Sex, Lies, and Magazine Surveys
This week in class, one of my seminarians brought up a new article in Boston magazine on sex in the city (it’s in the February 2016 issue, but at the time of this writing, I couldn’t find an online version of it). It was a series of 10 anecdotes about various non-traditional elements or approaches to sex and dating, along with some statistical “data” gleaned from a poll offered by the magazine. By way of review, I found the article occasionally appalling, often predictable, and mostly pathetic. What I “learned” is that the single life is hard, some people like to act kinky behind closed doors, and it’s OK to have sex for money if it pays your way through school. I also learned that the average number of times people have sex per month averaged between three (for people not in a relationship – telling in itself) and nine (for people who have been in a relationship for less than five years, but who weren’t married).
There is nothing especially new in this survey, other than perhaps the article’s introduction, which praises Massachusetts as being so “ahead of the curve” in misunderstanding the meaning of human sexuality. But this style of survey can be found in any number of other magazines. In fact, it seems such a survey is found pretty much every month in that bastion of forward thinking, Cosmopolitan.
The relevance of this statistical data is dubious at best. The Boston survey notes that it is the compiled results of 612 Bostonians aged 18 to 54. So we have a self-selected anonymous survey of readers of the magazine that represents less than 1/1000th of the population of the city. I seriously suspect even less work was done on other such surveys; perhaps an impromptu poll around the office. No one should take these results seriously. No one.
Of course, I doubt anyone does take these surveys very seriously. Or, at least, that’s what most of us claim. The problem is that many people read them, even if it is only out of prurient curiosity, and this becomes an element of one’s own particular brain-washing. You see, every one of us is brain-washed. It is absolutely unavoidable in our culture. But, in truth, we have a good amount of control about what actually washes our brains. This form of discernment, especially in light of these surveys, is part of the virtue of chastity.
When we fail to exercise this discernment, even as we laugh our way through the stats on display, we are subtly affected by what we read. We logically conclude that these kinds of quotes and anecdotes about unusual sexual behavior are not the norm, but we sometimes fail to see the brokenness of the persons involved in these tales. And we start to think that maybe if there is one person like this, maybe, just maybe, there are more people also secretly just like this. And then we might think: if I find this behavior unusual, maybe I’m the one who is prudish, or out of touch, or not as progressive as I might want to think. At that point, even if we never change our behavior one bit, our momentary confusion, a consequence of brain-washing, has hindered us in our responsiveness to the grace of Christ that makes us fully human.
So we have to practice discernment. We must, to use one of those old-fashioned traditionalist phrases, “discipline our senses.” We need to make prudent choices about what we allow to live in our brains, to become strongholds in our mind, and when we do hear about or read these surveys, we have to turn to prayer for ourselves and for our whole culture that the Kingdom might become more fully alive among us.
In the meantime, if you happen to be one of those people who enjoys the acts proper to your sacrament in a loving, unitive embrace that is open to new life, or if you’re a single person who respects yourself and those with whom you are in relationship because you recognize that you are wonderfully made in the image of God, or if you are a celibate who lives a holy vocation as a sexual human being, offering yourself in acts of love and service, then according to these surveys, we’re the freaky ones. Let your freak flag fly, baby!