First Things First: Sexual Equality Just Is

I am a liberal Christian, but I generally think well of First Things as a publication by and for smart conservative Christians. I don’t expect to agree with everything I find in it, but I do expect its authors to make strong arguments, informed by the best thinking of Western religious traditions. First Things is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life “to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that…faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.”

So I was astonished by Mark Regnerus’s laughable piece, “The Death of Eros,” which makes an entirely secular (and frankly tired) argument against equality between the sexes. While I might suspect that religious commitments are lurking in the silent background of his motivations, they have no apparent influence on his rationale or rhetoric. He relies instead on the authority of social science, to the exclusion of Christian or any other theological authorities.

The purpose of his article is to address a horrible trend: that Americans are having less sex than they used to. Now, if Regnerus were making an openly Christian argument, he might have a hard time explaining why this is a bad thing. Although every evangelical pastor in America today must have a beautiful wife to put on ostentatious display (preferably with a brood of beautiful babies), sexual pleasure was until recently viewed by most Christian thinkers as a distraction from the more important life of the spirit. Saints no less than Augustine and Aquinas were clear that sex existed for procreation, with companionship (begrudgingly) as a secondary purpose.

Following Jesus’ own path of virginity, however, was seen as the best life of all. Even when Protestant reformers emptied monasteries and convents, what they celebrated about marriage were friendship, parenthood, and sexual discipline; as Paul famously wrote, “it’s better to marry than to burn.”

Apart from seeing the demise of sex as a problem, Regnerus’s argument further distinguishes itself from Christian thought by calling upon Gary Becker’s ideas about “marriage markets” to demonstrate why gender equality is ruining sex. According to this “economic way of looking at behavior,” marriage is a transaction between women and men whereby women trade sex for financial gain. (If this sounds like prostitution, that’s because it is.) If women can make their own money, and men can get sex from women who put out without men having to put a ring on it, there is no longer any reason for people to form lasting relationships.

Regnerus allows as how women in the past might have had to “enter marriages for financial reasons” rather than for love, but his rosy view of the past assures him that even then, “many nonfinancial benefits followed, including the formation of a stable, intimate relationship with a spouse and the sense of purpose that comes with raising a family.” That couples in the past might have had so much sex precisely because women felt obligated to continue offering sex, in exchange for continuing financial support, does not seem to enter Regnerus’s imagination. Neither does he imagine that husbands who eschew housework have more sex than husbands who do their share because the former are more self-centered or aggressive than the latter, or because the latter don’t expect to be “paid” for doing work women have always done.

Women and men can now both have equally “cheap sex” thanks to the Pill, but Regnerus concludes that this has come back to bite the very women who thought they were liberated by creating an equality-induced “power imbalance” in the marriage market: there is a surplus of women who want to marry, creating a buyer’s market for men. Pathetic, lonely women like “Nina” are now left out in the cold where they can expect “abortion, depression, and a string of failed relationships.”

Today’s women are woody-killers because they’re just too much like men. They are assertive, thanks to education and career training. They masturbate. They are surprisingly not turned on (quo) by their partners doing dishes (quid). They are, in short, nasty. It was entirely unrealistic to expect “that the financial independence of women would have wholly positive effects on the dance of the sexes” since “the old necessities that once brought them together have disappeared.” Back when girls were girls and men were men, everyone knew where they stood—and where they lay.

Notably missing from this modern Archie Bunker’s supposedly scientific argument is any reference to same-sex couples, since they wouldn’t fit into his complementarity-of-the-sexes model in which “we long for what is missing in ourselves.” But despite their sex acts being supposedly “self-referential,” gay men may be having more sex than average, while studies among lesbians suggest that men just aren’t that good at satisfying women sexually. June Cleaver might have let Ward have his way with her, but today’s women may not feel obligated to put up with mediocre sex just to stroke their partners’ egos.

And isn’t stroking male egos what this is really about? “Needing each other makes us want each other,” Regnerus writes, suggesting that in order to feel turned on, men need to feel superior to their partners, while women need to feel dependent upon theirs. Were he making a Christian argument, he might have cited God’s punishment to Eve in Genesis: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” But alas, he does not make a Christian argument. It is a shame (if not surprising in the Trump era) that First Things has lost sight of its mission and succumbed to the worst that secular ethics has to offer.

Those who read scripture know that “in the beginning” women and men are created alike, in the image of God. And the first man soon declares his love for the first woman precisely because she, unlike the other creatures, is like him: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

If some men have yet to come to terms with the fact that women are—and always have been—fully human, it is no wonder their partners are looking elsewhere for satisfaction.