A Partial Typology of Sexual Relationships in Consumer Culture

I’ve been reflecting on some of the ways in which people around me relate to others, specifically in regards to sexual/romantic relationships. I have noticed that these relationships often take various forms of contemporary consumer relations (i.e. how we relate to products in the market). Obviously, some of the connections are more readily drawn than others. Here are a few forms I have observed:

30 Day Free Trial:
This relationships is characterized by a risk-free, short-term trial period.  People are sexually interested in each other and pursue a relationship, but with the understanding that if things go wrong, if the product does not meet their needs and/or standards, you can always ultimately opt out and send it back. Satisfaction guaranteed!

Disposable/One Time Use:
Along with razors, cameras, and various containers, sexual relationships have also become disposable.  Disposable products are marketed in such a way as to convenience the buyer; you can use what you need but then you don’t have to deal with it afterwards, you can just throw it out.  Use people for what they can offer you and then dispose of them. Prostitution anyone? Or in some of it’s more glorified forms?

The batteries in phones, laptops, iPods, and many other electronic gadgets are rechargeable today. This increases the use-life of the product since the user can simply recharge it every time it runs low, every time its performance wanes. Here a connection can be drawn with the way in which superficial material goods dominate the “recharging” of a relationship or even of a person’s sexual life.  Think of some of the advice that is given by presumably ignorant naive men to presumably shallow sentimental women: “just buy her some flowers or chocolate” or vice versa “he just needs a boys night around the poker table with some beer.” Here consumption recharges the relationship.

Simply put, more-for-less.  The ubiquitous bigger-is-better/more-is-better motif. (The danger here is to think that we are already beyond this way of thinking with products like the iPod nano. The miniturization of products with infinite applications is but another form within the same logic.) The locker room praise for sleeping with as many women as possible comes to mind…

Whether its 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or a lifetime warranty, these product “buffers” protect you from dissatisfaction; varying degrees of security at a variety of costs.  Certain kinds of marriage counseling and self-help regimes seem to fit this notion.

All of these types, I think, are driven by a logic of utility, satisfaction, and security that is radically at odds with the way Jesus relates to people and he suggests others ought to relate to each other. As for sexual relations, the life of Jesus is rather bare of information, but that the logic at work in consumer culture pervades throughout our sexual relations should already give us pause.

Obviously (or at least I hope this is self-evident), I am making an argument against these kinds of relationships.  One can see how the capitalist market is a destructive metaphor for sexual relationships.  What is additionally worrisome, is that the Christians have largely embraced this metaphor (perhaps without thinking or noticing).  I suspect that one marker of this shift towards the co-opting of sexual relations by consumer culture, within the church, has to do with the way the state defines and controls the terms and parameters of marriage, a Christian sacrament.  Of course, this is not all. The burden of insufficient thought about sexual relationships both Christians and non-Christians does not rest on “civil society.”  The church has not done sufficient theological work on sexual relations either.  Both in Catholic and Protestant circles, discussions tend to revolve around an all-or-nothing understanding of sexuality (e.g. either you’re married and therefore a sexual creature, or you are not married and therefore not). This is both theologically dangerous and destructive as it ignores the sexuality of God’s creation (a form of neo-gnosticism?).  Our task then, is to think about what other metaphors for sexual relations Scripture might hold, and how we might nuance the duality of the married/single framework of thinking about sexual relations. (Songs of Solomon might be a good place to start. When was the last time you heard a sermon, devotion, Sunday School lesson on that?!)

This really is a partial typology with some half-baked thoughts added on. What kinds of questions, dear readers, do some of these initial thoughts provoke for you? Do you agree that sexual relations in the west reflect consumer culture? If yes, what other examples might you give? What do you think the task of the church is in response to the consumer culture of sexual relations dominating the west? What kinds of questions ought we to ask ourselves to initiate further conversation on this kind of discussion of sexual ethics? What might be at stake in such a discussion? What are some theological reasons that sexual relations might/should concern Christian ethics?


8 comments on “A Partial Typology of Sexual Relationships in Consumer Culture

  1. Theophilus says:

    I was with you until you got to the “warranty” type. But more elaboration about the kinds of self-help and marriage counseling you’re talking about would probably clear this up for me. The marriage advice I’ve received has been along the lines of viewing the relationship as a kenotic one, which I suspect you would find healthier and not so capitalist.

    But in terms of nuancing the Christian “double ideal” of sexuality, my evangelical and Anabaptist impulses send me straight to 1 Corinthians 7. I don’t think this forecloses the possibility of resisting the desexualization of single people (which, in most cases, is a fool’s errand) and it most certainly advocates kenotic living for singles and marrieds alike. But the text looks to me like it’s setting boundaries on sexual practice that reinforce some form of the “double ideal.”

  2. The Song of Songs just may be my favorite book in the Bible. I think Milo Manara should do an illustrated version of it.

    I wonder if Jesus is really ‘bare of information’ when it comes to something like ‘sexual relations (or, at least, specifically, marriage). Apparently, he thinks it better to castrate yourself rather than to get married (I have a post coming out on this tomorrow, so you’re timing is impeccable), so, I feel like that tells me a whole lot about what he thinks on sexual relations. (Maybe Jesus needs to read the Song of Songs!)

  3. Paul says:

    I think our culture of consumption certainly colours the language we use around relationships, and influences the actual relationships as well. I’m not sure I follow all the metaphors here, recharging isn’t really a consumption term, it’s more of a maintenance term isn’t it? recharge/rebuild/restore?

    The biggest way I see consumption in relationships is in the hunt for the best relationship, which resonates well with some of your types. People don’t treat the end relationship as a consumption item as much as they treat the steps and people along the way. This might imply that the ending relationship is inherently consumption oriented, however I think that it is a worthwhile distinction to be made.

  4. Lexi says:

    I’m interested in the language of ‘expression’ that we apply to sexuality (as well as to a lot of other things!). The alternative proposed to the married/single binary usually seems to be one of sexual self-expression. Sexuality is talked about as if it is some sort of inherent talent which, since it has been created and is good, ought therefore to be expressed in whatever way appropriate to the inherent ‘talent’, because in doing so one is expressing oneself in some way, and self-expression is always good. But this is exactly the way in which marketing works. Products and services are advertised as helping clients to express themselves, as allowing them to be their real selves that cannot emerge because of whatever environmental constraints they are under.

    So, my point is that overcoming binary logic does not necessarily rid us of consumerist ways of thinking about sexuality. You don’t use the language of expression, but it seems to me to be the default way of thinking about sexuality, so I’m particularly interested in ways of thinking about it that avoid this sort of language.

  5. what a brilliant analogy. I haven’t read something this good in a while. Our culture definitely has become more consumptive than constructive- and it is evident in much of the creative writing that’s put out lately- at least in my eyes. This post is darn good! Thanks for putting it out here on the web for everyone to read. I got a lot out of it.

  6. Kampen says:

    Theophilus: Thinking more about this post I would probably get rid of the warranty type. I was more or less brainstorming various consumer characteristics and thinking about them in relation to sexual relationships.
    Paul: I kept rechargeable on the list because these kinds of products are prominent in current consumer culture and I thought someone would bring up the absence of this kind of product or consumption had I left it out. Consumer culture is not only about disposable and one time use and what appears to be wasteful. What you call maintenance products can also be consumptive, in energy, in materials like tungsten, etc. So they end up being consumptive and exploitative in less overt ways. But that they are, puts them in the same logic as the rest of the products.

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