A Thinking Woman’s Book

SMART SEX: FINDING LIFE-LONG LOVE IN A HOOK-UP WORLD. By Jennifer Roback Morse (Spence Publishing Co., 111 Cole St., Dallas, Tex. 75207, 2005), 260 pp. HB $27.95.

In the early part of the twentieth century, G. K Chesterton wrote two books, What’s Wrong with the World and Eugenics and Other Evils, in which he described the essential nature of the family, husband, wife, child, and property over against the ideas and institutions that were threatening it and with it the very life of the civilization. Most of the things Chesterton thought would go wrong did go wrong in the way he suspected. In the century since Chesterton wrote, the attacks on the family as an institution, on the dignity and nature of marriage and the child, especially the mother, on the meaning of man and woman, husband and wife, have become law, custom, and popular culture.

Beginning with her Love & Economics (reviewed in HPR, June, 2002) and continuing with her present volume, Smart Sex, Jennifer Roback Morse has managed to give us a graphic look at why the supposed alternatives to the family in recent times have not worked and cannot work. But also, not to be purely negative, she explains just what it takes to reestablish, even amidst personal moral chaos, a real family based on principles and, yes, disciplines that will work. This is a blunt, straight-forward, indeed, amusing book, at the same time personal — Morse tells us that she has herself lived through most of the aberrations — and scholarly — Morse is a trained economist and brilliant logician. This is also a book about the culture, what is wrong with it and how to repair it.

The book is a delight to read as well as an education in the contradictions of the literature that purports to defend abortion, divorce, cohabitation, college promiscuity, and a hundred other variants on the themes of “women’s rights,” careerism, sexual and political freedom. “The scientist who believes in the permanence of human nature regards religion as his enemy. The post-modernist who believes in the infinite malleability of human nature regards religion as his enemy. Isn’t there something odd about this so-called debate?” (14). This was precisely Chesterton’s point that the attackers of sanity always contradicted themselves. They attack Catholicism both for being too strict and for being too lax.

The book is divided into three major parts: 1) “Why Your Marriage Matters to the Rest of the World,” 2) “The Problem with Consumer Sex,” and 3) “Self-Giving, Rightly Understood.” It has some wonderful sub-titles: “Why Recreational Sex Is Not Fun” or “Why Morally Neutral Sex Isn’t.”

Like Chesterton, Morse understands the need to save the family from the government. She also sees that the government gets into the act of interfering with the family because individual men and women choose personal problems and relationships that leave many children and women (men too) in a state of dependency or despondency. Morse’s discussion of life in college dorms, its real incoherence, is itself worth the price of the book, but the book is worth many prices.

Perhaps the most important part of this book, something that Morse evidently figured out largely by herself living through it to sanity, is her advice to young and middle aged men and women about how to save themselves by saving their marriage and children. In the tradition of Walker Percy, this is a “self-help” book that teaches us that we need help and that it is all right to need and be needed, that dependency can teach us the very nature of our lot.

This is a thinking-woman’s book, by a woman who thinks very clearly and carefully… at one level it is even a book on economics, where it fits in and where it does not. Indeed, Morse’s intellectual vocation is to teach economists that the family is not a free market institution, even though there is nothing wrong with the free market. The family requires a concept that is beyond utility—of sacrifice, generosity, and love.

The essence of this book is the primacy of self-giving over self-interest, without denying a legitimate place for self-interest. It is a wonderful and memorable book. It puts everything together in a way seldom seen, both witty and profound. Morse shows the literal incoherence of the pro-choice positions, the sanity of the classical role of mother and father. Indeed, what it is to be a mother and a father has seldom been more clearly explained.

This is simply a “must” book for couples contemplating marriage, for pastors, for couples who have been married and wonder what it is all about. Morse is in a class by herself, bemused, sincere, blunt, intelligent, and mystical. It is a book on the metaphysics of gift and how it is essential to our lives. There is no book quite like this. Do not miss it.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D. C.

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