A New Generation of Conservative Thought

Our masturbation society

By Dr. Grace Vuoto
November 30, 2010

According to a November 18 poll by the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of the 2,691 respondents said that marriage is becoming obsolete. America still has the highest marriage rate in the Western world, but the results of this survey are nonetheless alarming. The root cause of this marriage meltdown is that we have created a masturbation society.

In 1978, Time magazine conducted a similar survey and found that 28 percent of respondents viewed marriage as obsolete. There is no denying how sharply our attitudes are changing toward an institution that has been the cornerstone of Western civilization for centuries. Also, less Americans are getting married: 52 percent were married in 2008 compared to 72 percent in 1960. In addition, one out of every two American marriages ends in divorce and four out of every ten children are currently born to a single mother. It is little wonder that Americans are pondering whether marriage is obsolete.

Indeed, the family structure has been steadily crumbling for more than three decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the rate of cohabitation has doubled since 1990, now at 44 percent. Among adults between the ages of 30 to 44, more than half cohabitated before marriage—and 64 percent of these saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage.

Moreover, the definition of family has changed. The Pew survey found that 86 percent said that a single parent and child is a family; 80 percent said a couple that cohabitates and has a child is a family and 63 percent said a same-sex couple raising a child is a family. Less than half of respondents accept same-sex marriage as legitimate too.

This does not mean that Americans do not like or want marriage, but many have concluded that it is an “old-fashioned” institution that might work for a few, but will not work for many—certainly not one partner for one lifetime. There is widespread cynicism; it is not possible, insist many Americans, to remain married “’til death do us part.”

The root cause of the current crisis is that traditionalists have lost, in the public square at least, every major argument of substance regarding marriage since the early 19th century. The first pillar that was conceded is that marriage is fundamentally about love—that is, romantic love. The romance novels of the early 19th century assaulted the notion that marriage is a social institution with a primarily social function. Once the idea of love took hold of marriage, the institution was by all practical purposes on its death bed. Since humans are fickle and weak, they are inconsistent in their ability to love. If marriage hinges on love, it is like a ship with a torn sail: it is only a matter of time before the boat crashes upon the rocks.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the modernist movement perpetuated the idea that civic virtue was less important than individual fulfillment—and that romantic love and sexual passion are the height of individual fulfillment. The focus of life was redefined: fulfilling individual relationships rather than making basic social contributions is the goal of life; the personal story was viewed as the only journey worth taking. In addition, Freudian analysts began to perpetuate the belief that “sex is necessary to good health.” From the 1920s onwards, sexuality was redefined from being a pleasure of life to an indispensable component to good physical and psychological health: if one was not sexually active and satisfied that was a dangerous state of “repression.” Hence, self-control, once seen as a great virtue, was now regarded as a vice. The truly healthy person was one without sexual “inhibitions.”

Hence, by this time, the romantic idea that marriage was about love was gradually changed to being that marriage was about individual fulfillment—and especially, sexual fulfillment. The modernists had decoupled marriage and society and the Freudians, perhaps inadvertently, took this a step further by decoupling sex and marriage.

By the 1960s, the sexual revolution was unleashed upon the world: “Me, myself and I must be sexually fulfilled at all times.” This became the new mantra. Sex and marriage were no longer seen as inextricably linked. Increasingly, sex became a primary end goal, whether in or out of marriage.

Yet, by the 1970s, it was clear that if sex is the new barometer of individual fulfillment and the basis of marital commitment, then the problem must be marriage itself because an exclusive focus on sex requires endless experimentation—that, by definition, will be constrained and limited by marriage. In addition, women were taught that as they sought equality in the workplace and society at large, they must have sexual equality too: Women were empowered with their own orgasms. One of the essential conditions of marriage became the female orgasm.

The female orgasm, however, has taken a life of its own. By the 1980s, sex therapists like Dr. Ruth Westheimer, known simply as “Dr. Ruth,” took to the radio airwaves to tell women that if they did not experience an orgasm in sexual intercourse, then they should learn to pleasure themselves. In one instance, a young woman called to tell her that she tried that and then began to cry inexplicably after the act; Dr. Ruth said that was simply a hormonal reaction and not to give those tears too much importance. It did not occur to Dr. Ruth that perhaps the young woman’s conscience and self-regard had broken through in tears, even if for just a moment.

Hence, by the 1990s, even the idea of sexual fulfillment within marriage was gradually eroded as it was only logical that many would conclude that one can get sexual fulfillment alone—perhaps better, faster and more often than with a spouse. This is the ultimate “safe sex” and the ultimate consequence-free sex. The explosion in Internet pornography by the late 1990s and in the 2000s is in essence a manifestation of an ultimate fixation not with the opposite sex’s body parts, but with one’s own body parts. A society of masturbators must also be a society that supports same-sex relations: masturbation is the quintessential homo-sexual act.

We thus now have an entire generation of young people that are obsessed with their own body parts. Never before, in the history of this nation, have we had such a widespread masturbation craze. A recent survey of more than 3,000 students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that 83.7 percent of respondents said that it is not wrong, while 7 percent said it is more complicated than that, 1.7 percent were not sure and 4.6 percent said it is wrong. A survey in The Journal of Sexual Medicine released in October found that 84 percent of men between 25 and 29 had masturbated within the last year and 74 percent of women had done so.

Thus, when a Pew Research survey reveals that more Americans view marriage as obsolete or cannot even define it, it is not surprising. The key word to marriage is not love: it is God. When we took that out of the marriage equation beginning in the 19th century, it was only a matter of time before we would end up staring at our own genitals as a way of life.

The key point is that we have strayed so far from basic Christian principles that a Christian vocabulary almost sounds like a foreign language. The purpose of life is salvation not satisfaction; marriage is a sacrament—not a contract— meant to guide two people closer to God rather than to themselves; children are a manifestation of that sacred union; sexuality is one of many means whereby the couple and the family’s unity is forged. In order to achieve this blessed state, the youth must be taught, before they even think about marriage that God is to be the focus of their lives and that only a loving spouse should touch their sexual organs. Any deviation from this is a rejection of the divine will—as transmitted through the Bible.

The earliest Christian teachings warned against “lust”—the indulgence of sexual activity outside marriage. Jesus taught his followers that to indulge in sexual fantasies is a form of adultery; that is, even to look at another person as a sexual figure is profoundly wrong. The Church Fathers like the martyr Ignatius of Antioch defined marriage as a bulwark against lust: "It becomes both men and women who marry,” he wrote in a letter in the 2nd century “to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust."

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, penned a remarkable explanation of marriage in 410 titled “On the Good of Marriage.” He explains that married people help one another toward their salvation in part by practicing the discipline of self-control: “Therefore married persons owe one another not only the faith of their sexual intercourse itself, for the begetting of children, which is the first fellowship of the human kind in this mortal state; but also, in a way, a mutual service of sustaining one another's weakness, in order to shun unlawful intercourse: so that, although perpetual continence be pleasing to one of them, he may not, save with consent of the other.” In other words, the practice of faithfulness among spouses is a testing ground of their faithfulness to God.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between marriage and lust. But try explaining this to the four in ten Americans who view marriage as obsolete—and to the one out of two adults who are divorced— and they will look at you like you have descended in a spaceship from Mars. This is the clearest sign of how badly Christians have failed in upholding our most sacred beliefs in the public square.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.