Divine Sex Part 3: Sex in a Culture of Consumerism

In my last post (part 2 of the series), I looked at Jonathan Grant’s argument that “expressive individualism” has had a destructive impact on our culture’s sexual ethic. The frequency of sex outside of marriage, serial monogamy, widespread and increasingly hard core pornography, and high-divorce rates are all evidence of a culture that lacks, indeed mocks, almost all moral constraints on sexual expression. Our culture sees “sexual expression…as a fundamental right” (p. 140) and tempers it only with consensuality and a be-true-to-yourself ethic. It promises the good life, but by various scientific measurements—rates of depression, loneliness, addictions, anxiety, sexual addictions, and sexual dysfunctions—it hasn’t delivered it.

Along with expressive individualism, Grant also considers how consumerism has shaped our culture’s sexual ethic. Consumerism considers nothing but the individual and isn’t concerned about the unforeseen ramifications of making, selling, and buying a product. As Rob Bell rightly says:

Just convince people they need to buy it, not if it’s good for them, or good for the world, or if the employees who helped make it—it’s a fair and equitable wage—or if it’s good for the environment, or what it says about what it means to be human, or what it does to other tribes who produce it so this tribe can consume it; just tell them they need it (Robcast episode 123 “Wisdom Part 7: The Simple and the Subtle”).

Our consumeristic and hypersexualized cultures are not kissing cousins but incestuous lovers. Or in Grant’s words:

Modern consumerism both exploits and distorts our sexual natures, making consumerism and sexualization powerful partners. Within this nexus, promises of sexual fulfillment sell almost everything by evoking our longing for transcendence and then, in a move of substitution, channeling that desire into a consumer product. This formative process affirms us as sexual beings but turns us into sexualized consumers (pp. 76-77).

Grant identifies two specific areas where consumerism and sexuality plays out. First, through consumerism, sexual relationships have become detached from their original design as interconnected with other relationships, marriage, and children. Sexual expression and fulfillment are viewed as ends in themselves—just be true to who you are—rather than a part of a greater and more beautiful network of relationships.

Second, consumerism fosters “serial monogamy.” Most people still believe that having multiple partners at the same time is wrong and that being faithful to one is praiseworthy. But the number of faithful relationships is largely irrelevant.

This clearly lines up with the disciplines encouraged by our culture’s consumerist matrix. Within this environment we are trained to desire things but also to remain aloof from the very products and services that promise us fulfillment…We salivate over the latest smartphone, but only until it is usurped by a slimmer and more loaded model. And so with relationships. The consumerist self is taught to seek the most features for the lowest price, as well as to hold open all future options. (p. 81).

Somewhat related to consumerism’s influence on modern sexuality is the surprising influence of technology. Grant explores the pros and cons of the online dating phenomenon (pp. 88-95), but the most interesting section in Grant’s book (maybe “interesting” isn’t the best word) is his section: “Embracing Erotic Robots: The Future of Technological Intimacy” (pp. 84-88).

Basically, sex with robots.

In 2008, David Levy published a book with HarperCollins called ove and Sex with Robots. In it, Levy argued that by 2050 sexual intimacy with robots will be just as common as sex with another human. And Levy doesn’t see this as a bad thing. Having a sexual relationship with a robot can produce a more creative sex life, it can enhance our human relationships since we can practice with a robot, and robotic relations avoid the risks of a human relationship: infidelity, illness, conflict, and the possibility of unwanted children (p. 84). “For Levy, the only question we should ask is, ‘Does the robot make me happy?’” (p. 84).

No risk of infidelity, heartache, pain, suffering, children, conflict. Our culture’s sexual values are directly transferable to having sex with robots.

MIT sociologist Sherry Turckle wrote a critical review of Levy’s book and received some angry responses by other readers who criticized her of “species chauvinism” (p. 84). (No, seriously.) Turckle expressed her disagreement with Levy at a conference, and one audience member candidly disagreed with her saying that she would love to trade in her boyfriend for a Japanese robot, since she was looking for a “no risk relationship” and a “responsive robot, even one just exhibiting scripted behavior, seemed better to her than a demanding boyfriend” (p. 85). Turkle thought the girl was joking around with her. She wasn't. 

I don’t think Grant’s point is to be unnecessarily provocative or to imbibe his discussion with freakish extremes. I think he’s simply trying to show how shallow and inconsistent our culture’s sexual ethic really is, and how it cannot deliver the flourishing life it promises. At least—a flourishing life with a fellow human.

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog series that consensuality is an inadequate moral guideline for sexual expression. Grant says: “The only moral constraint our culture seems to accept in this area is that sexual expression between ‘adults’ should be free and consensual, without any force or manipulation” (p. 98). But consensuality alone is an inadequate guide for sexual flourishing. Let’s explore this a bit further before we log off.

Of course consensuality is part of God’s design for sexual relations. No one should have sex with another human against their will. Consensuality isn’t wrong; it’s simply unable to provide the moral framework to produce true human flourishing in sexuality, since even our individual choices and desires are shaped by our complex and not-so-moral environment. Two porn stars (or three, or four) can have consensual sex (see page 62 for a gritty example). A prostitute and her buyer can have consensual sex, but that doesn’t mean their sexual expression has no impact on themselves or on society. An insecure 16 year old girl may consent to sex with her boyfriend for all the wrong reasons. A faithful wife my submit to her husband’s request, or demand, for anal sex for wrong reasons too. We live in a complex web of influences and psychological pressures. No decision is made in a vacuum. Consensuality isn’t bad; it’s just not enough. And it doesn’t provide the moral framework to say that having sex with your robot—or both of them if you can afford two—is wrong.

Consensuality is one leg of the sexual-ethic-stool that leads to the good life. All good sex should be consensual, but not all consensual sex is part of human flourishing. 

The fact is, the Christian story integrates more than consensuality in its vision for sex and human flourishing. In our next post, we’ll articulate what this Christian vision is—according to Jonathan Grant.