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.

Another famous passage sounds even stranger. "If music be the food of love, play on," says the (admittedly histrionic) Duke Orsino at the start of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. "Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die." Once again there is a beautiful girl in the picture, the Countess Olivia--who refuses to let Orsino see or speak to her, much less touch her. But if Orsino longs desperately to have and to hold and to bed this beauty, what does music have to do with it? Music has long been considered an aphrodisiac; what Orsino needs is a cold shower. In any case, how could he possibly believe that his desire for Olivia could be satisfied (surfeited even) by music instead of by her?

But romantic love is an abnormal state of mind, a state of heightened imagination and sensitivity powered by the rich fuel of adoration plus desire, like kerosene plus liquid oxygen--rocket fuel. As Silvius explains (As You Like It, act 5, scene 2), to be in love "is to be all made of faith and service,  .  .  .  All made of passion, and all made of wishes, / All adoration, duty and observance, / all humbleness, all patience, and impatience." This is romantic comedy, not reality; but it rings true. James Joyce updates the file with a description of Stephen Dedalus in love (Dedalus being Joyce's own image mirrored in the bright surface of prose poetry in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916): "Towards dawn he awoke. O what sweet music! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge."

In olden times, before the culmination of America's Revolution of the Intellectuals in the late 1960s, not everyone was lucky enough to have the experience. But many were. "They say everybody is in love once in their lives," says Jane Austen's heroine Emma, in a businesslike mood.

Men and women were equally susceptible. Rosalind tells her cousin Celia (As You Like It, act 4, scene 1), "My pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love!" One of the loveliest lines in English. But women in love used to demand more than men did before they said yes to marriage and its consequences. When Rosalind (disguised as someone else) asks her lover Orlando (modern students are sometimes surprised to hear that "lover" did not always mean "sexual partner"), "Now tell me how long you would have her after you have possess'd her"--how long you would be faithful to your wife--she expects and requires the answer Orlando so memorably returns: "For ever and a day."

Some will dismiss this as mere romantic mythmaking and irrelevant. They should look into the attitudes of American women circa 2007. Those attitudes resemble Rosalind's far more than they do those of Simone de Beauvoir.

Of course, Rosalind wielded power over her demanding lover that no modern woman has. (And men can be demanding. "I do know, / When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul / Lends the tongue vows," Polonius tells Ophelia in ordering her to ignore her aspiring lover [Hamlet, act 1, scene 3].) But peer pressure used to support the girl who said no, or said "Marry me first, so I can make a safe home for our children"--not the young man and his burning blood who said "Sex first, and marriage (yawn) when I'm in the mood. Maybe." None of her girlfriends, boyfriends, or elders were telling Rosalind, "Go ahead; everybody does it." Nor could Orlando have told her, "If you won't, Celia will." And no officious busybodies were handing out birth-control pills to young girls in the Forest of Arden.

Modern feminism has driven women out of this old world into a nightmare, an upside-down Arden where men hold all the cards and women are expected to want what men want, see as men see, and do what men do. In the war between the sexes, feminism has decreed unilateral disarmament for women.

What happens when you do fall in love? What is this heightened state "of patience and impatience" good for? If you are Keats you compose odes, "lines," and sonnets to your love. ("Yourself--your soul--in pity give me all, / Withhold no atom's atom or I die.") If you are Schumann, you write the great C major Fantasia. Even Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing (act 5, scene 2), who is in love but "cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried," manages to fashion a "halting sonnet"--for "what love can do, that dares love attempt!" says Romeo (act 2, scene 2), and he ought to know.

If you are Stephen Dedalus you write a gorgeous villanelle with the reader looking over your shoulder. ("Are you not weary of ardent ways? / Tell no more of enchanted days.") If you are the great 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell pining for the young Lauren Bacall, you build her a beautiful, mysterious microcosm--a "Cornell box." And if you are Orlando, you perform the quintessential act of romantic homage: You repeat your love's name wherever, whenever you can. Orlando carves "Rosalind" on tree trunks and posts her name in love poems all over the forest. Granted, he is so much in love that "neither rhyme nor reason can express how much" (act 3, scene 2); but his desire to proclaim his love's name--to "hallow your name to the reverberant hills, / And make the babbling gossip of the air cry out 'Olivia!' " (as a different lover puts it in Twelfth Night, act 1, scene 5)--is thoroughly normal.

But if you are no poet, composer, or artist of any kind, you nonetheless prick up your ears and open your eyes and see, think, and feel more acutely than you ever did before. (Hence Orsino-in-love hears and feels music differently than he used to.) Your reactions to art now will shape your relation to art for the rest of your life.

