It’s practically axiomatic: Whenever supposedly oppressive religious limits are cast aside in order to give freer rein to individual desire, harsher and less livable imperatives emerge in their place. “Thou shalt not kill” has given way, in our age of assisted suicide, to “Thou shalt not be a burden to others”; meanwhile, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s donkey” has become “Thou shalt keep up with the Joneses.”
Perhaps nowhere, however, is the axiom more vividly illustrated today than in the realm of love, marriage, and sex, where “It is better to marry than to burn” has been replaced by “Thou shalt play it cool.”
“Young Americans are now more apt to experience and express passion for some activity, cause, or topic than for another person,” writes Mark Regnerus in a recent First Things article. That observation, made almost in passing, gets at an aspect of contemporary courtship familiar to many twenty- and thirty-somethings: the Millennial-era ban on intensity.
Strangely, this inability to express, and even to experience, passion coincides with the very conditions most theoretically favorable for doing so. Secular urban singles enjoy an untrammeled freedom to shape their love and sex lives in whatever way they please. Yet among this group, expressing strong romantic feelings is now so taboo that even (and perhaps especially) if you take a strong fancy to someone, you may be better off concealing the fact, merely out of strategic precaution. Writer Alana Massey describes a fog of “chill” that “has now slithered into our romantic lives and forced those among us who would like to exchange feelings and accountability to compete in the Blasé Olympics … Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings.”
Demonstrations of passion scare others way—that is why it is necessary to avoid them. Yet without tokens of romantic investment, long-term bonds may never materialize, and the ill-defined opening stages of love can drag on indefinitely. At least at the outset, pursuing a committed relationship today seems to require acting as if you had no desire to be in one.
This catch-22 is discernible in the individual cases Regnerus includes in both the abovementioned article and Cheap Sex, his recent book on intimacy in America. There he argues that today’s women approach sex more like men, offering easy access while demanding little in the way of commitment or sacrifice in return. For many women, this has made the path to marriage depressingly slow and rocky. It has also deprived men of a much-needed incentive to drop the PlayStation controller and grow up.
Cheap Sex shows how contraception use, Internet pornography consumption, and online dating have created an environment in which men and women struggle to develop flourishing love relationships. The lens of sexual economics, through which people appear as utility-maximizing agents exchanging resources for mutual benefit, gives the book a strong theoretical backbone. Yet that approach, whatever other virtues it may possess, is ill-suited to mapping the dynamics that result in what Massey calls “chill.” Those dynamics are the key to understanding why free love doesn’t work.
Classic literature is a better guide here. If Regnerus’s book is about the economics of sex, Shakespeare’s As You Like It offers a mini-treatise on the economics of desire—the force that draws us toward one potential mate as opposed to another. In one scene, Silvius, a young shepherd, pines after Phebe, a shepherdess whom he showers with affection. “Come not near me,” she tells him, fed up with his clinging. Rosalind, disguised as a young man, happens upon them. She calls Phebe “proud and pitiless” but also rebukes Silvius for worsening his own plight: “You are a thousand times a properer man/Than she a woman.”
‘Tis not her glass but you that flatter her,
And out of you she sees herself more proper
Than any of her lineaments can show her.
Phebe is an overhyped stock, her suitor an investor throwing good money after bad; both are dupes of a self-reinforcing process that transcends them. Rosalind tries to deflate the bubble with some brutally honest advice: “Sell when you can,” she tells Phebe, “you are not for all markets.” Someone with Phebe’s merely ordinary charm (she has beady “bugle eyeballs” and an unappealing complexion) is lucky to have an interested buyer—she should accept his offer.
But Phebe refuses. Instead, enchanted with the impudent young “man” whose disdain is in such marked contrast to Silvius’s love, she promptly falls for Rosalind: “Sweet youth, I pray you chide a year together./I had rather hear you chide than this man woo.” She’s willing to sell, in other words, but only to someone who expresses zero interest in buying.
Why should this be so? In A Theater of Envy, his 1991 book on Shakespeare, René Girard points to Phebe’s “false narcissism.” Her conceit looks at first like a mighty fortress, but is in fact a rickety teepee propped up by the fragile tent poles of Silvius’s fawning. Being so dependent on others from the start, her seemingly unshakeable self-love collapses if even just one person (Rosalind) refuses to worship her. She then starts worshipping the skeptic.
