The longer I do this, the more I become convinced that there isn’t too much “right” and “wrong” in the world, just a lot of perspectives that are somewhat valid on their own merits.
We see this a lot in politics. Should the government eliminate useless red tape and wasteful spending, as conservatives suggest? Absolutely. Do we need tax dollars to pay for things as liberals suggest? Absolutely. You can choose sides, but you’d be foolish to deny that the other side has a point, whether you like it or not.
The liberal/conservative divide has reared its ugly head in the culture wars as well. Conservatives tend to stick with the one man, one woman, sex within marriage model. Liberals are open to all different models, including gay marriage, single parenting, polyamory, sex outside of marriage, and never getting married at all. Let’s put aside the irony that liberals are more in favor of individual choice and liberty and focus on the fallout.
The percentage of married people has dropped. The percentage of kids born out of wedlock has skyrocketed. (over 50% of kids born to 20-30 year olds). This sounds like a conservative’s nightmare.
Are we making progress? Are we tearing apart the fabric of our society? Are we actually happier?
Well, if you’re upper class and educated, you’re probably better off than you’ve ever been before. People are marrying later, waiting until they are financially stable, delaying engagement until their love has stood the test of time, aware of the pitfalls of divorce, and so on. Plenty of people are making mistakes, but they’re more likely to end in a breakup after a year than a divorce after 10 years.
You can choose sides, but you’d be foolish to deny that the other side has a point, whether you like it or not.
If you’re lower class and uneducated, you’re probably worse off than you’ve ever been before. There are fewer role models for happy relationships. Financial stress is greater. Both parents have to work to put food on the table, but it’s a tough job market for high school graduates. Sex is abundant. Education is lacking. Abuse (physical, emotional, substance) is common and tolerated. As a result, there are millions of children being born without a stable two parent environment.
Which brings us to the crux of the argument posited by Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the liberal New York Times. Is the liberal vision of marriage, with lots of dating, sex, and blurry gender roles superior the chaste conservative vision of marriage, where people get married younger, have children younger, and reserve sex for committed relationships?
Douthat skews conservative, but actually has some data on his side. Even though liberals like to tout their sexual permissiveness as a strength – how can I get married unless I’ve sampled lots of the merchandise? – there is some social cost to sleeping your way through your 20’s and 30’s. “Notwithstanding the potential for regrets, women who only had sex with their future spouse are more likely to be in a high quality marriage than women who had a higher number of sexual partners. Divorce rates are higher for women with multiple premarital partners than women who had only one; they’re twice as high for women who have cohabitated serially than women who only cohabitated with their future husband. Independent of marriage, relationship stability is stronger when sex is initiated later, and monogamy and a restricted number of sex partners is strongly associated with female happiness and emotional well-being, period.”
As a liberal who has rolled his eyes for many years at how the GOP eschews facts for feelings, this would seem to be a lot of facts that contradict the liberal narrative. And we’d be foolish to dismiss those facts simply because we don’t like what they have to say. Someone is going to go in the comments and try to destroy the credibility of Douthat or the studies instead of thinking about why the studies would suggest something we don’t want to believe.
No one wants to have fewer choices – of where to live, how to work, or who to sleep with – but when confronted with them, we become paralyzed, and often make bad decisions that leave us unhappy.
Which is that, as Jonathan Franzen writes about in “Freedom,” there is a curse to having too much freedom. No one wants to have fewer choices – of where to live, how to work, or who to sleep with – but when confronted with them, we become paralyzed, and often make bad decisions that leave us unhappy. This was the premise of Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice,” which analyzes why having more choices isn’t an equation for long-term happiness. So while I would never “slut-shame” anyone and believe in the freedom of choice, this freedom has also taken somewhat of a toll that we don’t like to calculate. All we have to do is read this blog to see the lack of trust in men, the lack of faith in relationships, the exasperation with men who have sex without commitment, the frustration with texting, dick pics, and hookup apps. I’m not trying to turn back time or put the genie back in the bottle; I’m just pointing out that this is the result of freedom.
As Douthat says at the end of his piece, “If we’re groping toward ideas or models of what marriage should look like in the 21st century, and what kind of choices and cultivated virtues lead to happiness and durability unions and families, describing the future of marriage as necessarily (and happily) “progressive” is a kind of quarter-truth. It captures one very important element in contemporary social life, a shift toward more flexible gender roles amid greater female opportunities, that a flourishing marriage culture needs to adapt to, take advantage of, incorporate, accept. But it overstates how dramatically these adaptations, even or especially in their more successful forms, have overwritten more traditional patterns of marital success.”
This is not to suggest that there are no examples of successful single mothers, happy polyamorous couples, or women who are completely happy sleeping with dozens of men without commitment. There are, and God bless them. This only suggests that – on the whole – there is some measure of merit to the virtues of being selective about your sex partners – if, of course, you’re looking for a stable, monogamous relationship.
Keep in mind, that I was NOT selective about my sex partners and still stumbled my way into a happy marriage. But I enjoyed hooking up; it didn’t make me unhappy. That’s not the case for many women I know. Unfortunately, I have a lot of clients (and readers) who are really burned out on dating and random sex. Douthat’s article should be a validation that maybe they need to be more selective about who shares their bed.
Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.