It is not good that the man should be alone.
from Genesis 2:18
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.
I Corinthians 6:18
The September 2015 issue of Vanity Fair included a feature entitled “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’” a simultaneously bleak and sensational exploration of the “hookup culture” that purportedly characterizes contemporary young adulthood. The piece — which, let the curious be warned, is as stark in its language as in its subject matter — reads like a case study on Romans 1:14. Its participants, enabled by Tinder and other mobile apps that display an image-based menu of potential partners, describe the serialized degrading of their bodies among themselves, devoid of even the semblance of relationship, much less permanent commitment.
A sampling of their conversations with the Vanity Fair author:
“I’m on Tinder, Happn, Hinge, OkCupid,” Nick says. “It’s just a numbers game. Before, I could go out to a bar and talk to one girl, but now I can sit home on Tinder and talk to 15 girls.”
“Without spending any money,” John chimes in.
“I don’t want [a relationship],” says Nick. “I don’t want to have to deal with all that — stuff.”
“You can’t be selfish in a relationship,” Brian says. “It feels good just to do what I want.”
I ask them if it ever feels like they lack a deeper connection with someone.
There’s a small silence. After a moment, John says, “I think at some points it does.”
“There is no dating. There’s no relationships,” says Amanda, the tall elegant one. “They’re rare. You can have a fling that could last like seven, eight months and you could never actually call someone your ‘boyfriend.’ [Hooking up] is a lot easier. No one gets hurt — well, not on the surface.” They give a wary laugh.
“Sex should stem from emotional intimacy, and it’s the opposite with us right now, and I think it really is kind of destroying females’ self-images,” says Fallon.
“But if you say any of this out loud, it’s like you’re weak, you’re not independent, you somehow missed the whole memo about third-wave feminism,” says Amanda.
There is reason to believe that these scenes are not entirely representative of modern dating. According to the General Social Survey (GSS), a well-respected academic study conducted since 1972, members of the Millennial Generation (those born since 1980) may actually end up having fewer total sexual partners than their Gen-X predecessors. But the sheer acceptance of such casualness leaves no doubt that the logic of the Sexual Revolution has run its full course.
Defining a Revolution
Whatever else has come from the Revolution, its most profound impact has been the conscious uncoupling of sex from marriage in the culture. It would take many volumes to explain how and why this occurred; understanding when is less complicated. A confluence of technological, legal, and social changes in the late 20th century created the necessary conditions to separate physical sexual intimacy from its immediate, visible consequences — the kind of consequences either absent or welcomed when sex occurs exclusively within a functioning marriage.
The Millennial generation sees marriage “as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone’— that is, something they do after they have all the other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”
Available, effective, and inexpensive methods of contraception (which gained full legal legitimacy in 1965 after the United States Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut decision) proffered avoidance of pregnancy, the most publicly obvious consequence of sex among the unwed. Roe v. Wade followed in 1973, granting women the legal right to abortion when pregnancies did occur. Changes have improved prevention and treatment options for most sexually transmitted diseases, which meant that the Revolution promised evasion of the physical fallout of sex. (Whether it has delivered on that promise is another matter. According to the Guttmacher Institute, approximately half of all pregnancies in America are unintended, and the CDC reported 20 million new STD infections in 2008.)
The Revolution went far deeper, of course. It was at its core a social movement, enabled by technical and legal means but rooted in a deeper shift in cultural attitudes about sexuality. Though no single metric fully captures the magnitude of the change, one is enlightening. In 1972, 25 percent of respondents to the GSS indicated that premarital sex is “not wrong at all.” By 2014, the number had risen to 57 percent, including 66 percent of Millennial adults. On the other end of the scale, 35 percent said in 1972 that premarital sex is “always wrong.” Only 19 percent (12 percent of Millennials) said the same in 2014. The social cost (distinct from the sociological cost, as will be examined below) of sex outside of marriage has practically vanished.
Bodies and Souls
Physical and social consequences are only part of the story. As we see, even in the Vanity Fair piece, we are emotional and spiritual creatures as well as physical and social ones. And while those costs may be easier to hide, they are also harder to contain. By criticizing the sexual marketplace in which they participate, people like John, Fallon, and Amanda are tacitly admitting that the Revolution has objectified, isolated, and robbed them. Deep down, they know there is more to sex than individualized physical fulfillment based on nothing more than consent.
