In the aftermath of last week’s Vanity Fair story on Tinder and the end of dating there was no shortage of hand-wringing by many readers who were, rightly, appalled at what they found in the story. But upon reflection it seems odd that it would be this particular story that elicits such strong reactions from readers. In many ways the story being told is not new. We have had dating apocalypse stories for far longer than we’ve had Tinder, after all. And when you shift from the anecdotal approach used by Nancy Jo Sales, the author of the original piece, and toward more comprehensive data sets the resulting picture is much more complex than Sales’s story would suggest.
Even the specific behaviors described in the story are not that new or surprising, really. There have always been young dandies who think that sleeping with a large number of women is somehow a major achievement—Lord Byron comes to mind. Indeed, these young men were apparently common enough in 19th century France that Victor Hugo includes four of them in Les Miserables, one of whom is Fantine’s lover and the father of Cosette. If the behavior described in the piece is what has elicited the panicky response by many, that response is badly misplaced for the behavior is not at all new.
That being said, while panicking that some young people are promiscuous is unhelpful, the language being used to describe this behavior in the Vanity Fair story is itself notable. Indeed, if we attend to the language itself we’ll note that there is a new problem being described here, even if it isn’t that millennials are uniquely lecherous relative to previous generations.
The key section to note is when one of our young Lord Byrons introduced in the opening paragraph says that Tinder allows him to order a woman the same way he orders food with Seamless. Sales overplays her hand a bit, acting as if this young man is the first to ever speak of sex in such terms.
Indeed, by acting appalled at the comparison Sales (and many of the pundits to comment on the piece) show that they have missed exactly what makes this story so dreadful. The problem isn’t the comparison of food and sex. Both, after all, are created goods given to man by God for his pleasure and enjoyment that man, in his sin, is prone to abuse. Further, both are goods that should rightly be understood in relation to a natural created order that has been radically challenged by industrialism to the ruin of many.
In fact, the problem isn’t even with the commodification of sex so obviously on display in this piece. Conservative squeamishness aside, there is nothing wrong with commodifying sex or imagining it as an economic good. After all, the word “economics” comes from the Greek word “oikos” which simply means “household.” And households are in fact created through what John Paul II referred to, colorfully, as “the marital embrace.” Whatever horror exists in this piece is not about the specific approach to sexuality encouraged by Tinder but with the inadequate, unhealthy understanding of human economics that serves as the foundation on which Tinder is built and passes without question.
For a short time we have tried to insulate sex not only from the gross consumerism of the industrial economy, but even from the more basic economic reality that the marital embrace is an essentially creative act. Through on-demand abortion and widely available contraception we have tried to maintain this fiction that sex can be hermetically sealed off from our economic lives.
Yet even if we attempt to conceal the essentially creative nature of sex we still find that sex cannot exist in an alternative reality disconnected from our radically abusive, radically consumptive world. There is, indeed, something depressingly appropriate in the fact that the Vanity Fair story was published within a week of our government’s decision to let Shell drill for oil in the Arctic. It’s no surprise that such an artificial construct would wither under the weight of reality as the logic of our miniscule market place comes to pervert all areas of life. It can do no other. If you will have Seamless, an application that gives one access to a created good without requiring any relationship to that good beyond that of a customer making a purchase, then you will have Tinder, an application that does… precisely the same thing.
Long have we thought of the physical creation, of plants and trees and skies and seas, as a disposable object which we can consume and abuse in whatever way satisfies our whim. And now we are surprised that this same logic would be applied to human bodies?
No, what this Tinder story shows us is not that there is something uniquely rotten with the sexual behavior of millennials. Rather, it shows us that a culture can only live with industrial conceptions of things like land and food for so long before that outlook comes to infect our entire way of seeing the world.
28 years ago Wendell Berry warned us of this fact in his seminal essay “The Two Economies.” He said that the industrial economy is not large enough to encompass all of life, cut off as it is from ideas of health or propriety. He said we needed an understanding of economics answerable not only to questions of profitability and individual pleasure, but that also recognized a natural created order, that certain creational goods demand a certain response. He called this economy “the kingdom of God.”
We have rejected that kingdom. We have refused to believe that things like food and land and trees and seas demand our respect. Is it any surprise that some of us have come to believe the same of the body?
By realistically relating how the commodification of sex relates to the rest of our way of life, the writer of this articles does us all a good service. All of us need to look in the mirror, not just millennials who eat, drink, and sleep together now lest they die tomorrow.
But something could have been added here. As we commodify all that others can do for us, we make the people supplying our goods into disposable objects. Marx noted this about Capitalism and labor. As labor power becomes a commodity paying wages , the laborer, like any product used in production, can be replaced by other laborers who will work for less. For how many times have many of us been told at work that everybody is replaceable. And we are told that in hopes that insecurity about our tenuous status there would increase production.
Now though commodifying sex is, as the writer indicated, as old as the hills, the person providing the sex loses all intrinsic value to us and becomes a nonperson who is replaceable.
All of this points to more than just placing the right value and priority on the things we consume, we need to add to that assigning the proper value to those providing the things we consume. After all, those who provide the things we consume are made in the image of God.
Could you please define consumerism? It seems to be central to many of your cultural critiques, and in this one, but I would like to know what you precisely mean by the term.
I tried to avoid using that word in this piece but upon another review I see I failed to take it out in one instance. I’m trying to get away from that word for the very reason you’re raising here.
