Why Monogamy Matters
By ROSS DOUTHAT
Shouldn't there be bigger issues for a Times columnist to be covering? Like Libya, or Afghanistan, or the economy, or what Sarah Palin is re-tweeting today?
Social conservatives can seem like the perennial pessimists of American politics — more comfortable with resignation than with hope, perpetually touting evidence of family breakdown, social disintegration and civilizational decline.Yes, they can sometimes seem like that. Just like lions can sometimes seem like large cats, or policemen can seem like law enforcement officers.
But even doomsayers get the occasional dose of good news. And so it was last week, when a study from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that American teens and 20-somethings are waiting longer to have sex.
But you social conservatives have been howling for years about the "hook-up" culture, and the ":friends with benefits" phenomonen among today's teens. Is it possible that these sexual bogeymen might have been the masturbation fantasies of the unwillingly celibate? Or maybe just made up to keep the donations flowing from the church ladies?
Why is this good news? Not, it should be emphasized, because it suggests the dawn of some sort of traditionalist utopia, where the only sex is married sex. No such society has ever existed, or ever could: not in 1950s America (where, as the feminist writer Dana Goldstein noted last week, the vast majority of men and women had sex before they married),But not after!
But there are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.
Oh, you are going straight to hell with that kind of attitude, son! Everyone knows that sex is dirty and evil unless it makes a baby! That's why we can't let the gay people marry each other.
This distinction is crucial to understanding what’s changed in American life since the sexual revolution. Yes, in 1950 as in 2011, most people didn’t go virgins to their marriage beds. But earlier generations of Americans waited longer to have sex, took fewer sexual partners across their lifetimes, and were more likely to see sleeping together as a way station on the road to wedlock.
Or at least that's what we told the ladies to get them into the back seat of our dad's Packard. That or "I'm shipping out tomorrow."
And they may have been happier for it. That’s the conclusion suggested by two sociologists, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, in their recent book, “Premarital Sex in America.” Their research, which looks at sexual behavior among contemporary young adults, finds a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression.So, the whole "abstinence before marriage" argument? Maybe not holding up so well? Shouldn't the happiest young adults be the virgins?
Among the young people Regnerus and Uecker studied, the happiest women were those with a current sexual partner and only one or two partners in their lifetime.
Virgins were almost as happy, though not quiteHmm, what could be missing from their lives to make them less happy? Hmm, what could it be?
I just can't think of anything.
Yep, it's a mystery, all right.
When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind. The point isn’t that we should aspire to some Arcadia of perfect chastitySince when? What the hell were all those abstinence-only classes about, then?
Rather, it’s that a high sexual ideal can shape how quickly and casually people pair off, even when they aren’t living up to its exacting demands. The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.
Romantic Happiness? Is that what's at stake?
This is what’s at stake, for instance, in debates over abstinence-based sex education. Successful abstinence-based programs (yes, they do exist)
No, they don't.
Successful abstinence-based programs (yes, they do exist) don’t necessarily make their teenage participants more likely to save themselves for marriage.And successful Driver's Ed classes don't necessarily make teens into competent drivers. That's some definition of success you got there, Douthat.
. But they make them more likely to save themselves for somebody, which in turn increases the odds that their adult sexual lives will be a source of joy rather than sorrow.
The joys of unwanted pregnancies and STD's? Those kinds of joys?
And while we're on the subject. . .
Abstinence-Only a Failure, Latest Research Shows
Douglas Kirby’s study, “The Impact of Abstinence and Comprehensive Sex and STD/HIV Education Programs on Adolescent Sexual Behavior,” reveals that most abstinence programs did not delay initiation of sex
another federally funded study of four abstinence-only programs by the Mathematica Policy Research Inc., published in April of 2007, revealed similar results. The research group found that “participants had just as many sexual partners as nonparticipants and had sex at the same median age as nonparticipants.”
It’s also what’s at stake in the ongoing battle over whether the federal government should be subsidizing Planned Parenthood. Obviously, social conservatives don’t like seeing their tax dollars flow to an organization that performs roughly 300,000 abortions every year. But they also see Planned Parenthood’s larger worldview — in which teen sexual activity is taken for granted, and the most important judgment to be made about a sexual encounter is whether it’s clinically “safe” — as the enemy of the kind of sexual idealism they’re trying to restore.Yeah, fuck safety! The only judgement young people should be making sex-wise is "Are we having the sort of sex of which Ross Douthat would approve?"
Mmm, probably not!
But realism can blur into cynicism, and a jaded attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Social conservatives look at the contemporary sexual landscape and remember that it wasn’t always thus,
You just said it was! Remember "No such society has ever existed, or ever could: not in 1950s America (where, as the feminist writer Dana Goldstein noted last week, the vast majority of men and women had sex before they married)" That was you, like three paragraphs ago.
So, anyway, the subject of Today's column was what, again? "Why Monogamy Matters?"
We're still waiting for an answer.