The McDonaldization of Sex 1 (Sex and Christianity 10)

If you are like most Catholics (or most Americans for that matter), you probably believe that there's really not much argument about contraception. You likely consider it to be about safety and public health. You may be willing to grant some right-wingers the freedom to decline health coverage that includes contraception. You may even grant religious institutions, like those that have filed suit against the federal government, the ability to decide for themselves what constitutes a violation of religious freedom. Either way you likely to follow the mainstream argument that contraception is a good thing.

I'd like to humbly suggest that there are very strong arguments against using contraception, even for those who are not religious. In later columns, I'll explore more arguments including the Christian theological argument against contraception. 

It boils down to what I call the "duct-taping grandma's china" argument. Here's the image: you think grandma's china is beautiful and want to protect it.  But if someone offers to duct-tape grandma's china, you should be asking what that person intends to do with it. After all, it's not meant for throwing around like a Frisbee. Similarly, the argument against contraception is that it's about what people intend to do with their sexuality. In short, it's about the drastic change in sexual choices that contraception facilitates.

The original hope of widespread contraception was that it would help equalize men and women by offering women the power to control when they conceive. It was seen as part of a modern understanding of the equality of the sexes, which was made possible by technology. The hope was that contraception would save women from the burdens imposed by unplanned pregnancies, and it would allow them personal and economic freedom.

From a macro perspective, that hope hasn't been realized. What we can now see is that our lens has been too narrow to see the larger social effects. Widespread use of contraception has led to fallout in the human ecology—a "McDonaldization" of sex.

Sociologist George Ritzer coined the term McDonaldization to describe a social process of rationalization. He writes that the characteristics of this process are "efficiency, predictability, calculability, substitution of nonhuman for human technology, and control over uncertainty." The net effect of this process is paradoxical irrationality. My thesis is that the socialization of contraceptive sex follows the same pattern and leads to the same irrationality in the big picture.

According to Ritzer,

. . .rationality brings with it great dehumanization as people are reduced to acting like robots. Among the dehumanizing aspects of a rational society are large lecture classes, computer letters, pay TV, work on the automobile assembly line, and dining at a fast-food restaurant. Rationalization also tends to bring with it disenchantment leaving much of our lives without any mystery or excitement. Production by a hand craftsman is far more mysterious than an assembly-line technology where each worker does a single, very limited operation. Camping in an RV tends to suffer in comparison to the joys to be derived from camping in the wild. Overall, a fully rational society would be a very bleak and uninteresting place.

Applied to sex, Ritzer's argument points to a similar dynamic. Contraception has enabled people to treat sex as a low-priced commodity—an item to consume and thereby build social capital. Instead of sacralizing sex as earlier cultures have done, we have mass-produced it. We have disenchanted it by treating it simply as a bodily function leaving the mediation between lovers to pharmaceutical and other corporations. The church has been pushed out of the bedroom, and the pharmaceutical corporation has been invited in its place.

Compare Ritzer's observations to that of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Writing a  half-century ago, he lamented the transformation of sex in the post-Freudian era:

The removal of sexual prohibitions has produced a curious effect, which the Freudian generation has not anticipated, the loss of value through facility: sexual experience having become familiar, available, and reduced to a simple biological function, becomes rather insignificant. Thus the extreme point in the destruction of the cosmo-vital notion of the sacred also becomes the extreme point of the dehumanization of sex. (from "Wonder, Eroticism, and Enigma," Cross Currents 14, no. 2 [Spring 1964], p. 138)

12/2/2022 9:05:40 PM
  • Catholic
  • Culture at the Crossroads
  • Contraception
  • Sex
  • Women
  • Christianity
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Tim Muldoon
    About Tim Muldoon
    Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.