We are religious beings, Girard has argued, and Christianity has awakened infinite longings in us. Should we reject so-called organized religion, our craving for transcendence persists. Instead of resting in God, our restless hearts fasten to others. We try to prove our own invulnerability—to divinize ourselves, essentially—by adopting a pose of detachment that will get them interested in us. If we succeed, we move on, disenchanted; if we fail, we obsess over whoever snubbed us. The rejection of Christianity, in other words, far from diminishing the amount of irrationality in our desires, has a tendency to increase it dramatically.
“This mad pursuer of independence is very dependent on the admiration others give to his independence,” writes Dietrich von Hildebrand of a type that he calls the “haughty soul.” Our transcendence-starved pride invites others to admire how little we care about them, yet is horribly fascinated by anyone who cares less than we do. False narcissism is the pose of blasé people who seem incapable of summoning enthusiasm for anything outside their own self-contented egos, but who can’t stop checking their phones if someone doesn’t reply right away to a text.
This infernal if-you-like-me-I-don’t-like-you bind is, I suspect, one major reason why women tend to (in Regnerus’s words) “waste” sex on men who are at best ambivalent about getting into anything long-term, and why men like Silvius so often seek romance from women who disdain them. The self-divinizing quest leads to wanting what you can’t have, and to having what you don’t want. In the long run it is the route to psychological enslavement.
It is instructive to compare the scene from As You Like It to Regnerus’s profile of twenty-five-year-old Nina, whose string of failed relationships he discusses in both his book and the First Things article. Her case not only shows how perilous American women’s route to the altar has become—it also hints at a pattern of desire similar to the one in Shakespeare.
“She had a history of putting men she valued as confidantes in the ‘friend zone,’” Regnerus writes. “With these men, a sexual relationship seemed too risky. If it went awry, she’d lose not only a potential mate but also a valued friend. On the other hand, if she didn’t know the man well, she was willing to have casual sex while hoping for something more.”
It takes some reading between the lines to extract Nina’s likely actual motives from this account, which implausibly frames her history of friend-zoning confidantes and sleeping with strangers as the outcome of careful cost-benefit analysis. It’s more reasonable to think that she denies sex to her confidantes not because she values them so highly as friends, but because she values them so little as potential lovers. As for her casual sex partners, they’re obviously the ones she truly esteems, since she both gives them sex and hopes “for something more.”
In short, what Regnerus’s thumbnail sketch of her love life implies, but is too beholden to the methodology of sexual economics to articulate, is that Nina’s whole sense of value—much like Phebe’s in As You Like It—is bizarrely skewed, as if she were under a spell that rendered her sexually indifferent to the men who appreciate her, and eager to sleep with the ones who don’t.
When we abandon what Massey calls “the language of courtship and desire” and transform love relations into a free market, we imagine a self-regulating carousel of exchanges where available people find each other, mutually declare interest, and pair off, either for sex or something serious. Supply and demand align. Instead, we get something more muddled and fraught. Lasting connections emerge; one-night stands happen. But in the no man’s land of dating, singles tend to see-saw between unsatisfying extremes, bored and distant one day, infatuated with someone elusive the next, as if living inside some modern remake of Shakespeare.
That pattern sucks passion out of the mating dance and breeds mistrust and inhibition. Soon people start to understand the mechanism of attraction so well that their behavior changes in an effort to tip the scales. Once they figure out that doting nice guys have little chance with women like Nina, men pose as seductively aloof and casual. And once women realize that coming on too strong gets them nowhere, they do the same. “Chill” is the effect of multiple simultaneous attempts to captivate through an elaborate display of nonchalance.
Throwing out religious rules against pre-marital sex, adultery, and divorce was supposed to let individuals guide their own love and sex lives. But laissez-faire is foundering. Although free in principle, and eager to pass as such, single people are anxious and inhibited. For many, Internet dating is proving an onerous chore. And even married couples are apparently having less sex than previous generations (this is what Regnerus calls “the demise of eros”).
The modern Lake Cocytus of chill allows us to understand, perhaps too late, that the seemingly arbitrary and repressive religious boundaries that once corseted our love lives had a reason to exist, were not in fact so arbitrary and repressive as they appeared. In the absence of those benevolent limits, we are now discovering the downside of unchecked freedom. So long as we grasp at total independence, we are condemned to act as if we were free. But this is just another way of saying that we remain enslaved to one another. “[S]ex is never cheap,” concludes Rachel Lu in a review of Regnerus’s book in these pages. Today’s single people are learning this lesson at their own expense.
Trevor C. Merrill is the author of The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard.