Beyond Sexual Capitalism
Beyond Sexual Capitalism

Beyond Sexual Capitalism

The Christian's invitation.

Appears in Summer 2021

A few months ago, a friend brought to my attention an article in Blood Knife, an online journal “about sci-fi, horror, and capitalism.” “Everyone Is Beautiful,” so the headline went, “and No One Is Horny.” Modern superhero films, argued author R.D. Benedict, so intensely fetishize the “perfect” body (well-chiselled, well-muscled, appropriately lit), achieved through an ascetic regimen of fasting, exercise, and surgical intervention, that they leave little room for characters to experience appetites of any kind. “No one is attracted to anyone else,” Benedict laments. “No one is hungry for anyone else.”

It may seem counterintuitive, from a Christian perspective, to find these words concerning. But Benedict’s wider point—that American culture is so obsessed with a certain kind of onanistic perfection that it has lost sight of the messiness and vulnerability of human desire—shouldn’t be simply an interesting footnote to an orthodox Christian account of sexual sin. Rather, her critique, and with it the understanding that certain kinds of losses of appetite can be even more dangerous than uncontrolled desire, gets to the heart of how Christians should think about sex and sin.

Benedict’s critique is the critique of a culture in which sex is almost always a form of capital, in which the use of the other and the creation of the self go hand in hand. The disembodiment of sex, which is to say the way in which it becomes about our own fears, our own pride, our own narratives about ourselves and our worth and our status, rather than about the union with those we love, is what makes this culture so dangerous. To understand disordered sex merely as a sin of untrammelled physical appetite, on par with, say, gluttony, is to misunderstand both sin and sex. Broken sex is downstream of broken culture: the broken way we relate to one another, and the broken way we understand ourselves. We do not merely, as Julia puts it in her account of the worst kind of sin in Brideshead Revisited, swap out God’s law for our own. We swap out God’s loving vision of us—each of us fearfully and wonderfully made, each of us in his image—for the instrumentalizing brutality of social and sexual capitalism.

***

Those steeped in the riches of the Christian tradition should have all the map they need to navigate this dehumanizing terrain and make it through with their souls intact and their beloveds cherished. Yet all too often, at least in the public imagination of what Christians actually think about sex, so-called Christian treatments of this sacred gift wind up resorting either to defense or to surrender in our chaotic sexual era, thereby reinforcing the mechanistic, utilitarian logic that pervades so much of modern life—just with a pious flair.

Generally speaking, today’s loudest purveyors of “Christian” sexual ethics fall into two major camps. There are those who align themselves with the traditional point of view, who understand their sexual ethics as downstream of biblical models of marriage. Within these circles, sex is often treated as a dangerous, largely animal appetite, one that must be tamed by our civilizing social institutions. Here, conversations about sexual ethics often get reduced to a strange kind of aspirational, imagistic celebration of the seemingly “right” (which is to say: heterosexual, married, fecund) model for sexual expression, which codes sex (and, in particular, sex that ends in reproduction) as a kind of reward for socially acceptable living. Once the external priors—the right kind of marriage—are satisfied, sex instantly transforms into a good.

Thus we see this phenomenon of young evangelical pastors boasting about their “smoking hot” wives—the implication being that hot sex with a conventionally attractive person is somehow a reward for premarital chastity. Or, in the Catholic context, the valorization of the successful “tradwife,” one who by her femininity and submissive devotion attracts the right kind of Catholic man.

In these renditions, sexual sin is characterized by deviation from a social norm less rooted in an understanding of marriage as a sacrament than it is in the fantasy of marriage as the pinnacle of success. Sexual purity, here, becomes little different from the kinds of physical sacrifices made through dieting, exercise, or other forms of better-self-ism: a marshmallow test of self-denial promising immanent earthly rewards. The valorization of heterosexual family life becomes a kind of prosperity gospel of sex, in which worldly and otherworldly goods are conflated.

Then there is the progressive Christian camp. Here, the conversation nervously walks around any possibility that sex could be disordered. “Consent” blots out all sins. And of course it is difficult from this perspective to talk about sinful sex, without evoking spectres of bigotry, or centuries of Christian history-in-practice in which the disorder in question referred more often to hierarchies of power than to the telos of human beings.

