The problem of pleasure originates from three key factors. First, we have defined pleasure as only physical. Second, our culture has too much pleasure. Third, we do not understand the goodness of boundaries. When we see these three factors combined, we see that the search for pleasure has not achieved its goal but rather has given us the opposite of what we wanted: less pleasure.
Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported about the sex recession happening in our country. The article reported men and women between the ages of 18 and 34 are having less sex. This is especially true for men. Men having weekly sex is down to 43% and those not having any sex at all is up to 22%. The Atlantic connected these numbers to the issue of happiness in the country, reporting that the number of people who claim to be happy is down. The article points out that happiness is not tied only to the amount of sex a person has but that it is a significant part of the happiness quotient. So it seems strange that in this era of sexual freedom, people are not as happy. What is going on here?
There are a number of components involved in this question but I will focus on one key part, which I will call the problem of pleasure. The problem of pleasure originates from three key factors. First, we have defined pleasure as only physical. Second, our culture has too much pleasure. Third, we do not understand the goodness of boundaries. When we see these three factors combined, we see that the search for pleasure has not achieved its goal but rather has given us the opposite of what we wanted: less pleasure.
The problem of pleasure occurs when we define pleasure as purely materialistic. This form of pleasure–whatever gives us the most bodily pleasure–by definition limits pleasure only to the physical world. Physical pleasure is all there is.
By limiting pleasure to just the physical realm, it reduces the meaning of pleasure. This definition does not allow pleasure to point to anything beyond itself. It is what it is and that is it. This makes physical pleasure less pleasurable because there is nothing above physical pleasure to give it meaning. Meaningless pleasure is not really pleasurable and so it does not fulfill.
The Atlantic acknowledges this truth in its study by admitting that sex is not the only factor in the happiness quotient. This is a huge blow to the sexual liberation project. This means that sex is not the end all and be all of human fulfillment and satisfaction. There are other things that contribute to human happiness.
This concession gets to the second factor in the problem of pleasure.
We live in a culture that is awash in pleasures. It seems that we have unlimited pleasures. Youtube, Facebook, etc. You can scroll forever and never be done. You can listen to your favorite song from now until you die.
While our society tries to argue that boundless pleasure is a good thing, it actually sets us up for the very problem it is trying to solve. Without boundaries, pleasure leads to darker and darker places. It is like a drug addict. In order to reach the original high you once had, you have to do more of the drug than the first time. In the sexual realm, you have to pursue stranger things: kinky sex, porn, etc. If the desire for pleasure is the only rule, then the pursuit will stop at nothing. The problem of pleasure is that it dominates life. It won’t let you go.
But boundaries are inescapable. Even our pleasure-filled society has placed a boundary around pleasure: it can only be physical, as I mentioned earlier. While this boundary is a false boundary, it does limit pleasure to the physical realm which means pleasure will eventually run out. The heights of physical pleasure can be reached, and when that happens, the only place left to go is down.
This leads to the third factor in the problem of pleasure: it doesn’t last. Eventually, it fades away. And that is part of the nature of pleasure: it doesn’t stay at the same level of excitement.
Another way to say this is the human capacity for pleasure is limited and finite. Humans are not made to experience pleasure with no boundaries or limits. Sexual pleasure only lasts for a moment. The stomach can only handle so much food and then you have to stop eating. This is also true of other kinds of pleasures: vacation time, entertainment, music, etc. They don’t last. They are bounded by the limits of time and space.
This also connects back to the worldly definition of pleasure. Physical pleasure is by definition finite. It cannot last.
The Goodness of Boundaries
The problem of pleasure then points us to the solution which is that pleasure has to mean. That is, it must be defined, which is to say, it must have a boundary. Unbounded pleasure doesn’t mean anything. This truth is one our culture cannot seem to figure out. To suggest boundless pleasure is to admit all sorts of things into the realm of pleasure which we know are not true and good pleasures. Some people enjoy cheating or lying or hurting others. Unbounded pleasure becomes meaningless because it allows someone to make pain into pleasure. But pain is not pleasure. (This is not saying that some hard things like exercise or running cannot be pleasurable.)
