Getting Sex Wrong: #MeToo, the Sexual Revolution, and Herbert Marcuse

As tragic as it is, it doesn’t strike me as odd that roughly two generations after the “Sexual Revolution” our nation now faces the devastating aftermath of such a revolution; an aftermath most poignantly revealed in justice movements like “#MeToo.” Story after story of sexual abuse, harassment, and rape from every domain of American society come to us daily: in Hollywood and Washington D.C., in professional & Olympic sports, on university campuses and in doctors’ offices, and, most egregiously, in the Church itself; both Protestant and Catholic alike. We are bombarded by ever new allegations (most true, some unsubstantiated…yet believable) of inappropriate, or outright malicious, sexual deviancy.

But, where did we go wrong? And I say “we” because I myself have not escaped unscathed (although through Christ I have been redeemed; redeemed, and changed). But, how is it that within such a short period of time, hardly three generations, we went from the sexual norms and ethics of the Greatest Generation to those of Generation Z?

Moreover, as we begin to see what is likely just the tip of the iceberg of the sexual damage that has been wrought since the Baby Boom, is it any wonder that we also see the number of suicides in our homeland at record highs? Is it not entirely evident that sexual brokenness and depression are inextricably linked? Do we not sense that we are all damaged goods?

While the causes of such sexual deviancy (yes, deviancy) are manifold, and not reducible to one explanation or analysis, there is, however, one profoundly impactful intellectual paradigm that we can identify, analyze, and convincingly shown to be at least part of the larger problem. That paradigm was introduced to public academic life in America in the early 1930’s by the German philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, a thinker often associated with the Sexual Revolution, and once hailed as the “Guru of the New Left” in the United States.

Herbert_Marcuse_in_Newton,_Massachusetts_1955

Marcuse was born in Berlin to highly educated Jewish parents, and earned two Doctorates in Philosophy before fleeing the Nazis and coming to the United States, where he taught at universities such as Brandeis, Columbia, and UC-San Diego. It was said of Marcuse in a 1968 New York Times Magazine article:

“In terms of day-to-day effect, Herbert Marcuse may be the most important philosopher alive. For countless young people, discontented, demonstrating or fulminating, on campus or in the streets, here and abroad, this 70-year-old philosopher is the angel of the apocalypse.”1 quoted in Robert Marks The Meaning of Marcuse, (New York, NY: Ballantine, 1970).

Important, indeed, and impactful far beyond the notoriety of his name.

A proponent of Marxist economic thought, Marcuse brilliantly wedded a Marxist philosophical approach to reality and reason with a Freudian metapsychology to create a critical theory that was fundamentally atheistic, materialistic, and oriented to the most basic psycho-physical features of the individual human agent. For Marcuse, like Freud, that most fundamental component of the purely physical human being, was located in what also seems to be the most universal feature amongst all human persons; namely, in the drive for sexual gratification.

However, unlike Freud, who thought that an unchecked release of such “libidinal energy” (i.e. the Id) would spell the death of civilized society, Marcuse sought to return society back to its pre-rational and pre-moral state, back to life as pleasure-seeking and pleasure-attaining creatures. But, how, pray tell, did Marcuse think we could live as unrestrained seekers of sexual gratification?

Marcuse conjectured that by developing a sort of “libidinal rationality”2 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, (Boston: Beacon, 1966) pg. 199., whereby human persons would easily engage in the “free play” of sexual gratification, yet without violating each other’s autonomy, human kind could be released from the cognitive and institutional shackles once developed by philosophical or religious systems of a bygone, pre-modern era. It was these systems of thought (e.g. Christianity, or Platonism before it) that had introduced, as part of the process of civilizing human animals, such “moral” notions as that of guilt associated with sexual desires, and such institutions like monogamic, procreative marriage, that were no longer needed in a modern, industrialized world. It was from these thoughts and these institutions that modern man needed to be liberated.

