Sex, The ’70s, And The Virtue of Moderate Innocence

Is a wave of sexual nostalgia for the 1970s sweeping the internet’s female writers? Caitlin Flanagan and Peggy Orenstein both strike this same note. Here’s Ross on Flanagan:

Real teenagers, once the social stigmas and parental disapproval around premarital sex dropped away, weren’t as patient and cautious and committed as [Judy] Blume’s creations — or as careful about birth control. [....] Many of the trends that Flanagan laments [...] emerged in part as paths to safety — as ways to navigate the post-sexual revolution landscape without experiencing as many dangers, physical and emotional, as the young people of the 1970s faced.

Here, Ross is echoing Pomocon’s Peter Augustine Lawler:

When it comes to public policy, health and safety are increasingly the only shared morality we have left. “Safe sex” is the only sexual ethic we acknowledge in common, and we are becoming increasingly puritanical, prohibitionist, and paranoid when it comes to diet, exercise, second-hand smoke, and trans-fatty Oreo cookies. At the same time, we are becoming ever more indifferent to moral objections to the “free market,” and the language of contract and consent—the language of the autonomous individual—is increasingly shaping every feature of our lives. As long as it is safe and consensual, we are inclined to let people do pretty much whatever they want.

Which is precisely the ’70s environment today’s saddened women are longing to return. Ross accuses Flanagan of “pretending that there was a moment, somewhere in the age of leisure suits and Judy Blume, when a certain amount of teenage sexual license coexisted easily with modesty and idealism, responsibility and romance.”

But I don’t think it’s really a milieu or a moment that our ’70s sex nostalgists are pining for. I think it’s something they would describe, if pressed, as a virtue: the virtue of moderate innocence, and of judicious moderation in passing from the extreme innocence of childhood to the extreme knowingness of adulthood. It’s not the modus vivendi of ’70s sexuality that’s worth praising, as the delicate, transient accomplishment of a decentered culture. It’s the idea that a newly centered culture can manage to anchor itself outside an unreasonably artificial innocence on the one hand and outside an unreasonably artificial profanity on the other.

Within that idea, as well, is a hope grounded what I would call a sort of postmodern realism: a recognition that human maturity, including sexual maturity, is a natural process that can’t be mastered by science (“continuous birth control”) or by law (bright-line rulings establishing the magic moment when one goes from a juvenile to an adult). The prospect of locking up one’s children until they must be thrown to the wolves is grim, and the prospects of fully immersing them in the world from the get go, or fully withdrawing them from the world, are worse. The moderate innocence of the ’70s may ultimately be less instructive to us than the conditions that became mainstream in the ’80s which made it so difficult. I’m not convinced that those conditions were the consequence of moderate innocence at all.

  1. James Poulos
    C
    katievs: I wonder whether “moderate innocence” isn’t as illusory as “moderate Islam”. I mean, not that it doesn’t exist in lots and lots of people, but that it’s too weak, undefined, and impotent to meet the real challenges we are facing. I see it as a transitional condition–a kind of halfway house between virtue and corruption.

    Human sexuality is a force that–once unleashed, as it has been–can be channelled for good only by an equally or more powerful counterforce.

    “Moderate innocence” won’t cut it. Neither will “extreme innocence”.

    We need serious LOVE. The kind that is inextricably bound up with sacrifice.

    You’re right, katievs, to warn that Aristotelian moderation in the hands of ordinary human weakness can become an excuse to license wrongdoing. And I think it’s right to suggest that Christian love can correct, elevate, and strengthen that moderation. Another way of saying this is that Christianity helps us understand how to make the classical ideal of moderation more perfect — not to become trapped by it, not to become seduced by it, but not to abandon it altogether, either. Ironically, purely philosophical moderation is extreme in a way the ancients might have been unable to recognize.

  2. katievs

    Duane, animals copulate; persons don’t. Or rather, if persons do, they are behaving in a way that is at odds with their nature and vocation, no? It is for us to give ourselves (or withhold ourselves) in love.

  3. Duane Oyen

    Katie, there is no difference in the word describing the physiological function, but I am consciously using technical euphemism to avoid the flowery psychobabblespeak of women’s magazines.

  4. Aaron Miller

    Well said, Katie. When you stop striving to become better and accept your present self as “good enough”, you inevitably fall. Respite awaits us at the end.

  5. Aaron Miller

    I should add that all people need inspiration. Most people I meet lean either toward inspiration or rules. It’s when the two work together that great things happen. Abstinence requires a hell of a lot more sacrifice these days than it did a century ago. Sacrifice can’t always be joyful, but it shouldn’t seem like a chore.

  6. James Poulos
    C
    Rob Long: Okay, I’ll bite. James, what on earth is a “pomo-con?” And please take into consideration that although we’re thousands of miles apart, at some point you and I will be in the same room and I will throw something heavy at you if your answer even threatens to remind me of my college Comp Lit courses.