We know pleasure must have boundaries in order to mean. This is especially true in sexual pleasure. We make promises and oaths around sex because we want it to mean something for that particular person. We are saying the pleasure means something important. It is not casual or meaningless. This is true for other pleasures as well. For example, a musical concert. The musicians and conductor mean what they are doing. The audience means what it is doing. We know this event means something because all the parties involved plan it out: they plan to meet at a certain time and place to participate in the performance. The event means something because it has boundaries. You have to be there in that time and space to be part of it.
Sexual pleasure finds meaning in the boundary of a relationship. This is one key part of pleasure that the sexual revolution denies. It says a man can sleep with a woman and not really care who she is. They suggest that you can have sex and not mean it. It allows for, what I call, accidental sex. That is what “casual sex” really is. It allows people to say “Oops, I had sex with you. I didn’t mean it.” In the sexual revolution, we have reduced sex to the level of an awkward moment. Oops.
Even for the people who claim that “casual” sex is good, they also insist that sex be consensual because it is intimate and personal. That is, it is not meaningless. It means something to go from wearing clothes to not wearing clothes. It is not like waving hi at someone you see on the street. This means that true sexual pleasure cannot happen between strangers. True sexual pleasure can only happen between two people who know and are known by each other. The relationship gives the pleasure meaning which makes it more pleasurable.
The other way that sexual pleasure is given meaning is by the family and the church community. These communities give the couple a larger culture of meaning. In this way, we see that meaning does not just come from the relationship between a man and a woman, it also comes from the relationship that they have with their families and with their church.
The Atlantic article concludes its report saying: “Declining sex is at least partly about family and religious changes that make it harder for people to achieve stable, coupled life at a young age. If we’d like more young adults to experience the joy of sex, we will have to either revive these institutions or find new ways to kindle love in the rising generation.”
The reason the family and the church are important is because they point to the reality that sexual pleasure is not merely about the couple but it is also about the larger community. Sexual pleasure is made to create children and build up the community around the couple. True sexual pleasure cannot happen without the family and the church. This means that sexual pleasure is larger than the couple and it gives the pleasure a purpose beyond the couple.
Finally, and most importantly, pleasure finds its highest meaning in God. Earthly pleasure, such as sex, is not made to point to itself but to point out beyond this world to the spiritual world. Psalm 16:11 says, “At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” There is a spiritual pleasure that is God himself and sexual pleasure is a small pointer toward that reality. Other earthly pleasures, like music, food, paintings, and mountains, also point to this deeper spiritual pleasure. But these earthly pleasures are only able to do that if they are placed in their proper place under God and His authority.
Under God’s authority, pleasures are given their true boundaries so they can be enjoyed as they are meant to be enjoyed.
The pleasures of this world are like a seven course meal. God has set the table and He is bringing out all these wonderful dishes for the meal. If we get impatient with God and demand it all at once it would mess up the whole thing. Pleasure unbounded is like a seven course meal with everything throw all together–meat, napkins, ice cream, candles, forks–in a blender. That is not a meal; that is trash. But with the right timing and spacing, the pleasures are able to be enjoyed in their proper way. We can enjoy the music, the atmosphere, the lighting, the tastes and smells, the smiles and stories, the sweet and the savory. And all of this is just a picture of what is to come.
We find another good boundary here too.
We have earthly pleasures first because they are training us for the heavenly pleasures that are to come. If we rushed to the heavenly right now, we would not be ready. God is building up our capacity for those future pleasures by giving us lesser pleasures now. And the really crazy thing is that these pleasures are the lesser pleasures. This boundary between earthly and heavenly is good. It gives meaning to the earthly pleasures that we enjoy now. There is more to come, be patient and enjoy what God has set before you now. The next meal will be coming, but you have to finish this meal first.
Jesse Sumpter is a Classical educator with Veritas Scholars Academy. Some of his writing has appeared at Kuyperian Commentary, Veritas Press, and The Imaginative Conservative.