Since scarcity of resources and a natural world that was “red in tooth and claw” had been conquered by the ascendancy of technology, this pursuit of libidinal rationality could finally be realized. For Marcuse, because there was no longer an existential need for modern man to sublimate the natural, pre-moral sexual desires that dominate his or her inner life, those drives should indeed no longer be sublimated. Sexual drives no longer needed to be translated into grueling physical or mental labor, or socio-economic struggle. Technology could and would fulfill every physical need that had in previous generations necessitated such manual labor or mental ambition. Now was indeed the time to sit back and play!

While Marcuse still makes room for certain expressions of art and aesthetic, the real joy in life would come, when we would finally see each others’ bodies as “object[s] of [libidinal] cathexis, thing[s] to be enjoyed – instrument[s] of pleasure.”3Eros and Civilization 201. So long as we could jettison the remnant hooks of Theology and pre-Hegelian philosophy that either promise an afterlife that never comes, or posit a universal Reason that makes normative claims on our behaviors, there would be nothing to stop a new human nature from emerging; a nature that was fully accepting of and given over to our most natural longings. A human nature defined by, and actualized through, the lust of the flesh that just is what we are.

It is safe to say that there is little of Marcuse’s vision that is compatible with an historical Christian worldview. First, there is no God to speak of, and thus, no afterlife to be won (or accepted into). All life, all living, must be experienced in the here and now; and all of the “here and now” is purely physical. Gratification of desires can only be found in this domain of reality, since this is the only real domain.

In one sense, what Marcuse proposes is, I think, a very consistent view if Atheism is true. Why wouldn’t we explore every means possible to ensure a maximal amount and degree of sexual gratification; if, at the bottom, there truly is no good and evil, no right and wrong, no grand purpose or plan? What else, beyond sexual gratification, is as exciting, as stimulating, as fulfilling, as sexual gratification?

Moreover, I think with regard to the various critical theories of our times, Marcuse’s version is much more penetrating than many others. After all, other psycho-physical features about ourselves, e.g. our race, our gender, our nationality, or economic status, invariably seem to be downstream from the more fundamental drive of libidinal gratification. If we were to rally around our shared desire for sex, would it not be the case that these other barriers to social unity would finally crumble? Would we really care about blackness or whiteness, homosexual or heterosexual tendencies, or immigrant statuses, if we were free to enjoy each other sexually? Marcuse’s view is certainly tempting…in more ways than one.

However, the question has been clearly begged. For, the evidence, not only from our own time, but from times long past, clearly shows that sexual gratification is not the summum bonum of humankind. If it ever was, then we would certainly wonder why Augustine, after living a life marked by such libidinal freedom, wound up ultimately saying something as markedly disparate as this:

“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud.3 But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”

Confessions, Book I.1

But how could it be that Augustine had not found the peace he longed for, in the life of sexual satisfaction he had so fervently pursued?

And, now again, in our own times, we see the same result of the same attempt at libidinal freedom; the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution; the same revolution that borrowed so heavily from Marcuse’s thought. Damaged bodies, and damaged souls. Men incapable of distinguishing between their lust for physical pleasure and the objective value of the women (or other men) they are attempting to satisfy that pleasure through. Women, given over to lust, becoming more and more like the toxic men they once feared, unashamed and dissolute.

Marcuse’s critical theory was wrong, because Marcuse was wrong, and Marcuse was wrong because he got human nature wrong. Thinking it was malleable like the culture it creates, Marcuse thought he could introduce ideas that would change the essence of man. But, that is an essence that was created not by human thought, but by an almighty Creator, One who has His own plans and designs for human sexuality.

Genesis 2

21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to come over the man, and he slept. God took one of his ribs and closed the flesh at that place. 22 Then the Lord God made the rib He had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 And the man said:

This one, at last, is bone of my bone
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called “woman,”
for she was taken from man.

 

24 This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.

Ephesians 4

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, 23 for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. 27 He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 since we are members of His body.

31 For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh.[i]

 

32 This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.

 

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