespearean characters.

Huxley’s cautioning of a sexuality removed from permanent and exclusive commitments in marriage is articulate and insightful. 
Brave New World is certainly worth a read (or a re-read) when you get a chance.

Maturity, Chastity, and Freedom

Here’s an excerpt from a note written by one of my friends (posted with permission):

People tell me that wanting to live in my house with my family until I get married is immature. That checking in with my mom every day is immature. That being direct about what I think is immature, because someone mature should be able to tolerate everyone. Firstly, maturity means different things in different cultures, I’ll give you that. But the (largely American) idea that maturity is simply knowing about and experiencing all those things that were taboo for you as a child is an idea that I vehemently disagree with and think is responsible for the failure of today’s youth to become compassionate members of society. [emphasis mine.]

This identifies one of the most common reasons people choose to lose their virginity: as a rite of passage. Having sex is seen as proof of maturity and a declaration of freedom. As teenagers and adults, we have a great deal of freedom, and our society encourages the false belief that we are only truly free if we choose to do everything that we have the power to. But freedom doesn’t actually lie in trying everything; rather, it lies in our ability to freely choose whether or not to do something. Thus, underage drinking is not an expression of freedom if done under peer pressure, and sexual liberation is not an expression of liberation if done merely to prove that you’re not a child. It is true that, even under pressure, drinking frees you from certain stresses, just as sex liberates you from sexual restraint; but in the same way, even when under pressure, chastity helps to liberate you from the strength of your passions. What’s more, when chosen freely, chastity is both an expression of freedom and of maturity, for it is an active decision to do what is most conducive to your long term happiness, as well as the happiness of others.

It is also important to ask ourselves what the value of freedom is. I am free to not brush my teeth, but there wouldn’t be much value in that decision. Yet if I were forced to brush my teeth, there would be less value in that than if I freely chose to brush my teeth, precisely because I chose it. Thus, freedom adds value to the pursuit of excellence, and the cost of freedom is the opportunity to stray from that path. The truest way to celebrate freedom, then, is to determine for yourself what is the best path, not the most radical or the most widely accepted. And by making and following our own rational decisions aimed at excellence, we have the opportunity to achieve a much greater good than if we were simply forced to do the right thing.

Yet the pressure remains to add meaning and drama to our lives by having sex. We are young, shouldn’t we be experiencing more? It’s easy to feel that life is boring if we’re simply being good, that we’re wasting our youth away unless we’re experiencing passion, drama, and excitement. Yet that sort of attachment to passion is not real freedom, nor is it even a greater human experience. Reason, after all, is certainly as central to humanity as passion is.

It’s also easy to feel that, unless we’ve tried something at least once, we can’t truly make a fair decision about it, because we don’t know what it’s like. Yet the reverse is equally true. I might think that porn is corrupting, yet I don’t watch porn, so how can I know? But if I did watch porn, and I did find it corrupting but also appealing, I might find myself thinking that I shouldn’t watch porn, but also wanting to. That knowledge would not provide me with freedom, but with greater difficulty in acting as I desire. In the same way, although my virginity prevents me from being able to say I enjoy sex precisely X amount, and thus my decision to abstain from it lies in a careful cost-benefit analysis, I would gain nothing from that knowledge. I believe people when they tell me that sex is enjoyable (and my decision to abstain is independent from how enjoyable sex is). Experiencing sex would not help me to make a more well informed decision; rather, it would just make it harder for me to make the decision which I know to be the wisest.

Finally, I would like to add that, while I believe it’s probably easier to be abstinent when you’re a virgin, there’s no reason that losing your virginity should in any way affect your decision to pursue a chaste life. My primary concern in this article is that people lose their virginity under the false impression that they are doing it to increase their freedom. The fact that someone has lost their virginity does not detract from any future decisions they make regarding abstinence. In fact, non-virgins who pursue a chaste lifestyle are perhaps better advocates for chastity, because they can be more readily trusted by everyone who’s had sex. So I would encourage those of you who consider yourself sexually liberated to aim for an even greater freedom: liberation from premarital sex.

Abstinence and Marshmallows

What, you might ask, could the two possibly have in common? The answer is not so unusual: both have been used to test self-control in humans, and can tell us something about more fundamental aspects of our personalities.