Christians know the answer explicitly: Sexuality within marriage is a symbol of eternal, exclusive union with Christ, and violating that context abuses the symbol, creating a spiritual rift. But any thoughtful person — Christian or not — understands that sex was meant for more than Tinder-generated trysts. Pregnancy is a normal, natural outcome of sexual activity with long-term implications. Historically, any attempts to “control” this required at least some level of intimate cooperation. And once having procreated, the family’s survival depended largely on remaining intact. Biology teaches us that our bodies were made to experience sex in a context of permanence. Ought we not expect the same of our souls?
Decline and Delay
Instead, Americans have shown by their attitudes and actions that we value the permanence of marriage less and less. The Revolution taught us to uncouple sex from its natural outcome (procreation) and its fitting context (marriage). It was only a matter of time before a similar schism appeared between procreation and marriage themselves. Even the Revolution’s language obscures the link when it speaks of the “reproductive rights” of individuals, not the procreative privileges of couples.
As recently as 1994, 71 percent of GSS respondents agreed that “those wanting kids should get married.” By 2012, the percentage was down to 61. But the most sobering figure is that only 48 percent of Millennials agreed, which means that fewer than half of American adults in their prime child-bearing years think that marriage is crucial to parenthood.
Their behavior bears this out. A recent report from Pew Research Center revealed that in 2012, the median age of first marriage was 29 for men and 27 for women, both record highs. Furthermore, 47 percent of younger adults (age 25-34) have yet to marry, and Pew projects that as many as 25 percent of them will never marry.
Part of the answer to this is cohabitation. Pew cites another study indicating that nearly a quarter of never-married young adults currently live with a partner. Only 40 percent of adults surveyed in the GSS considered this acceptable in 1994, but 53 percent (68 percent of Millennials) did by 2012. With societal approval of premarital sex in general and cohabitation in particular, why not enjoy the pleasures of marriage without its commitments?
Ironically, these same young adults are choosing to face adulthood’s other commitments, including childbearing, without the pleasure of a spouse’s committed companionship. Pew reports that young adults consider financial security to be a barrier to marriage, so they pursue career advancement first. The research blog Knot Yet points out that the median age for first birth (25.7 years) is now below the median age of first marriage and that 48 percent of births are to unmarried women. In the authors’ words, the Millennial generation sees marriage “as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone’ — that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”
What about Christians?
The church stands partially — but not entirely — athwart this last phase of the Revolution. According to the GSS, 31 percent of adults who believe the Bible to be the “word of God” (a proxy for identifying conservative, evangelical Christians) now find cohabitation acceptable, up from 20 percent in 1994. These figures are far below the national averages, but the trend is real.
Many Christians have bought into the Revolution’s ideals in subtler ways. Our Catholic brethren make a point worthy of respect when they insist on eschewing artificial contraception because the “seamless garment” of human sexuality naturally includes the possibility of procreation. Reformed evangelicals perhaps need not agree in this specific. Still, we must ask ourselves whether an intentionally child-free marriage is a valid biblical lifestyle choice or an artifact of a pleasure-seeking culture. Are children truly a blessing, as the Scriptures teach, or are they an impediment to self-actualization that can be justifiably avoided?
Certainly we ought to reject as unbiblical the “capstone” view of marriage. To be sure, it is praiseworthy to encourage those desiring marriage to examine their own maturity and to have reasonable means of support. But counseling our adolescent children to “finish your education, get established in your career, then worry about getting married” is rather exactly the opposite of how God set things up in the Garden of Eden, when he gave Adam and Eve to each other as helpers in anticipation of their mutual mandate. What more powerful antidote is there to the Revolution’s central lie of self-indulgence than, “It is not good that the man should be alone”? We were created to depend on each other to face life’s challenges. And the sooner we start, the better.
“Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed,” wrote Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in a 2009 Washington Post op-ed. “We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life.” Again, our biology ought to be instructive. Our species reaches sexual maturity in the late teens and peak physical strength soon thereafter. The Bible tells us that celibate singleness is a high calling, but one for which only some are designed. Did God intend for most of us to suppress sexual desire for a decade or more before marrying? Or is it more likely that cultural influences, rather than biblical ones, have rendered us unable or unwilling to teach young people that, generally speaking, marriage is foundational to adulthood?