    Glad you asked, Rob. In plain language, a pomocon judges modern philosophy to be an unrealistic distortion of the truth about who we are as human beings. Our misguided left postmodernists react to this failure of modern thought by concluding that there simply is no truth — not about us, not about anything. For them, postmodern thought is just a self-consciously, endlessly referential game of destroying the ‘contingent’ relationships between ideas, people, facts, and values, and reassembling the pieces into new, fleeting, and ultimately meaningless ones. Sadly, that’s an even more unrealistic distortion of what it means to be human than what the moderns gave us. True postmodern thought — say pomocons — requires stepping out of this morass in a return to philosophical realism, focusing on our human nature and on our longing for an earthly affirmation of our supernatural character.

  7. James Poulos
    C
    katievs: JP said: “And I think it’s right to suggest that Christian love can correct, elevate, and strengthen that moderation.”

    I had mean to point out, though, that in this context–I mean the context of sexual morality–I don’t quite see where the Aristotelian notion of moderation comes in at all. Are you calling for a “mean” between abstinence and promiscuity? Between innocence and corruption? Help me understand you better.

    More like a mean between puritanism and permissiveness. So chastity belts and purity pacts strike me as excessive attempts to make purity and innocence total. There’s some misguided pride in that, I think, even though the intentions are good. The response is to a world that’s perceived as radically and aggressively corrupt. But in my view, “the world” can always accurately be described as corrupt in that way. Nonetheless, becoming obsessed with our total depravity is just as reflective of a distorting kind of pride as becoming obsessed with the possibility to total innocence. Kids will steal kisses, fall in love, fall in lust. The challenge is to educate them to moderate their own passions without trying to obliterate them, to learn to govern themselves not only successfully but well.

  8. Duane Oyen
    katievs:Aaron, my point, though, was that “copulation” is a repulsive and unfit term for sex between man and wife, which is an eminently personal act.

    One way to help restore some moral sanity in the world, IMHO, is to take a little care not to be gross and degrading in our way of speaking about sexuality. · Jun 13 at 10:26pm

    Katie, pick on me, not Aaron, for that- the word isn’t dirty. I know Christian love and marriage very well, as well as emotional connection and delighting in one’s soulmate, from more than three decades of first-hand experience.

    I am about the last person who would advocate reducing the marital relationship to an animal encounter. But if there is any point that is an utter failure of today’s evangelical churches it is the unwillingness to be blunt about one of the core failings in modern life. Biblical teaching says little directly about emotional oneness in marriage- it is assumed. But the Bible is quite specific and blunt about the temptations that infiltrate when biochemistry is allowed to rule, when couples ignore the many blunt instructions that you never hear read from the pulpit (1 Cor 7). Ask several fallen televangelists.

  9. Rob Long
    C

    Okay, I’ll bite. James, what on earth is a “pomo-con?” And please take into consideration that although we’re thousands of miles apart, at some point you and I will be in the same room and I will throw something heavy at you if your answer even threatens to remind me of my college Comp Lit courses.

  10. katievs

    JP said: “And I think it’s right to suggest that Christian love can correct, elevate, and strengthen that moderation.”

    I had mean to point out, though, that in this context–I mean the context of sexual morality–I don’t quite see where the Aristotelian notion of moderation comes in at all. Are you calling for a “mean” between abstinence and promiscuity? Between innocence and corruption? Help me understand you better.

    ——-

    Aaron, my point, though, was that “copulation” is a repulsive and unfit term for sex between man and wife, which is an eminently personal act.

    One way to help restore some moral sanity in the world, IMHO, is to take a little care not to be gross and degrading in our way of speaking about sexuality.

  11. katievs

    I wonder whether “moderate innocence” isn’t as illusory as “moderate Islam”. I mean, not that it doesn’t exist in lots and lots of people, but that it’s too weak, undefined, and impotent to meet the real challenges we are facing. I see it as a transitional condition–a kind of halfway house between virtue and corruption.

    Human sexuality is a force that–once unleashed, as it has been–can be channelled for good only by an equally or more powerful counterforce.

    “Moderate innocence” won’t cut it. Neither will “extreme innocence”.

    We need serious LOVE. The kind that is inextricably bound up with sacrifice.

  12. Duane Oyen

    I am the wrong one to comment on this (of course, that’s never stopped me befoore….), because I believe in some pretty stringent absolutes with regard to this topic: 1) Behave. 2) Get married. 3) Copulate your brains out with Dearly Beloved, whether or not you are “in the mood”- nothing else in the world is both the adhesive and lubricant in a relationship.

    Prof. Steven Rhoads, author of the metaanalysis Taking Sex Differences Seriously said in an interview that he thought there was way too much going on before marriage and way too little afterwards. Humans always manage to screw it up (no pun intended) and get it wrong.

