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Is Monogamous the New Organic?
I love fast food. The greasy cheeseburgers and fried chicken and loaded burritos speak to my soul. Few things in life are better than hot french fries. I’ve eaten entire farms worth of Chick-fil-a nuggets. In college, I went to Bojangles more than the cafeteria. At one point, the local Qdoba served as my home office. I even love McDonald’s. I know that’s an unpopular opinion in certain circles, but it’s delicious, my kids love the happy meals, and it’s cheap.
My love had nothing to do with the value, though. If you offered me nice steak or a burger with onion rings, most days I’d choose the burger. I take my wife out to nice restaurants on occasion, and I enjoy a fine meal every once in a while, but when I am by myself, on the company expense account, I hit up all the drive-thrus. Although I don’t eat fast food much anymore, for various reasons, it’s a special treat when we are traveling in the car and have no choice but to stop at Cookout for dinner. It’s like the payment I give myself for driving to whatever weekend event I’ve been forced into at the time.
In my lifetime, though, there’s a been a distinct turn away from what was once an unapologetic American institution. The middle-to-upper-class still eat plenty of fast food, if the company stock prices and store locations are any indication, but now it comes with a side of shame. A Big Mac and fries will never stop being a pleasure, but now it’s a guilty pleasure. Like picking your nose or watching The Bachelor, everyone does it, but not many will admit to it. The steamy love affair is over. Fast food is yesterday’s fling. Health food is the new hotness.
All you have to do is look at the explosion of health fads. We’re far past Hippies going vegan to save the whales. These days everyone is eating Keto or Mediterranean or Whole or whatever the latest thing is by the time I post this. Your average soccer mom now requires her beef to be grass-fed, her eggs free-range, her bread gluten-free, and her fair-trade sustainably-sourced slow-roasted coffee made with non-GMO oat milk. And organic. Everything must be organic. Especially for the kids. If you don’t give them organic milk, you might as well shoot them yourself. Just ask the internet. Even junk food has to come with this veneer of health. So we buy the specialty organic gummy snacks and cookies and boxed macaroni. It helps suppress the guilt.
The Desire for Something Real
I get it. I gave up fast food lunches for protein shakes years ago. The fads may often tip into overreaction, but they are a reaction to a genuine problem. People inevitably noticed that a culture of fast food and prepackaged meals, for all its innovation and benefits, had helped create a society of overweight, unhealthy people, and so they decided to turn around. If some people went a little too far off the other end, well, at least you could understand why. Fast food is plentiful, cheap (in money), and terrible for you. It is stripped-down, hollowed-out food, designed to give you all the pleasure without any of the nutrition. It’s no surprise, then, that people reacted by wanting something alternative, something whole, something healthy, something real.
It makes me think of sex. Casual sex is the cultural norm today. Not everyone is actually having it, of course, but most people want to, and few would admit otherwise. A quick Google search turns up one survey indicating 80% of Americans are open to sex on the first date. The same survey shows the average number of college hookups skyrocketing in the last century to an average of almost 10 different people. Porn use is rampant and addicting, available to anyone for free on devices everyone carries with them at all times starting around age 2. The attempt to renormalize “sex work” encourages young girls to cash in on the trend by selling themselves online or in person. Magazines and websites that have nothing to do with porn dish out constant top 10 lists of sex tips, sex toys, sex positions, sex whatever. Pop music celebrates male conquest and female indulgence, with music videos to match. That movies and shows and ads sell sex appeal is a truism. Sex is a fundamental aspect of human existence, so it’s not as though you could ever get rid of it, nor would you want to, but lately it’s been seeping into everything in more casual and explicit ways, until our whole society is now absolutely awash in sex.
But it’s fast food sex. Plentiful, cheap (in time and commitment), and terrible for you. Casual sex is stripped-down, hollowed-out sex designed to give you all the pleasure without any of the nutrition. All the best and the noble and enriching parts have been taken away—the connection and the intimacy and the vulnerability and the possibility of creation—in favor of your own physical sensation and satisfaction. By definition, the other person doesn’t matter except for their appearance, the size and shape of their features, or their skill in satisfying you. They are something you consume and are consumed by. One person for dinner tonight, an interchangeable person person the next, though sometimes you return to the same restaurant. These days, you can even order it online to-go. Just swipe right.
It’s not a sustaining sort of food, though. It’s a greasy cheeseburger that feels great in the moment but makes you bloated and tired and a little queasy later on. It fills your stomach, and yet you’re still hungry, still lonely, taking on more and more emotional weight for less and less satisfaction.
Where Are The Trends Heading?
There’s some evidence people are starting to realize this, if only vaguely. One study has shown declines in sexual activity in the last decade, with another suggesting Gen Z has less casual sex than older groups. Birth rates are in decline around the developed world. Japan has been famously unable to get young people, especially men, to have sex despite (or perhaps because of) a sex-soaked culture, legal prostitution, and government incentives. Several recent books have attacked the hook-up culture from the feminist left, driven by the dangers and contradictions of “empowering sex” that the #MeToo movement laid bare. Secular communities across the internet have sworn off porn or Tinder or hookups. It’s not just religious conservatives who are questioning the value of cheap, abundant, commitment-free casual sex on demand.
