Great Sexpectations: Augustine, Ashley Madison and the Problem of Disordered Love

Justine Toh deconstructs our culture's "sex myth" and how it sets us up for disappointment.

The Ashley Madison hack may have faded from the headlines but one of its key revelations lingers on in our cultural conversations about sex.

It's present in more recent offerings like Rachel Hills's book The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality and the romantic comedy Sleeping with Other People, currently showing in cinemas.

That this theme should crop up so repeatedly suggests that we need to be constantly reminded of it – no great surprise, really, since sex is often something that can (if you pardon the phrase) screw with our thinking, feeling, and desiring.

What each of these sex stories reinforces, again and again, is that all of us have great sexpectations that remain, frequently, unfulfilled.

This is a cruel irony in an age otherwise saturated with sex and its possibilities. Few today dare to insist there's one way to conduct affairs of the heart or lead a satisfying sexual existence. Aside from matters of consent and legality you can have whatever sex you want when you want, with whom you want, and how you want – sex today is a veritable garden of earthly delights.

Or is it? In The Sex Myth, millennial journalist Rachel Hills charges that this familiar narrative of sexual liberation keeps us firmly in the grip of the “sex myth” – found equally in media panics over the sexual anarchy of hook up culture and in our tendency to overinvest in sex as the supreme pleasure, as revelatory of the “barbaric truth of human nature” and “a window into who each of us 'really' is.”

Of particular interest to Hills is the way sex becomes tethered to our worth and value, and is the means by which individuals lay claim to an attractive, empowered and liberated identity. Sex, in these terms, is not just about sex but also about the self: how we regard ourselves, and how we are seen by others. As one college student interviewed by Hills says, “You're only as attractive as the girl you're going out with.”

In the wake of the Ashley Madison affair, you can spot the sex myth in this user's reasons for joining the site: “I was ready to act on my long-repressed desires and impulses, to broaden my horizons, even if it meant risking [my marriage] in search of what it meant to actually live.”

The sex myth, then, concerns the ways we imbue sex with, in Hills's terms, “an excess of significance” – making it the bearer of ultimate truth as well as the route to personal fulfilment, self-transformation and a kind of existential recognition. Hills's account of the way sex is used as a tool of self-realisation is resolutely secular, but her recognition of the “almost otherworldly importance” we ascribe to sex suggests a spiritual dimension to the expectations we place upon it.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that the void left by the “death of God” had been (inadequately) filled by the “apocalyptic romance” that now sought in the lover the significance and solace formerly found in the divine. “Sexuality,” he writes, “is now understood for what it really is: another twisting and turning, a groping for the meaning of one's life.” Becker wagers, then, that in an age stripped of the transcendent, we transcendentalise other earthly goods like love and sex. He suggests, basically, that there is fundamentally a theological problem – the absence of God – at the heart of our sexual (mis)adventures today.

The fourth-century theologian Augustine would agree. The Bishop of Hippo seems an unlikely conversation partner to consult on modern sex and love, but his infamous struggles with his own sexual appetites mark him out as our contemporary. Augustine's convictions are worth attending to – especially his belief that the fundamental human problem was one of disordered love.

For Augustine, loving things rightly, and in the right order, was the key that would unlock the secret to the fulfilled life. The man who lives a “just and holy life,” he writes in On Christian Doctrine, “keeps his affections … under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally.”

You need look no further than Sleeping with Other People to find a modern rundown of Augustine's account of the ways in which love can go awry. The movie is about disordered love framed through the contemporary therapeutic category of addiction. In the film, Jake and Laney reconnect at a support-group for sex-addicts twelve years after losing their virginity to each other in college. They both insist that they don't have an issue with sex, but Laney cheats on her boyfriend while still pining after Matthew, the sleaze she obsessed over in college, and the womanising Jake can't stay faithful to any of his girlfriends.

It turns out that Jake and Laney's problem, however, is more to do with love and less to do with sex. Laney is basically addicted to Matthew – in Augustinian terms, she “loves what she ought not to love” – and so lost is she in him that it just about sinks her chances of happiness with someone else. As for Jake, you could argue that he is similarly addicted to Laney. His fatal attraction to her was prompted by his disappointment at her disappearance the morning after their college encounter, which resulted in his resolve to never again to sleep with someone he could stand to lose – hence his chronic pursuit of women and avoidance of emotional commitment.

Laney and Jake's disordered loves, then, see them compulsively return to something, or someone, that won't ultimately satisfy. Realistically, the last thing these two messed up individuals should do is fall in love with each other, but this is a romantic comedy so Jake and Laney are fated to be together – after being eventually (if unconvincingly) “cured” of their addictions. Yet the film's passing references to Stephen King's Misery and Puccini's Madame Butterfly – both stories of obsessive and unrequited love – reinforce the varied ways in which people pin their hopes on those doomed to disappoint them. As such, it's hard to imagine Jake and Laney will prove the exception.

How to avoid, then, the perils of inordinate love?

Augustine, if you'll recall, counselled the “strict control” of the affections – perhaps in recognition of the chronic waywardness of human love. Some may be put off by such talk, regarding it as code for repressing one's desires. However, there is a significant payoff to mastering the art of loving the right things in the right way: you don't seek in any thing anything more than what it is. You can simply appreciate it as itself, and not as a distorted reflection of your own wants, needs, or desires for fulfilment.

There is a catch, however. Augustine also said that the supreme love object was God, and that loving God rightly would, on balance, rightly order all other loves, and keep us from seeking in earthly things what they cannot possibly hope to deliver. Modern sceptics may find such a solution unbelievable. Yet even harder to swallow is the fanciful resolution of most romantic comedies (including Sleeping with Other People), and Hills's utopian belief that it is possible to liberate ourselves from the sex myth so that sex is not seen as a basis for individual meaning and significance.

Given the contemporary trials of love and sex and the mess that we keep making of ourselves when it comes to love, it seems clear that more than ever, we need help from outside – a transcendent source beyond human will and desire.

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.