Did feminism save marriage? The debate rolls on.
Among those who doubt that feminism saved marriage is Ross Douthat from the New York Times. As always, Douthat’s arguments are cogent and thoughtful.
For my part I addressed the question in a previous post.
There I did not address a slightly different argument, proposed by Bloomberg’s Noah Smith.
It was not just gender-bending that saved marriage, Smith explained, but sexual permissiveness has also contributed.
By that he seems to mean pre-marital sex. Unfortunately, he does not explain why a permissive attitude toward pre-marital hookups will necessarily lead to a rigid rejection of permissiveness within marriage.
In Smith’s words:
What if sexual permissiveness and feminism, instead of being toxic to the institution of marriage, are the key to saving it?
That might sound crazy, but here’s the case in a nutshell. If you wait until marriage to have sex, you’re taking an enormous risk. What if you’re not compatible? Or what if you regret not having shopped around?
Sexual permissiveness means that sex isn’t about marriage. But that means that marriage isn’t about sex. Most of the upper-class liberal educated Americans I know who are in stable, happy marriages had their share of premarital sex. Knowing what that lifestyle is like — and realizing that they wanted more — allowed them to be more content in their marriages, and more realistic about what marriage is all about (i.e., lifetime companionship and raising kids).
Douthat fired back with an argument based on social science:
But when you look specifically at sex itself, at patterns of actual sexual activity and their link to marital happiness and longevity, direct evidence for a permissiveness premium is extremely hard to find. And for women, almost all the the data points sharply in the opposite direction. 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 arehigher 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 isstrongly associated with female happiness and emotional well-being, period. And these results hold irrespective of education levels, as this piece by Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger points out: There’s a stronger correlation between multiple premarital partners and marital instability among less-educated Americans, but well-educated Americans, too, show much stronger marital outcomes when they have fewer premarital partners. (And interestingly, the usual connection between education and stability disappears entirely for people who married their first partner: They’re equally unlikely to divorce no matter whether they attended college or not.)
He adds that sexual permissiveness is less practiced among the upper classes than among the lower American classes:
And they seem at least compatible with the idea, frequently raised by conservatives (myself included) and scoffed at a bit by Smith, that an sexually-permissive culture benefits an upper class that’s still taught forms of restraint and caution implicitly at every level of its education, and that therefore ends up being less promiscuous overall and less likely to serially cohabit before marriage than the rest of the society … and ends up happier and more settled in marriage as a consequence.
Allow me now to add a few further reflections about the topic. One appreciates that Smith's argument is logical. Unfortunately, it does not hold up well to scrutiny.
Smith assumes, almost as an article of faith, that all sex is created equal, that sex within a marriage or a relationship is the same as casual sex with someone you met an hour ago.
For most people, certainly for most women this is not the case.
To imagine that sex is just another way to experience pleasure is a philosophical sophistry. It does not address the question of who or what is experiencing the pleasure. Does the pleasure belong to a body or a person? Is it a release of physiological tension or an affirmation of a connection?
If a couple is involved in a socially recognized relationship, if they bear titles that designate them as conjoined-- husband and wife or even boyfriend and girlfriend-- the experience changes.
It is simple-minded to assume that sex is always sex, regardless of who is involved, regardless of the nature of their relationship.
If we are going to credit permissiveness for having saved marriage, we ought at least to recognize that it has its downside.
Smith does not mention the increased incidence of STDs. Perhaps he does not care or perhaps he thinks that the risk is worth assuming, but clearly they remain a risk factor.
If you want to support permissiveness, you also need to acknowledge the risk, and thus one cogent reason why human societies have tended to frown upon it.
For women, sex within a committed relationship has much more to recommend it than exploring one’s sexuality. From a Darwinian perspective this makes good sense. A woman who has sex with a man who is not committed to her risks having a child whose father will repudiate his offspring. Thus, she risks having to bring up a child alone.
Of course, many people today consider this to be no big deal, but human nature is what it is. Its logic was designed to produce the best conditions for childrearing.
The emotional matrix underlying sexuality does not change with the law. You cannot legislate reality.
In our new age, many women choose to defer marriage and childrearing but do not defer sexual experience. If so, they will have endured more than their share of breakup traumas and failed relationships.
If a woman is more likely to see a sexual encounter as leading to a committed relationship, her policy against being tied down too early will cause her to suffer more relationship traumas.
If sex within marriage is significantly different from sex outside of marriage, then Smith’s argument becomes more dubious.
Smith should acknowledge that throughout human history most marriages have been more-or-less arranged. In more than a few cases, the couple was not sexually compatible. And in more than a few of those the solution to the problem was adultery.
In fact, it is relatively rare in human history for romantic love to be associated with marriage.
The point is often overlooked. Thus, it deserves to be repeated.
Whatever Smith means when he says that sex is not about marriage, he is overlooking the fact that a real marriage must be consummated. Failure to consummate a marriage is grounds for nullification, for declaring that the marriage never was a marriage.
When we ask about sexual compatibility, we should notice that individuals who defer sexual congress are often perfectly aware of whether or not they desire their partners.
True enough, this often leads to a certain amount of clumsiness, but still most men do not grant women extra credit for being very experienced sexually.
Smith does not mention the fact that human beings who find each other sexually compatible today might not find each other sexually compatible tomorrow. One suspects that this has very little to do with how much sex they had prior to marriage.
Next, Smith argues that couples who have tried out sex before marriage will then be able to make a rational decision about whether they want to continue it within marriage. Does he really believe that the decision of whether or not to get married depends on the quality of the sex?
I would raise a slightly disconcerting point. Why would people who have lived a permissive lifestyle, enjoying sex with whomever they please, easily adapt to a new relationship that required them, in principle to limit themselves to one sexual partner.
Even assuming that one’s spouse is the world’s greatest lover, someone who has practiced permissive sex might, given contemporary mores, feel entitled to continue the practice even when he is married.
Habits, once acquired, do not just vanish in the cold night air.