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When We Get Sex Wrong: #MeToo, the Sexual Revolution, and Herbert Marcuse

As tragic as it is, it doesn’t seem surprising that roughly two generations after the “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960’s our nation faces the devastating aftermath of that 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? 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 evident that sexual brokenness and depression are inextricably linked? Are we not all just damaged goods?

The Impact of Herbert Marcuse

While the causes of such sexual deviancy (yes, deviancy) are manifold and not reducible to one explanation or analysis, there is, however, a philosophical view we can identify, analyze, and convincingly shown to be at least one cause of the problem. This view was introduced into public academic life in America in the early 1950’s by the German existentialist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse,1 Actually most of Marcuse’s thought on sex goes back to Freud, like Wilhelm Reich before him, but Marcuse’s impact in the 1960’s occurred long after much of Freud’s theory had been significantly revised. a thinker often associated with the Sexual Revolution and once hailed as the “Guru of the New Left” in the United States.

Herbert Marcuse

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.

Robert Marks, The Meaning of Marcuse

Important, indeed, and impactful far beyond the notoriety of his name. He had many disciples, to include Angela Davis, a brilliant young African American woman who went on to become one of the contemporary figureheads of Critical Race Theory. Although his career and his life ended in Southern California, Marcuse’s mark still goes unnoticed by the majority of Americans. Only now with the rise of Black Lives Matter and “Cancel Culture” do we start seeing his name appear more often.

Marcuse’s Unholy Wedding

A proponent of Marxist economic thought, but who saw the failings of classical Marxism; Marcuse brilliantly wed together a Marxist theory of social progress with a Freudian meta-psychology to formulate a view of human nature that was atheistic and materialistic and oriented toward the most basic psycho-physical features of the individual human agent. For Marcuse, the most fundamental component of the purely physical human being was what clearly seemed to be the most universal feature among all human persons; namely, 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 believed that society could be turned back to its pre-rational and pre-moral state. Culture could return to life as pleasure-seeking and pleasure-attaining creatures, albeit now with all the benefits of modern civilization to boot. But, how did Marcuse think we could live as unrestrained seekers of sexual gratification without damaging consequences?

Marcuse conjectured that by developing a sort of “libidinal rationality” (Eros and Civlization, 199), human persons would easily engage in the “free play” of sexual gratification,2 This vision seems to be reflective of Schiller’s ideas in the 19th century that considered Spiel or “play” as the final goal of the human organism, the immanent end state for a creature living in a world closed to a metaphysically transcendent realm. yet without violating each other’s autonomy. If society could be released from the cognitive and institutional shackles once developed by religious systems of a bygone, pre-modern era, then this vision of liberation through sex could be realized.

It it these prior systems of thought (e.g. Christianity or even 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 or the body as ontologically corrupt. Out of these systems come social institutions, like marriage, that are needed for civilization to advance. However, such institutions like monogamous, procreative marriage are no longer needed in a modern, industrialized world, as the demand to subliminate our sexual desires for the sake of civilizing untamed nature has been satisfied. It was from these repressive thoughts about sex and their related cultural institutions that modern man needs to be liberated.

This liberation could be done now because scarcity of resources and a natural world that was “red in tooth and claw” had essentially been conquered by the triumph of human technology. This pursuit of libidinal rationality could finally be realized after so many thousands of years due to man’s technique. This same thinking is found in Marcuse’s French contemporary, Simon de Beauvoir, who argued that it was through technology that women especially could be unbound from their biological restrictions:

With artificial insemination, the evolution that will permit humanity to master the reproductive function comes to completion. These changes have tremendous importance for women in particular; she can reduce the number of pregnancies and rationally integrate them into her life, instead of being their slave. During the nineteenth century, woman in her turn is freed from nature; she sins control of her body. Relived of a great number of reproductive servitudes, she can take on the economic roles open to her, roles that would ensure her control over her own person.

Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1393 quoted in Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 258-259

It would be a return, on the one hand, to the untamed Id, but now tempered with thousands of years of rational behavior and human technology. Again, 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, it should be possible to have a total freedom with regard to sex. Sexual drives no longer needed to be translated into grueling physical or mental labor or socio-economic struggle for success. 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 work as certain expressions of art and aesthetics, 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” (ibid, 201).

Finally, as long as we can jettison the remnant hooks of religion and pre-Hegelian philosophies that either promise an afterlife that never comes or that posit a universal, a-historical rationality, which might open the door to 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 lusts of the body– a body that just is what we are. The poetic and political dreams of 18th century poets like Shelley and political theorists like Godwin would finally be made real.

Getting Sex Wrong

It is safe to say that there is little of Marcuse’s vision that is compatible with a 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?4 See Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden After all, what else is as exciting, as stimulating, and as fulfilling as sexual gratification? Especially if we now have the medical technology available to us to eliminate the unpleasurable parts of sex, most saliently, procreation itself.

With regard to the various critical theories of our times, like Critical Race Theory or Critical Legal Studies, Marcuse’s version is much more penetrating than these. 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, a human attribute that seems entirely a-cultural, would it not be the case that these other barriers to social unity would finally crumble? Would we even concern ourselves about blackness or whiteness, homosexual or heterosexual tendencies, immigrant statuses or national background, being wealthy or impoverished, if we were free to enjoy each other sexually whenever and however we wanted? 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 different from Rousseau 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. 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

How could it be that Augustine, as so many others, had not found the peace he longed for in the life of sexual satisfaction he had so fervently pursued? The simple answer is he came to understand that he, meaning all of us, was simply made for more than that. Yet in making sex the final and ultimate good, we sacrifice that which is Ultimate Good. And, if we sacrifice that which is Ultimate Good, then we will reap the consequences both in our physical bodies as well as our social body.

Yet, once again in our own times, we see the same result of the same attempt at libidinal freedom in the aftermath of the 1960’s Sexual Revolution, the same revolution that borrowed so heavily from Marcuse. Damaged bodies and damaged souls: #metoo. We see men incapable of distinguishing between their lust for physical pleasure and the inherent dignity 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 repackage the age-old ideas that man could recreated himself, according to his own design plan. But, human nature is an essence that was created not by our own thought, but by an almighty Creator, One who has His own plans and designs for human sexuality.

  • 1
    Actually most of Marcuse’s thought on sex goes back to Freud, like Wilhelm Reich before him, but Marcuse’s impact in the 1960’s occurred long after much of Freud’s theory had been significantly revised.
  • 2
    This vision seems to be reflective of Schiller’s ideas in the 19th century that considered Spiel or “play” as the final goal of the human organism, the immanent end state for a creature living in a world closed to a metaphysically transcendent realm.
  • 3
    quoted in Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 258-259
  • 4
    See Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden

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