The progressive’s well-meaning tendency to avoid shaming, however, leads to an unwillingness to interrogate desire. The devices and desires of our own hearts, the Book of Common Prayer tells us, lead us astray; the heart, we know, is deceitful above all things. While progressive Christians are often more than willing to interrogate the culturally situated and perverted nature of desires when it comes to other structural sins in society—racism, say—when it comes to sexual desire, progressive Christian ethics too often retreats into anodyne liberalism. All checks on sexual intimacy are indistinguishable from hierarchical sexual repression; therefore, all sexual liberation—indeed, all sexual acts—falls outside the sphere that Christian life should govern.

Both visions of Christian sexual ethics are insufficient, because both fail to treat sexual sin as the inevitable culmination, in our most intimate spaces, of the broken way we exist with one another. Sexual brokenness would exist even in a hypothetical world in which all of us remained virgins until entering into heterosexual, physically monogamous, church-blessed marriages; it would exist, too, in a world of radical sex-positive liberation, where no sexual act, exchange, or partnership bore any social or cultural stigma.

Both traditionalists and hyper-progressives share a blindness about what sex is. Both treat sexual sin as a separate and distinct category—a category castigated by one camp, often overlooked by another. But the sins at play in sex are, in fact, the most extreme and intimate versions of the sins that govern our common life overall, precisely because sex is the sphere in which we are most vulnerable to another. We should see sexual sin, in other words, as the logical culmination of a warped and fallen culture: one which tells us, and which we tell in return, that human worth can be calculated by our power over others.

How can we love one another—authentically, fully, as God intended us to love—when we can barely even see one another through the morass of our own self-delusion?

Whatever we, as Christians, think of the moral status of individual sexual acts, we all too often avoid the bigger problem: the way in which we, as a culture, as a society, think about sex, period. The idea that our power to seduce (through alluring bodily perfection, through professional or financial power, through social capital) determines anything meaningful about our human dignity is a catastrophic hindrance to our ability to love one another, truly love one another, erotically—whether or not that union is licit by the standards of orthodoxy.

The warped and prideful nature of human relations, through which we create our sense of self via the effect we can produce on other people, means that we are incapable of even conceiving of one another authentically, as we really are. All too often, our love for others is only, as Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard puts it in Works of Love, “devotion to the other-I, the other-myself.” How can we love one another—authentically, fully, as God intended us to love—when we can barely even see one another through the morass of our own self-delusion?

***

It is a mistake either to assume, as many traditionalists do, that the right social or even religious institutions can automatically redeem our animalistic sexual urges, or to assume, as do many Christian progressives, that sexual desire is purely a matter of private affective exchange. It is precisely because our warped view of sex is already inextricable from our institutions, from the way we learn to see the world, and from the way we explain it to our children, that any Christian approach to sexual ethics must be a collective, not an individual effort. The greatest sexual sins do not derive from our animal instincts, but from our cultural ones.

There are, of course, the obvious targets. There is the pornography industry, with its explicit vision of disembodiment. Human bodies, then, are quite literally rendered fantasy. What is bought and sold is not flesh as such but its psychological appurtenances: the desire to conquer, to consume, to be a “big shot,” to be the sort of person who can access sex on tap. There are the self-proclaimed incels, like the Toronto driver whose 2018 van attack killed ten and injured sixteen, and their red-pill-popping men’s-rights-activist followers, who reduce the world into “alpha” and “beta” males, and the high-status “Staceys” who choose whither to bestow their favours. There are the obvious sexual predators and workplace sexual harassers.

But sin seeps in everywhere.

It is in the people who idly swipe left on Tinder, an app literally designed to create hierarchies of attractiveness by ensuring that people only see comparably “attractive” potential mates. It is in the people accustomed to “talking to” multiple partners and using each to fulfill a different emotional need; or else those who find it easy to ghost when a more attractive partner comes along. It is in the people who make films in which heroes save the kingdom and are rewarded with access to princesses; it is in powerful older men who exclusively date beautiful younger women, and in beautiful younger women who exclusively date older men. It is in the woman who has an affair because her husband does not make her feel “alive” who is susceptible to her lover’s flattery because his erotic hunger for her makes her feel beautiful, and the rest of the world tells her she is too old to feel beautiful—and it is in that same husband who neglects his wife because he associates the attentions of romance with the game of seduction, which is now obsolete. It is in the wedding-industrial complex. It is in the idea—old as Plato—that an older, wiser person’s mentorship of a younger and more inexperienced person must necessarily include bodily seduction. It is in the “starter marriage.” It is in notches on the bedpost. It is in $200-a-ticket commercial sex parties.

It is in the young, sexually voracious couple that decides to spice up their bedroom life by seeking out a “third” for threesomes—looking for a willing but disposable body to satisfy their fantasies—and also in the faithful marriage of fifty years’ standing whose participants have treated it, for fifty years, like a business partnership. It is in Hallmark cards.