That said, when i use the term I am thinking of not simply the fairly commonplace critique that many on the left will make of certain types of behavior that tends to be extravagant and wasteful in its use of the physical creation, but I am also thinking of the way CS Lewis seems to understand the contrast between God and Satan in Screwtape Letters in which there is a contrast made by God who desires only to give and demons who wish only to consume their “patients.” However, I recognize that most people are not thinking of that when they use the term and it instead ends up being little more than a righteous-sounding buzzword used by many people who are just as much shaped by a different sort of the same sin they are attacking with the word “consumerism.” For that reason, I’m trying to wean myself off the word but obviously missed one of the uses in this post. Thanks for commenting!
Thank you, Jake, for your thoughts on the Vanity Fair article.
Your posts which discuss Wendell Berry are always thought provoking, but is there not a myopic nature to the critique? This type of critique seems to rely on a genealogical argument which flattens disparate acts into a limited number of categories and those categories are then described using general terms, terms like consumption or industrialization.
That’s perhaps too negative and unfair of a summary. It’s not that such general terms are improper necesarilly, but I’m not sure if they completely summarize the issue or do justice to the phenomenon being described.
To put it bluntly, and with a little hyperbole, I’m concerned – with the author obviously excluded – that such a form of argument and the use of those general terms will swallow all our thinking about an issue so that all that’s left is for us to point to any heinous act and wave our hands at it, saying, “Ah, yes. Industrialization, of course.”
Such critiques are non-falsifiable, very broad, and in the end leave us exactly where we were, since we can’t roll back industrialization.
One question concerning Wendell Berry, if you don’t mind: does he use industrialization to mean specifically the change of our economy to manufacturing, or does he use it in a more cultural way to describe certain outlooks and beliefs?
Dennis – This is a fair concern. A few brief thoughts: First, we’re physical, created beings so a cultural or technological change that fundamentally changes our interaction with the physical created order is going to end up touching just about every aspect of life. The industrial revolution has been such a change and so while I’ll grant that you can abuse the term and make it into a tool to avoid actually having to think about something, I’d also suggest that it’s hard to over-state the way that the industrial revolution changed human life. You can, at minimum, trace the current climate crisis to it and I would argue that the way it changed the nature of work also had massive impacts on the family. So it’s a delicate critique b/c, like any architechtonic approach, it risks over-simplification. That said, I do think you can defend a broader application of it in the way I’ve (perhaps poorly) attempted above.
On Berry’s use of industrialization as a broader category, he has several works that draw out the points of similarities between our use of the land and of the human body. “The Body and the Earth,” “Poetry and Marriage” and “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” all come to mind. It’s also implicit in his fiction, particularly in “The Memory of Old Jack,” “Jayber Crow,” and “Hannah Coulter.”
Finally, one further thing to consider–if you look at “Lord of the Rings” or “That Hideous Strength” I think you can see many of the same ideas in Tolkien and Lewis that I’ve found in Berry. That doesn’t mean they are right, of course. But I do sometimes find that conservative Christians come to Berry as this Democrat environmentalist and don’t recognize how his vision of the good life actually overlaps a ton with those of Tolkien and Lewis. Thanks for reading! I’d like to keep talking but am out of time at the moment. :)
“Democrat” and “environmentalist” are not my concern. An explanation that actually addresses how, in a society that places a premium on free choice, one comes at judging and confining/limiting choices in a way that is consistent with a Christian ethic and yet gives space to the polity to freely make those choices – is.
It’s called rational choice theory. Because God made the world, choices that are more consistent with His will tend also to be choices that lead to lower transaction costs and reduced waste.
For me, I think the most profound thing about the article was the complete disconnection these men and women had with the opposite sex in general, and the people they were sleeping with in particular. Where the young man, in one case, indicates that he and his friends could ‘give a resume’ for the girls they sleep with, but that they really know nothing about them… or how the one girl spoke about making a connection with a profile instead of the person behind it. Today we are more ‘connected’ than ever, yet at the same time profoundly and disturbingly isolated.
As an economist (that’s my schooling at least) I can appreciate your take on this subject, although I must disagree on theological grounds, at the classification and handling of sex as a commodity. For the rest of the world, sure, that is ‘natural man’ (as Paul puts it) but for us, in my reading at least sex is: in some ways a sacred act, not merely a physical act like breathing (which is effectively how the world classifies it) and 2.) Inherently carries responsibility in that it is how babies are made.
As a Christian, my call is to love my wife as Christ loved the church – e.g. sacrificially, putting her needs ahead of my own – not simply to respect her, or to return favor for favor. That’s something that doesn’t make sense to the world, and if our Christian ethics make sense to the rest if the world then we’ve lowered the bar on what it means to be ‘Christian’.
Apologies if that came across harshly as it’s not my intent. I really do appreciate your writing and fresh take on this subject. There is truly something off with what ‘is’ in our culture today, and at the same time it’s not too unprecedented, as you do well to point out. Keep thinking deeply, be encouraged!
Thanks for the kind words. :)
One short clarification–by “commodifying” sex I simply mean recognizing sex as a good that exists within a created order and economy that inevitably touches our lives in very practical, direct ways. My goal was to argue that sex must inevitably be commodified and what that looks like in practice will tell us a great deal about how our society understands the created order and the economies that sustain that order.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I’m assuming that you assume that the imago Dei is actually the centre of the temporal universe, not the trees or the lakes? You say that the real problem is the “unhealthy understanding of human economics that serves as the foundation on which Tinder is built and passes without question”. So, it’s not a total religious disposition, just economics? I’m pretty sure there are some organic farmers on Tinder.
It strikes me that your objection is not so much to the commodification of sex but rather to the scope of transactions involving it. Whether they admit it or not, traditionalists also commodify sex; they would simply limit the scope of transactions in which the commodity could be spent. It’s akin to owning stock options in a publicly traded company and owning stock options in a privately held company. In both cases, the options are a commodity, even though there are tight restrictions concerning the trading of the latter.