    I still vote for Andrew Klavan to use his influence to get Flanagan lined up for a podcast segment on the subject.

  13. Duane Oyen
    katievs: Duane (and Aaron), sorry for the name confusion there.

    I agree that the word copulation isn’t dirty. It’s a perfectly respectable way of referring to animal reproduction. My objection is that is an inadequate, unfit and degrading term when referring to sex within marriage.

    Horses and cows graze. If we say a person is grazing, we’re being deliberately pejorative.

    It’s an accurate description of the physical action. But it doesn’t quite bring across the reality of music, does it? · Jun 14 at 12:37pm

    Katie, we refer to people grazing all the time- haven’t you ever been at an in-office holiday buffet? That term is not pejorative in any sense whatever.

    And please show me etymological support for the claim that utilization of the precise correct biological term for a human physical act addressed consciously in physical terms is degrading. Other words that I do not use indeed are degrading.

    I consciously chose to avoid the hearts and flowers fluffy terminology because I was addressing a non-emotional issue that has damaged marriage by the modern understandings of individual self-actualization. I don’t see any evidence that the trend is helpful to yours or my goals in support of strong marriages.

  14. katievs

    Well, I, for one, find “grazing” pejorative. Or at best comical. It’s comical because we intuitively grasp the difference between the way animals eat and the way persons eat. Same physiological function; very different moral or spiritual reality.

    If the moral reality is the DEFINING reality of a given act, then a “correct biological term” is a bad one.

    Take a knife wound. Is it inflicted by a thief in the course of a robbery? Then it’s a stabbing. Or is in inflicted by a surgeon? Then it’s a life-saving operation.

    I could say of the surgeon who removed my ruptured appendix, “He stabbed me”.

    It would be “biologically correct”, but nevertheless false and insulting.

    I don’t know what you mean when you speak of “fluffy terminology”.

    One eats. A neutral term. Or one grazes or scarfs or dines. The words aren’t just “emotional”; they convey a particular moral reality. And sometimes they expose the moral disposition of the one who uses them.

    One dies. Neutral. Or one croaks or passes away or enters immortality.

    One has sex. Neutral. Or copulates or fornicates or consummates or procreates or embraces his spouse sexually….

    These are very different things.

  15. Brandon Zaffini

    I have to agree with Katievs. She is arguing for a sensibility she has, so her point may not have a scientific explanation or detailed etymological evidence. In any case, I share her sensibility even if others find it trifling. But I also prefer to call a girl pretty rather than sexy, so maybe I am just a young person with old ideas.

  16. James Poulos
    C
    katievs: [...] when it comes to ethics and morality, give me Plato over Aristotle.

    One of my philosophy teachers used to say, “Virtue doesn’t lie between two vices, but above them.”

    Did you catch Maureen Dowd’s piece on teaching boys to that girls on not their prey?

    Can’t say I’m a regular Dowd reader, but I do read Plato more often than Aristotle — and for a reason!

  17. Duane Oyen

    Katievs, there is no point to the discussion if you equate the term “stabbing” with regard to surgery to medically-correct physiological terminology. The surgical equivalent of the linguistically neutral term “copulate” is to make an incision, not to “stab”, which is truly more oriented toward crime than even meat-cutting. Good grief.

    And Brandon, individual sensibilites are perfectly fine as context for subjective opinions. That is not what we were talking about with regard to word definitions. And, for the record, I have never told any female alive, other than my lovely bride, that she is “sexy”. I don’t talk that way. Based on our conversation about Palin’s child neglect, we do seem to have some differences regarding women and Biblical principles, don’t we? ;-) We should go over to Ricochet Facebook and have an interesting and less constrained (to start with, more than 200 words!) discussion. We could both benefit.

  18. Brandon Zaffini

    Duane,

    I hope you have no hard feelings. I am not sure about “Ricochet Facebook,” but I sent out a friend request to you so we can talk if you wish. I am quite the “fundamentalist” you assume me to be — I even freely identify myself as a Calvinist (gasp!) — but I have a passion for theology and would be glad to discuss. Also, I am very aware of the CBE position and think the name can be misleading. Just as pro-lifers also believe in choice, people like me, who advocate the traditional covenantal understanding of the family, also believe men and women are equal in the most fundamental way. We just do not think the Bible equates familial roles.

  19. katievs

    Duane, I’m not “equating the term”, I’m using examples to try to show that there are cases and contexts in which the “physically accurate” term is a poor choice of words, because it reduces a reality whose essential structure is, I guess we could say, “super-physical” to something “merely biological”.

    At the root of the sex mess in the culture is an implicit claim that people are no different from animals.

    Brandon, thanks for getting my point.

  20. katievs

    James,

    Same here. I only read the Dowd column this week because it was linked at the Corner. :)