So I wonder if we are on the verge of a health-conscious craze in sex similar to what we have seen with food. Are we going to see a critical mass of women (or men) insisting on a lasting commitment, if not marriage then at least more than a dates or two, before offering sex? Might we get an infatuation with romance and courtship rather than sexual desire and hookups, with all the magazines offering top 10 romantic dates instead of the top 10 sex positions? Will love poems and songs or romantic novels and movies take back a public imagination beaten down by cynicism and sex? Could porn become socially stigmatized and heavily regulated, with warning labels and content restrictions and safety precautions, relegated to the dark side of the internet rather than its most popular sites? Will people start to prefer to have fewer partners and people who have been with few partners themselves? Will everyone finally acknowledge that our experiment in sexual license has resulted primarily in disease and despair? Will young men and women come to the realization that one genuine, intimate relationships is better than a thousand nights of meaningless sex? Not because it’s the pure or chaste or moral thing to do in a religious sense, but because the alternative is so obviously unhealthy? Will monogamous become the new organic?
I don’t know. If so, it won’t happen quickly or universally. Movements like this build slowly in small but influential groups until they suddenly spill over into the broader population, and the old ways don’t disappear completely. Health fads like the Adkins diet or Vegetarianism or 8-Minute Abs have been around for decades, but it’s only recently that organic, gluten-free, or vegan-alternative foods and specialty diets have exploded alongside fitness trends such as CrossFit, p90x, and others, and primarily confined to upscale urban or suburban environments. Now everyone in those places knows someone who is doing Keto or Paleo or Mediterranean or Carnivore or vegan or gluten-free or whatever else diet has come along in the week since I wrote this. The fast food places haven’t disappeared so much as adapted by advertising “healthier” meals with fresh, organic ingredients, content that, whatever the latest trend, people still buy a lot of greasy hamburgers.
Would “Healthy” Sex Be An Improvement?
I sometimes view the health craze as a kind of moral panic, where many people (often myself included) attached a moral significance to food or fitness or health far out of proportion to its actual benefit, so that eating the right kinds of food or sticking to a diet or having a certain waistline were not merely good things to do in response to an unhealthy environment but an indication of your moral superiority. You were a better person for buying organic. You were enlightened for not eating meat. Going to the gym was a noble pilgrimage. I figured it was a reaction to the loss of other avenues of traditional morality, particularly around sex but also wealth and sacrifice and charity, a way to satisfy the eternal human need to feel righteous. If you can’t feel good about hoarding your wealth to buy luxuries and you can’t bring yourself to deny any sexual impulse, at least you can feel good about not allowing yourself to eat that sugary dessert or not giving your kids those GMO-polluted fruit snacks like the rest of the unwashed masses. As anyone who follows these trends or has tried to be healthier knows, what may start as a genuine concern for health can easily tip over into an unhealthy obsession or a relentless quest for personal fulfillment.
So if sex follows the same path, would a new emphasis on monogamy as a healthy lifestyle actually be any better than our current licentiousness? In an absolute sense, probably. Regardless of the reason, you are physically better off eating vegetables than stuffing yourself with Twinkie’s. But if you’re using food to feed your self-worth and raise yourself above others, you might just end up a worse person in a better body. And while its harder to argue that American society as a whole has become significantly healthier since the advent of organics and oat milk and Panera Bread, it’s easy to spot all the ways we’re cracking apart over distrust, envy, and self-righteousness.
Likewise, a renewed emphasis on long-term, committed relationships would almost certainly be a healthier approach for many individuals. You are likely, though not guaranteed, to be happier and more satisfied and more productive sticking with one good relationship than bouncing between a dozen different partners. The problem with that approach is that personal health and wellbeing is a terrible way to judge relationships, because relationships are not primarily about yourself. Marriage doesn’t preclude a person from being selfish. Just ask my wife. Monogamous sex can be just as indulgent and self-serving as a quick hookup, like eating a 2000-calorie salad at McDonalds.
The Meaning of Marriage
The best relationships, and the best sex, are about vulnerability and intimacy, about shared experience, even suffering and hardship, about mutual care and respect. You can steal a little bit of pleasure and attention and care from someone for a time. In fact, it might be easier to do so more often in a long-term relationship. But you can’t receive real satisfaction until you are willing to give away all those things without a care for your own benefit. That’s dangerous. It’s risky. You might give up your whole self and get nothing in return. You can’t do it on a fling.
That sort of trust and reciprocity is only available with someone you believe, however much they may disappoint you, will never leave you. That’s the point of the marriage vow. Not some vague romantic sentiment, but a solid foundation you can build upon, a safe haven from which you can venture forth. Monogamy alone won’t accomplish that, if it’s done for our own pleasure and protection and happiness, because it “works.” It would work, but it wouldn’t last. You can tell we’ve lost the purpose when you hear people say that sex in marriage gets boring and stale. The mechanics of it may, if that’s all you care about, (yet they don’t have to!), but I’ll take the sustaining meal of true intimacy, tasted a thousand times until I’ve explored its every flavor and joy, only to find it gets sweeter with every bite, over the assorted sampling of a thousand women.
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