It is in people who marry for money, or status, or because they want to piss off their parents, or because they want the emotional validation of having been chosen by a high-value mate from a competitive sexual marketplace. It is in offhand comments we make about “losers” and “creeps.” It is in cat-callers, and then in the mothers who tell their cat-called daughters that’s how you know you’re still beautiful. It is in Kant, characterizing marriage as a contract for the reciprocal use of one another’s genitals.

And yes, it is, too, in the young man and woman who marry one another—perhaps, even, in a church; perhaps, even, without having slept together first—quietly delighting in the fact that they have got it right, that they have succeeded, that they by their union have attained one of our culture’s brass rings. It is in every capitalistic exchange that treats human beings as currency, that treats human love and attention as commodities, that treats sexual or romantic gratification as boosters for our own self-esteem.

It is, in other words, in all of us.

I recognize myself in many of these examples. I recognize people I love in them too. None of us—no matter how well-meaning, no matter how committed to the good, no matter how in love—can ever fully disentangle our own cognition from the carnival funhouse world in which we live; all of us, furthermore, have contributed in some way, consciously or not, to the furtherance of it (the idle remark overheard; the eye-roll glimpsed; the callous breakup that has left scars on a person we do not speak to, or even that we do).

What imperfect glimpses we have of authentic love, of loving as God has called us to love, are through a dark glass.

***

Sexual capitalism is hardly exclusive to modern culture; indeed, many of its elements are all but inextricable from the collective discursive weight of how we are all taught to think about gender and sex. But the precise capitalistic disembodiment of the internet age has intensified one particular, and particularly nightmarish, element of our communal sexual dysfunction.

Porn culture—by which I mean not only the internet porn industry proper but porneia more broadly: the whole capitalistic economic system that revolves around disembodied seduction of the other, from Instagram influencers to the wider attention economy in which so many of us are caught—has divorced sensual bodily experience from its reification as mental fantasy. In so doing, it has made explicit what has always been implicit: the fundamental onanistic narcissism of bad sex. It is not only the idea that we can buy or sell simulacra—of authentic love, of real human connection—but also the fact that we would not know how to recognize authentic love or connection even if we had it, so immersed are we in the ways other people contribute to our own self-understanding.

The disembodied way in which we have lived, both during the pandemic and in its preceding years, has allowed us to treat life as a video game: to self-create by participating in an economy defined by aesthetic and emotional exchanges. What is the real difference, after all, between buying a New Yorker tote bag because you want to say something to the world about the kind of person you are, and dating the “right” kind of multi-bylined Brooklyn writer to do the very same thing? What is the difference between contributing to the OnlyFans for nudes of a woman doing sex work in the gig economy and dating a woman for her looks to impress your friends? (And is it really any less sinful, in these latter cases, whether your genitals touch in an illicit way or not?)

Meanwhile the distinctly Instagram-fuelled cult of wellness, with its fetishization of perfect bodies—bodies that are too carefully cultivated to experience any form of desire, including that of sexual contingency—transforms us into a burlesque of the angels: sexless only because a night of passion would cause us to miss our 6:00 a.m. gym class. Our bodies, too, are aesthetic commodities in service of self-making: we say something about ourselves by presenting them in a pertained way—narratives of discipline, and order, and social class, and gender and race and worth.

Modern internet culture, in other words, has added technological magic to the demonic force of capitalistic desire. It has created a parallel, illusory landscape shaped entirely by our own desires: desires that at their core are not to possess, in a sexual sense, but to be: to be different from who we are.

The traditional Christian language of sexual appetite in this schema makes little sense. It does not reflect the reality of what it means to be an erotic being inside the pornographic panopticon of late capitalism. Rather, we would do better to speak of our culture’s sexual and spiritual anorexia: our shared inability to experience givenness, to experience the physical presence of our imperfect, human bodies, to experience ourselves as made in the image of a God who became man and suffered in an imperfect, human body. In an age that stresses and fetishizes disembodiment, that through pornographic idealization and titillating advertisement alike teaches us to value the unreal body, sex—a real, physical action between real, physical people, an act of physical self-giving and recognition of one another in the profound alterity of the Thou—offers the possibility of transgression in a Christian way. It is the possibility of self-giving, of knowing another person, of honoring not the imagined pornographic body of the capitalist ideal but the real, human, fallible body in front of us. It is seeing the incarnate Christ in the body next to our own.

