Ross Douthat’s recent column in the New York Times, “Why Monogamy Matters,” suggests that when it comes to premarital sex the views of progressives boil down to a “jaded attitude” that has become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of teen sex. It is conservatives, by his estimation, concerned with the happiness and well-being of young people, who are the true optimists. His argument hinges, in part, on a recent book, Premarital Sex in America, written by sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, which concludes that there is a correlation between “sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness—and between promiscuity and depression.” And, though he claims that he is not trying to promote an “Arcadia of perfect chastity” or a “traditionalist utopia where the only sex is married sex,” Mr. Douthat’s arguments reveal that he, like so many other leading voices in the conservative movement, isn’t really a “conservative” at all, but a regressive.
Sure, Douthat makes it clear that he is not limiting sex purely to within the confines of marriage, he is, after all, also okay with sex that is literally premarital—that is, sex that a person has with a partner whom he or she is likely to marry. His argument comes down to the fact he believes that, to be as happy as possible, young people, especially women, should wait as long as possible to have sex, ideally with their spouse, but possibly with their fiancée. Mr. Douthat contends that this is not marriage promotion (perhaps he would settle on “marriage promotion lite”), and that when conservatives “talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy, and marriage,” they have only the happiness of young people in mind.
I would argue that regressives like Douthat are not concerned with the sexual health and well-being of America’s youth, but with pushing a moral agenda that is anti-woman and unabashedly promotes heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the only acceptable life choice. You need only to look to their own abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula to see what they are really thinking. Heritage Keeper’s tells young people “When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are ‘weaker, more violent, and less [equal].” It goes on to say, “People who live together before marriage experience ‘significantly more difficulty in their marriage with adultery, alcohol, drugs and independence [not wanting to depend on each other for anything] than those who do not live together.’” And Worth the Wait suggests that “marriage improves the feeling of emotional well-being that couples feel because they have a sense that their lives have meaning and purpose.” Suggesting that the lives of unmarried couples do not have meaning and purpose?
Of course, the programs and speakers are very, very careful not to attack sex per se for two reasons. First, any claims that sex is not enjoyable are going to ring hollow and untrue on young ears. They know better than that. Second, sex is used in these programs as the proverbial carrot, described as a beautiful reward if young people will just wait until they are married. A common analogy is comparing sex with fire (beautiful and useful if in the fireplace, but dangerous if uncontrolled). Their message is unambiguous: sex is not bad, as long as it is marital sex.
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And, yet, Mr. Douthat tries to couch these positions in terms that make him and the other regressives seem like they truly understand the times we live in, while progressives are pessimistic and backwards. He could not be more wrong.
In fact, progressives believe that, with the proper tools and education, young people will be able to make decisions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their lives, that will allow them to be happy, healthy adults. It is not at all a pessimistic worldview to have faith in the ability of young people to make these kinds of decisions; it is the definition of optimism. It is Mr. Douthat who is lowering standards and expectations by setting out only one potential life path and instructing young people to follow it “by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.” A moral standard that apparently only includes sex within (or almost within) marriage.
Ever since my wife wrote her thesis on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, I have had the opportunity to read Austen’s collected works. The dominant theme throughout the novels, I believe, is the desperate situation that women were forced into by societal expectations that they marry and marry well. They were expected to save themselves for marriage, of course, though not all women did. A woman who had sex outside of wedlock was ruined, unhappy, and destroyed for the rest of her life. Unless, that is, she could get him to marry her anyhow. For if she did marry him, her reputation was saved and her indiscretion swept under the rug.
This is the backwards world that Ross Douthat wants us to live in. He would truly be a man of the times, if we lived in Regency Era England.