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Liberal Education as Problem Identification—Part 2: The Case of Sex

Since 1963 (more or less), the sophisticated wisdom has been on the side of easygoing sexual satisfaction.  Sex can and should be for pleasure detached from various repressive relational concerns.  The only limit to consensual gratification should be health and safety.  Safe sex is moral sex.  The philosophers and theologians of the past who thought otherwise subjected free persons to unnecessary cruelty, including pointless guilt. 

But the latest study shows that chastity turns out to be a virtue that can make us happier than we would otherwise be:

Religion and science don't normally make for happy bedfellows, especially when it comes to sex. But now, it seems, they're in total agreement. A study into the effects of having sex before marriage suggests it's much better not to. Those who abstain during their courtship or build up a gradual sexual relationship, rather than leaping into bed on the first date, are more likely to have happier and longer relationships. 

The researchers who carried out the study, the first of its kind, say that early sexual satisfaction may stunt the development of other key ingredients of healthy relationships, such as commitment, caring, understanding and shared values. "Precocious premarital sexual activities may have lasting effects on relationship quality," they say. "Courtship is a time for exploration and decision-making about the relationship, when partners assess compatibility, make commitments and build on emotional and physical intimacy." 

Almost 50 years since the sexual revolution, which began, according to Philip Larkin, in 1963, the evidence suggests an open-legs policy is not so rewarding after all. "The postponement of sexual involvement is associated with higher levels of relationship quality," say the researchers from Cornell University. "Women who deferred sexual involvement for over six months reported significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy and emotional support, as well as sexual satisfaction with their partner, than did those who became sexually involved within the first month."

So one point of liberal education turns out to be rediscovering for ourselves the truth of the arguments of the philosophers of the past for  the sublimation of mere genital sexuality for the sake of the truthful responsibilities two persons share in common, for the relational love that displays itself among members of our species alone.  For even self-confidently radical semi-philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse, the guru for many of our Sixties’ activists, eros is polymorphous.  It takes on many forms, and it’s stunted when identified simply with casual sexual satisfaction.  It’s capitalism, Marcuse explains, that makes sexual satisfaction one-dimensional by reducing it to yet another easily acquired commodity.

Radicals like Marcuse and more conservative Platonic critics, such as Allan Bloom, have observed that the eros of our time is lame.  The Puritans were clearly more erotic that we are.  Show a Puritan guy an ankle, and he’s aroused.  But our guys can see perfectly sculpted, semi-unclad young women in all kinds of virtual and real places and yawn.

The distance between polymorphous and deeply intense human love and the sexual experiences of the other animals almost fades away when we detach it from our singular ability to be moved by love, death, and the mysterious charm of the partial elusiveness of unique and irreplaceable other persons.

Maybe the only way students can identify the problem of our erotic lameness is through encounters with the love, death, and personal “relationships” displayed in the great philosophy, poetry, and theology of the past (Plato, St. Augustine, and  Shakespeare, to name three).

What I’ve said here corresponds to the wisdom of our religious tradition, but it doesn’t depend on religion.  As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, democratic Americans used to know that chastity is in their self-interest rightly understood.

There is something, though, to the slogan of many evangelicals: "True love waits."  For courtship to make a full comeback in the service of civilized happiness, courting has to mean something.

(Thanks to the celebrated Brothers Judd for sharing the above study with me.)

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