It is learning to desire those we love, our beloveds, not as the instantiations of generic sexual fantasy, standing in for our imagined ideal, but as they are. It is in communication—direct, honest, and loving—about what we want, and honesty about how the world’s narratives have encroached upon those desires. It is at once about being vulnerable enough to name the things we want with the person with whom we want them, and about the discretion that comes from investigating these desires’ sources. It is in the courage to ask those we love for what we long for, and the humility to listen in return. It is in the promise that something we cannot name, in those moments we cannot easily talk about, reflects the relationship between Christ and his bride: that the palpable, embodied love we experience can tell us something bigger about what we owe not just to our beloved but to that wider body Christ loves.

We would do better to speak of a collective lack of faith: in our ability to love one another, and ourselves, as God loves us: not as means to an end, not as notches on a bedpost, not as rewards for disciplined behaviour, but as we truly are.

***

At my most pessimistic, I wonder sometimes whether there is any possibility for a Christian sexual life under capitalism—whether we would not all do better to take lifelong vows of celibacy and also delete all our social media accounts. But I do not, cannot believe that there is no such thing as authentic love, nor that our bodies—our imperfect, human bodies—cannot help us to express it. I believe that our erotic hunger for God is the model for all our erotic desires; our love for God teaches us best how to love well.

We would not know how to recognize authentic love or connection even if we had it, so immersed are we in the ways other people contribute to our own self-understanding.

Both the hunger for God and the mechanisms of capitalistic desire seem to be by nature unquenchable. They are both desires that this world alone cannot, can never, fulfill. But there is one vital distinction. As Christians, we are called to believe that our hunger for God—as impossible as it may seem—will be fulfilled, that God’s grace and God’s love for us and the promise of the literal, impossible-meaning resurrection all point to a future where we are one with God, where all is reconciled; where we are no longer strangers to one another or to ourselves; where we see ourselves—and all of God’s creation—as it fully is. It is in the transformation of our bodies in the Eucharist, in the imminent hope of our resurrected bodies. It is in the promise that what we do, in loving one another, is a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Capitalistic desire, including sexual capitalistic desire, has no such hope. There is always another body to possess, another five pounds to lose, another status symbol to purchase or to seduce.

It is that hope—that in loving one another, as well as we are able; in loving one another in the hope that we will be able to see one another, one day, with the loving gaze that is also the glance of truth, in faithfully working to see one another as human beings, made in the image and likeness of God—that we can reconcile ourselves to one another.

It is for this reason that I believe that the best Christian response to sexual sin, the truest form of Christian chastity, has less to do with the specifics of any individual physical action than it does with participation in, and transformation of, a deeply disordered culture. It has to do less with how we touch one another than how we see.

Christian chastity is political. It is not political in the sense of picketing gay pride parades (and it’s worth saying here that queer scholars of all religious backgrounds have done far more vital work on the utterly broken nature of our cultural sexual wounds than many Christians). It is not political in the sense of Supreme Court cases. It is political because it is about how we live with one another.

Rather, Christian chastity demands us to assess how we speak about one another, how we reinforce—or resist—the assumptions that people’s worth has to do with the kinds of partners they can “get,” or their performance in the sexual marketplace. It has to do with the idle comments we make about people “dating down” or “punching up,” and the way we talk about the bodies of our children.

It demands that we advocate for political and economic change: that we ensure that all human beings are cared for, and able to flourish, without being pressured to make the kind of choices about love that lead us to love for the wrong reasons, or to treat love or marriage as a business contract or commercial opportunity. It demands we resist accounts of desire that tell us we are defined by what we can attain. It demands that we share with all those around us the faith that all of us are beloved children of God; that God’s love for us has nothing to do with the way the world treats us.

Christian chastity, too, entails building meaningful communities with one another—families, even—outside of bonds of sexual union: communities where the straight, the queer, the married, the unmarried, the asexual by inclination or choice, all participate together in friendship, in the joys of common life, and in the loving fostering of all children born or raised in that community. It demands we treat marriage as but one form of connection within the wider body of Christ. It demands we valorize virtuous, loving friendship—rather than narratives of seduction, possession, or attainment—as the ideal form of human connection—both outside and within marriage.

Most of all, it demands that we love: that we love radically, recklessly, dangerously, even promiscuously. It demands that we love others as God loves us—and through that love, that we learn, and teach our beloveds, to hope.


Tara Isabella Burton
 
Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novel Social Creature (Doubleday, 2018) and the non-fiction Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affars, 2020). Her next novel, The World Cannot Give, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2022. She is working on a history of self-creation, to be published by Public Affairs in 2023.

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