To be in love underlies some aspects of religion too; if you have never been in love (living as you do in this age of instant sex), there are aspects of Judaism and Christianity you will never understand. The virgin in love with higher things than man is a powerful symbol in Catholicism; we know that, being a virgin, she can fall in love. In Judaism the picture is different--the "holy woman" is never the virgin, always the bride; and as it happens, no woman is honored and loved by practicing Jews to this day more than Rachel herself, the bride of Jacob. Yet "being in love" is a rabbinic model for many fundamental relations--between Jews and the Sabbath, Jews and the Torah, a prophet and his God, the Jews and their God. For both Judaism and Christianity, father and son, the brief biblical book called the Song of Songs--a masterpiece of erotic Hebrew folk-poetry--has been astoundingly important. But that's another story.

I have mentioned the explosive change in consciousness that romantic love creates. Jane Austen shows us a different facet of the same phenomenon. Her novels center, mostly, on prolonged romantic love that is one-sided at first but finally wins through--Darcy's for Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Fanny Price's for Edmund (Mansfield Park), Knightley's for Emma (Emma), Catherine Morland's for Tilney (Northanger Abbey), Anne Elliot's for Went-worth (Persuasion). Such prolonged, one-sided love is hard to endure, but eventually the spiritual forces it brings to bear are so enormous, they can actually twist a human personality into a new shape. In Persuasion, her last and greatest novel, Jane Austen writes of Captain Wentworth that Anne Elliot's character "was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself . . . ; but he was obliged to acknowledge that only at Uppercross had he learnt to do her justice, and only at Lyme had he begun to understand himself."

Of course the cost of romantic love runs high. "Love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame" (Song of Songs 8:6). Hamlet gives "the pangs of despis'd love" (act 3, scene 1) as one good reason so many people wish they had the nerve to kill themselves. The most haunting reckoning-up might be (fittingly enough) in Twelfth Night (act 2, scene 4), the celebrated passage where Viola (disguised as someone else) describes to the duke her lovesick "sister"--but is actually speaking about herself. She has fallen in love with Orsino, who is still in love with Olivia, who still can't stand him. "What's her history?" Orsino asks Viola about this imaginary sister. The answer is,

A blank, my lord. She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm I' the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief.

Love is a brutal business; but you knew that already.

Finally, qualifications. Romantic love is not dead, and God willing never will be; it is merely gasping for breath. Even instant sex cannot eliminate it altogether. A couple who sleep together can still be in love. Picasso was a modern Orlando, in a way; he repeatedly wrote his girlfriend and sexual partner Eva Gouel into his Cubist paintings, by including the words "Ma Jolie," referring to her--"my own pretty girl"; and once he included the phrase "J'aime Eva." But this kind of being-in-love compares to the real thing as a candle-flame to a forest fire. It can't possibly have the volcanic intensity of presexual love because it lacks the huge power of blocked passion.

Experience suggests (fair is fair) that a few casual, premature sexual encounters at the whorehouse level, with persons you couldn't possibly love and never count on meeting again, can't do much damage to your capacity for romantic love. (I am speaking only about aesthetics and psychology, not morals.)

And of course there are dissidents nowadays, young men and women--heroes and heroines--who refuse to be part of the instant-sex world. They still have a crack at the thing itself, undiluted. But the cynical nihilism of modern life, especially on campus, is a grim, pelting rainstorm that makes it hard to light a fire and keep it going.

Will we ever get our old world back? Never. One of the first lessons the Bible teaches is that forbidden fruit once tasted can never be untasted. (And the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil"--Genesis 2:17--might well have more to do with sexual knowledge than the textual surface lets on. Consider what Adam and Eve do first as soon as they are exiled from Eden. Consider, as many commentators have pointed out, the Hebrew word-play between arum, clever [as a talking snake] and airum, naked.) But at least those dissidents who refuse to heed the talking snake will grow in number and confidence; and we will hear from them.

Am I a hypocrite to write this piece? Back in the 1970s and early '80s, matters now taken for granted were not treated quite so casually. (Not quite.) So things were different. But those are weak words. We had fun, and never thought twice about where this society was headed. Nor would we have acted differently if we had. We who now have children in high school or college are as guilty as any other party to this tragedy; perhaps guiltier. We thought we were opening a window and letting in some fresh air. What we actually let in was more like the Black Death.

So we turn to the end of Romeo and Juliet.

Heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

And I for winking at your discords too

Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.

David Gelernter, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of computer science at Yale.