The Magazine

Instant Sex

And the sad demise of romantic love.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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A middle school in Portland, Maine, decided recently that it would hand out birth-control pills to girls as young as 11; no parental consent required. Strippers were invited to participate (fully clothed) in this year's "Haunted Halloween Carnival Benefit" at a New York City middle school. Complaints were received and the strippers were, reluctantly, disinvited. (For this year.) And the list goes on.

I don't have to spell out the nature of sexual conduct in the world of older children and young adults nowadays. School and college authorities who used to discourage casual sex have long since decided that they dare not seem prudish, reactionary, envious, antiquated--or (worst of all) religion-minded, an attitude that everyone knows is unconstitutional. Besides, they can't see anything wrong with the proposition. Any young person who doesn't like the instant sex world can stay on the sidelines (the thinking goes), and as for the rest--the uninhibited majority--casual sex is not expensive, not fattening, and apparently (relief!) not damaging to the young couple's carbon footprint. So what could be better? Instant Sex (if you "take precautions") is a gift of unmitigated pleasure.

But many of us know that these pleasures are dipped in poison. The moral problems are most important, and have often been discussed. Let's consider a different aspect of the same phenomenon: the ongoing slow death of romantic love, with all the horrible consequences that follow.

Instant sex and romantic love can't coexist any more than hurricanes and forest fires. One drives out the other. ("Romantic love" meaning the act of falling in love and the consequent state of mind.)

Why can't they coexist? Because, just as green leaves transform sunlight to useful energy in a process called photosynthesis, human beings transform longing for an adored object into a heightened state of consciousness in a process called falling in love. Thwarted sexual desire is nearly as necessary to young people as food and shelter. Premarital, premature sex drains the power reserve that would have propelled them into emotional (versus mere physical) adulthood.

Nowadays many of us naively believe that falling in love and jumping into bed are independent events. You sleep with people you don't love, and admire people you don't sleep with; but certainly if you do happen to fall in love, sex ought to follow as promptly as dental work follows a toothache.

But this innocent, ignorant view defies a fundamental law of human nature: Keeping steady company with a person you adore plus not sleeping with her (or him) yields "being in love," which is a new state of mind that is more than the sum of its parts.

(To love someone is not the same as falling in love or being in love, or romantic love for short. We love our wives and husbands as much as ever. But being in love is a high-energy state that the mind can't possibly maintain beyond a certain time-limit without collapsing. Romantic love boosts you into orbit, burning a huge amount of psychological fuel in the process. Loving is of course just as necessary as being in love; it soothes instead of inflaming, and makes for happiness instead of ecstatic pain.)

By creating a world in which instant sex is the norm, we have made it vastly harder for young people to fall well-and-truly in love. Yet being in love is a protean state with remarkable characteristics that change the human mind forever. It underlies much of Western art, and certain aspects of religion. It is a painful but powerful state, a psychological crisis that used to be resolved (if you were lucky) by marriage--which breached the dam, released the built-up flood, and allowed a new and higher level of normality to return.

How does one learn about this abnormal state? Merely glance at a few thousand years of Western literature.

Genesis 29, for example, tells us that Jacob fell in love with Rachel, and it was agreed that he should have her after working seven years for her father. So he worked the seven years--which "seemed to him like a few days in his love for her."

How's that again? Everyone knows this passage (or used to), but to modern minds, it can only seem bizarre. How could seven long years pass faster insofar as you are living in the same household with a beautiful girl you desperately desire but are forbidden to take to bed? Wouldn't every day be torture? And how could the ordeal be easier insofar as you and the girl are crazy about each other? Wouldn't that only make things worse? Wouldn't those seven years have passed like centuries, not days?

But Jacob was in love--an increasingly unfamiliar state. Still, we must try to understand. Otherwise we will never grasp the crime we are committing against our own children.