Sex: The mysticism of materialism

The other night, there was a story on TV about a reporter at a Houston station who posed as an underaged teen in a chat room frequented by pedophiles. Invited to a house for a tryst, men knocked at the front door (often holding beer) and were greeted by TV cameras. Viewers learned that one suspect photographed his penis in a hot dog bun and emailed it to the “girl.” That this seemed like a good idea at the time says something about sexual temptation and human nature.

Such evil absurdity brings a 1960s Malcolm Muggeridge essay to mind. “Down With Sex” appears to be out of print, which is too bad, because it comes from one of the great observers of contemporary emptiness. Just as good satire is corrective, done to “expose the fool and lash the knave,” so is this essay.

Muggeridge opens with this quaint scene:

In Racine, Wisconsin, on a Sunday morning the late autumn sun was shining, and the little lakeside town had a sleepy, tranquil air. A wide variety of religious services was available…Thus far everything was in accordance with the standard notion of a Midwestern Sabbath… It was only when I dropped into a drugstore for a cup of cofee and a sandwich that I noticed a change which would have scandalized Babbitt… Among the paperback books and magazines displayed for sale was enough pornography to have made any under-the-counter Paris dealer in my young days green with envy. Not just the old familiar “classics” in the genre… nor merely Playboy-style near nudes… [but] really vicious stuff… It was like lifting up a stone and uncovering the squalor and filth underlying a sex-ridden society.

A feeling of infinite melancholy affected me. How sad, how infinitely sad, all this was! In the Racine drugstore, it seemed to me, I was at the end of a long road. Havelock Ellis, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells and many another pointed the way… We were all to be happy as crickets in our freedom from past inhibitions and frustrations. Freedom broadening down from orgasm to orgasm; girls resolved to live their own lives by their own gas fires, and easily persuaded to undress in its dim glow… On sun-drenched beach, in mountain hut, through dewy meadow and by winding stream… And now it had all ended in this sordid display of printed matter– not in Sodom or Gomorrah, but in Racine, Wisconsin; not in Byzantine scenes of debauchery, but in a drugstore… no nymphs and satyrs, but only cheesecake, and the sad dreams of forlorn lovers, solitary playboys, whose mistresses come to them through the camera lens, that most ubiquitous of panders.

What then has happened to sex which, according to the gospel of D.H. Lawrence, was to refertilize a spent civilization… and generally restore to our mid-20th century lives the joyous fulfillment of happier and more innocent times? The simple answer is that sex has been overplayed. It has become an obsession… as it was…for poor Lawrence himself; like most prophets of this cult, a near, if not an actual, impotent.

The highbrow prophets have since given way to profiteers. Given that pornography is now a larger business than all professional sports franchises combined, and “porno chic” is now “cool,” these entrepreneurs have done a sterling job of monetizing lust and gaining converts to the ancient, morbid cult of sexual idolatry.

…Never, it is safe to say, in the history of the world has a country been as sex-ridden as America is today… The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment; the old pagan admonition, Do What Thou Wilt, has superseded the Pauline teaching that, since spirit and flesh lust contrary to one another, Ye Cannot Do What Things That Ye Would Do. In the beginning was the Flesh, and the Flesh became Word. Sex is the mysticism of materialism. We are to die in the spirit to be reborn in the flesh, rather than the other way around. Instead of the cult of the Virgin Mary we have the cult of the sex symbol… displayed in glossy photographs, on cinema and television screens… Eyes which launched not a thousand ships, but a vast sea of seminal fluid; mistresses not of kings and great ones, but of the Common Man, who clasps them to him and enjoys their wanton favors in his secret dreams.

For what is me-so-free eroticism but the escape to the isolated fantasyland of Me writ large?

Nothing is more calculated to induce acceptance of the social and economic status quo than erotic obsessions… Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people. Sex is better… It challenges nothing, questions nothing. Unfolding the month’s playmate in Playboy magazine, any tendency to think and question things is automatically extinguished. Vietnam seems far, far away, and Alabama a song, not a place.

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