In a now-famous study conducted at Stanford in the 1960’s, children were put in separate rooms and given a marshmallow or another treat of their choice by a researcher. The researcher told them that after giving the instructions, he would leave the room for a short while, during which time the child would be left alone. (They would actually be observed by camera during that time.) If the child wanted to eat the treat, there were two official options: 1) ring a bell on the desk, at which point the researcher would come back immediately, and the child could eat the treat, or 2) wait for the researcher to come back on his own, at which point the child would be allowed to eat two treats. Once the researcher left, it became clear that there was a third, unofficial option: just eat the marshmallow.

While this was a fascinating experiment in its own right – in a video from a similar study, you can watch the children trying desperately to resist the third option – the follow-up study about a decade later made it even more interesting. The children who had succeeded in waiting for the two marshmallows turned out to be teenagers who were better adjusted, had fewer problems in school, and also had (wait for it, Princeton) higher SAT scores. In other words, there was a strong correlation between self-control seen at a very young ageand academic success that came years down the road. Another study using fMRI as well as behavioral measures, has linked self-control with intelligence.

Abstinence, in its own way, is the reverse of the “marshmallow.” If we are in a situation where it is a live option to engage in sex or other forms of physical intimacy, we have a choice between “now” and “later.” In today’s culture of excessive self-affirmation, we often hear, “If it feels right, go for it.” What this neglects to mention is that something which “feels right” at the time can often feel even better in the future. For those of us waiting for a stable, long-term relationship, such as marriage, to have sex with another person, choosing the “later” option can pay dividends by training us to, in the meantime, live without that instant pleasure. This is by no means masochistic; rather, it is a recognition that the delayed pleasure will be all the more meaningful when it does come.

Twilight’s Abstinence Advertising

*SPOILER ALERT*: At the risk of stripping all legitimacy from this blog, I am discussing Twilight in this post. Since I allude to the plot, you shouldn’t read this post if you plan on reading Twilight.

Despite the many flaws of the Twilight series, it clearly has some quality which has caused millions of women (myself included) to consume it voraciously. The writing may be mediocre, the adverb smolderingly may be severely overused, but Edward Cullen is just so appealing. And although Stephanie Meyer mentions Edward’s physical perfection an excessive number of times, his primary appeal actually lies in the depth and sincerity of his love for Bella. This love is proven throughout the story by Edward’s restraint: he doesn’t kill Bella, despite his strong physical desire to do so. (Wait, isn’t that sort of like people who abstain from having sex, even when they really want it? Oh yeah…) In this way, Twilight seems like an obvious advertisement for how romantic abstinence can be.

At the same time, there are a number of ways in which Twilight’s message undermines the advantages of abstinence. One of my favorite things about abstinence (and yes, there are many) is the freedom it provides from unnecessary emotional turmoil. By exercising physical restraint, it is easier to maintain more perspective, and thus to better analyze how well you and your partner actually suit one another. The same principle applies to how you speak to your partner. In this arena, Bella and Edward are clearly going all the way. Saying things like You are my life now, and I will destroy myself if you leave me, must have a similar binding effect to great physical intimacy (at least third base) and is equally unwise for 17-year-olds. This is compounded by the fact that Twilight reminds its readers of how wonderful it is to be in love, inadvertently urging them to seek love everywhere they go. (That cute boy who sits next to me in chem class? I might die without him!)

Another issue with the abstinence advertising in Twilight is that the lessons it provides just don’t seem that applicable. Sex has a higher survival rate than having all of your blood sucked out, and it’s unlikely that a given reader is dating a vampire. By promoting temptation and restraint as the key ingredients to a great romance, Stephanie Meyer encourages her readers to cultivate their own desires; when the consequences of succumbing to those desires don’t seem so terrible, real life is likely to lose the constraint which makes Twilight itself such a great story.

The Remaining Campaign for the Center Talks

Professor Wilcox gave a talk on the topic of marriage, specifically on how much of today’s culture is failing to prepare young men and women for proper courtship with the end goal of a stable marriage for raising children.

Here is part I of a religious panel discussion on the notion of chastity as a public good.

Here is part II of the religious panel discussion.

Here is part I of a talk by Dr. Morse in which she outlines the economic analysis presented in the paper “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States” by G. Akerlof, J. Yellen, and M. Katz (1996).

Here is part II of Dr. Morse’s talk.