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?