The devaluing of marriage may not have been the primary goal of the Revolution, but it is a logical outcome nonetheless. To use software parlance, it is a “feature, not a bug.” The next obvious truth is that its consequences are now cascading beyond individual revolutionaries and into the lives of families (especially children) and society at large. They are heartbreaking.
Abortion is sequentially the first example of the Revolution’s effects spilling over onto the innocent. The Guttmacher Institute reports that nearly 53 million human lives were destroyed by legal abortion between 1973 and 2011, and approximately a million more are added each year. A staggering 40 percent of unplanned pregnancies (21 percent of all) end in abortion, and three of 10 women project to have at least one by age 45. The Revolution has been anything but bloodless.
When children survive gestation, nearly half of them (as noted above) are now born to the unwed, and many of the others will one day live through the separation or divorce of their parents. Alongside the Revolution, nearly all states enacted no-fault divorce laws during the 1970s and early 1980s, and couples that married in those decades have divorced at higher rates than those marrying before and after. Children raised by two permanently married parents are now in the minority. But being “normal” does not make the impact of divorce less painful.
Author Jon Acuff posted a poignant entry on his blog in August 2015. He wrote of sitting next to a teenage boy on an airplane who began sobbing as the plane departed. Acuff comforted the boy, who was flying back to live with his father for the school year after spending the summer with his mother. As Acuff puts it, “Sometimes the frequency of divorce makes us forget the heartache of it. It’s such an ordinary thing these days that we tend to rush right by the extraordinary pain it causes.”
Such anecdotes are more than reinforced by academic inquiry. The National Fatherhood Initiative has compiled a long litany of research at fatherhood.org demonstrating the high societal cost of nonexistent or nonpermanent marriage (and, conversely, the benefits of intact families). One study found that nearly all of the 5 percent increase in child poverty between 1970 and 1996 could be “attributed to the rise of single-parent families, especially never-married mothers.” Another demonstrated that “youth who have experienced divorce, separation, or a nonunion birth have significantly higher levels of behavioral problems in school than do youth who have always lived with both biological parents.” A third revealed that “teens without fathers were twice as likely to be involved in early sexual activity and seven times more likely to get pregnant as … adolescent[s].”
There are dozens more. From education to crime, from physical and emotional health to drug use and poverty, the sociological research overwhelmingly indicates that intact, peaceful marriage is the single best weapon to wield against our country’s biggest social problems, especially the ones that impact children. It may not be the perfect solution, nor is it the only one available, but it cannot be ignored.
For Christians, there is even greater reason to work tirelessly for strong marriages. In “Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations,” researcher Vern L. Bengtson outlined a “Theory of Intergenerational Religious Momentum.” Among his team’s conclusions: “Fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad.” In other words, parental modeling of religious belief and practice is important but not necessarily sufficient for religious transmission. Critically, children who regard their relationship with their parents — and particularly their father — as “close, warm, and affirming” are significantly more likely to make their parents’ faith their own. As if anyone needed it, here is proof of the effectiveness of familial discipleship.
Effect and Cause
Christians know something else about the Revolution that informs our thinking and actions in mitigating its consequences: It is itself an effect, not a cause. Though its own costs are easily traceable, the greatest problem lies deeper still.
At the end Romans 1, the Apostle Paul describes rampant sexual disorder as one consequence of mankind’s rejection of God. By seeking independence from the Creator and denying our rightful place in His created order, we tragically find ourselves distorting the means designed to bring us into appropriate communion with each other, leaving us isolated. The wages of our sin is the Sexual Revolution.
Yet the greatest possible news is that God redeems and uses revolutionaries. Jesus’ own earthly family tree includes prostitutes, adulterers, and sex addicts, not to mention the most famous of unplanned pregnancies. He is the answer to the sins we commit against our own bodies because He bore the ultimate consequences for all of them in His. We can trust Him to heal even the deepest, most intimate hurts.
Phil Mobley is a writer and content strategist who lives in Lilburn, Georgia. He and his family attend Parkview Church (PCA).