For many months I’ve been looking for a word to sum up a growing sense of despair and disillusionment with how we see sexual intimacy in 21st century Britain. Today is the first time since the Second World War that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have been on the same day, and it seems a suitable time to describe my lament and see if there is a single word that will do it justice. It’s not the day for action plans and campaigns, but it is a day for honesty.
We all know that the last 100 years have seen incredible changes in marriage, gender equality, contraception, and attitudes to sexual intimacy. The big narrative is often that we have moved away from loveless, joyless, patriarchal duties to guiltless, liberating choices. I’m no expert on how things were but my lament is about how things are now. In 10 days time I’ll be meeting with 12 Chesham couples to talk about preparing for marriage and I yearn for good, wholesome, constructive things to say. But the landscape of love looks bleak.
– We are learning nearly every day that there has been, and no doubt still is, widespread sexual abuse. In all works of life; church, media, sport, the voluntary sector, public life. That is, there are many thousands of people who choose to fulfil themselves sexually at the expense of those who are vulnerable, frail or who have no voice. It’s about as far away from ‘making love’ as you could imagine. ‘Killing love’, maybe? Or ‘ making misery’?
– We read with horror (though we are so used to it we are prone to horror fatigue) of the hypocrisy of aid workers in disaster situations paying for prostitutes or using the promise of aid to buy sexual favours. Part of us isn’t surprised, part of us is appalled that we’re not completely surprised. But what does that say about how far we have sunk?
– We have lived for generations in a society that uses sex to sell. That has few or no qualms in grabbing our attention with nudity, innuendo, and pictures of beautiful people made in God’s image but reduced to one dimensional erotica.
– We have been saturated with internet porn but are blind to its corrosive, toxic effects. So we have a generation growing up who proudly believe that they know more about sex than the parents or grandparents ever did – they’ve seen it all on-line. But the truth is they’re more clueless and more dangerous and tend to think about other people’s bodies in ways that are cruel, callous and cold. Internet porn doesn’t cultivate many sensitive, selfless lovers.
– We continue to buy the lie that infidelity is no big deal. Except that it is a big deal – to the one who’s cheated on, to the one who does the cheating. I’ve heard the stories, seen the look on people’s faces when the truth dawns, when the broken promises and hopes lie shattered on the floor.
– We continue to ridicule chastity and those who won’t bow to the playground taunts of the liberated – ‘Why so boring? Why so scared? Why so uptight?’
For me, as I kneel tonight for the gentle touch of an ashen cross, I will be lamenting that we have got it so wrong. The first word that came to mind was that we have cheapened sexual intimacy. But we’ve gone much further than that. It’s not cheapened. it’s ruined.
We have taken something beautiful, mysterious, kind, wild, life-affirming and ruined it. May God forgive us and show us a better way.