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Children of the Porn

REVIEW: ‘Rethinking Sex: A Provocation’ by Christine Emba

Rape of the Sabine Women by Sebastiano Ricci via Wikimedia Commons
• April 24, 2022 5:01 am

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If pandemic exhaustion, galloping inflation, and talk of World War III haven’t yet gotten you down, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation might do the trick. This is not the fault of author Christine Emba, whose prose in this short book is stylish, engaging, and, above all, earnest. No, what depresses is the fact that this manifesto should have to exist in the first place. But exist it must, for reasons that its pages make excruciatingly clear.

Based upon a 2017 #MeToo piece published in the Washington Post, where Emba is a columnist, Rethinking Sex performs the public service of wondering aloud whether everything done by "consenting adults" is by definition ducky. To the contrary, myopic focus on "consent," as the author observes, overlooks the sulfurous realities of today’s mating market. Once, noncriminal but still noxious sexual misdeeds would have resulted in social ostracism, or frontier justice meted out by male relatives—or both. Now, thanks to the slithering of pornography into young pockets everywhere, such acts have not only been normalized. Judging by an eye-opening number of the book’s anonymous stories, they have in some cases become the sine qua non of male company itself.

"She really didn’t like the choking, Kirsten explained, but she really liked him." This sentence, which ought to have been the book’s subtitle, captures the awfulness afoot in one swoop. Several recent studies cited by the author prove the nauseating point: More and more women consent to sex only to endure unexpected violence after saying yes. The example of choking is just for starters. Other grotesqueries won’t be shared in this publication. Suffice it to say that among some subset of today’s men, verbal and physical abuse have apparently become the new candy and flowers.

Emba performs another civic mitzvah in saying aloud that there is something wrong with this picture, thus giving permission to other women (and men) who think the same. The crux, as she writes, is that "consent" can be misused to justify anything, including nonconsensual sadism—because in the new order of things, "abuse can be hidden or left uninterrogated as someone’s private ‘kink.’" Assuming the book’s accounts are representative—and there is no reason to think otherwise—today’s mating scene makes Hugh Hefner & Co. look vanilla.

"We’re Liberated, and We’re Miserable," as the title of one chapter summarizes. Author Emba also transgresses by suggesting that right and wrong might apply even in the time of Tinder; in the words of another chapter title, "Some Desires are Worse than Others." Not surprisingly, the message has received pushback in the New York Times, and elsewhere, for menacing the holy bovine of "sex positivity"—as if "sex positivity" amounts to anything more than putting up with your guy watching porn and trying gross things out on you while you pretend not to care.

As it happens, the problem Emba identifies has an older name, delivered in a different context by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1993: "defining deviancy down." Though Rethinking Sex cites other authorities, it neglects most of the contrarian thinkers whose insights might have enriched its argument. Similarly, care is taken not to offend LGBTQ minorities, BDSM minorities, or anyone else with the power to hurl a scarlet "C" for "cancel." Even the people-eating community comes in for gingerly treatment: "If someone can only get off via fantasizing about hurting their sexual partner, mutilating them and drinking their blood, isn’t that at least worth a few hard questions?"

The gambit seems to be that by standing well to the left of social conservatism, the book might manage a hearing among non- and anti-traditionalists, rather than just the choir. Rote though this kind of fastidiousness can be, let’s hope that it pays off.

For as Rethinking Sex affirms, young women today face threats of a new order—chiefly in the form of that force multiplier like no other, omnipresent pornography. In a world where a minority of bad men run riot in the sexual marketplace, and get away with it in the name of "positivity," it’s small wonder that some women flee heterosexuality for something else—or, say, that the lion’s share of transgender surgeries are performed on young women, obliterating the organs and features that attract the male gaze.

Once, the price of living with men included doing their dishes and raising their children. As part of that deal, what might be called "spouses with benefits" became a thing. Many thereby managed to ease into death and old age together, surrounded by loving faces. Today, by contrast, with sex "always on the table," as the author observes, the joys of motherhood and fatherhood and lifelong companionship have become luxury goods that few young adults seem to know how to buy; amazingly, in this book that is all about sex, hardly anyone mentions marriage or children. Outside certain vibrant religious subcultures, mass confusion reigns, and stone-cold abuse becomes rationalized as mere collateral damage. As the author puts it, paraphrasing the thoughts of the choked interviewee, "it was the bargain one made in order to leap off the dating app carousel into the arms of an otherwise great guy."

Who’s to blame for this mess?

Singer Billie Eilish, who has spoken movingly of how pornography poisoned her world from the age of 11 onward, has described its appeal as making her feel "like one of the guys." In an irony to which no one has yet done justice, feminism long ago made the same devilish deal. By declaring women and children to be natural enemies, and writing that declaration in blood, the movement not only let a minority of predatory men run the sexual show ever after. It also cozied up to cads and deviants, as the feminist paeans on the occasion of Hefner’s death proved in full.

Who isn’t to blame for this mess is a different story, and one that history will someday acknowledge. It includes people who have been saying for a long time now that pornography is destroying romance—only to be dismissed as prudes and freaks. It includes religious believers who believe that sex is sacred, related to procreation, and made for marriage—only to be excoriated as haters and "phobes." The Catechism of the Catholic Church may yet win the biggest I-told-you-so award of all time.

Though Rethinking Sex scants such assets, the conversation it opens still hath need of them. Meanwhile, kudos to its author for a bold and potentially game-changing break with secular orthodoxy about sex.

Rethinking Sex: A Provocation
By Christine Emba
Sentinel, 224 pp., $27

Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center, and is a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.

Published under: Book reviews