Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sex, Marriage, and Happiness

Spring isn’t here, the sap is not running, but the media is buzzing with stories about the sex lives of America’s youth.

For all the talk about hookups and sexting, it seems that, compared with several years ago, adolescent and post-adolescent decadence is on the decline.

Of course, that assumes that decadence means fewer virginal youths. As it happens, it is still possible to be decadent and to be a virgin, but, let's leave that for another time.

In a recent study the Centers for Disease Control announced these findings. New York Times columnist Ross Douthut summarized them: “In 2002, the study reported, 22 percent of Americans aged 15 to 24 were still virgins. By 2008, that number was up to 28 percent.” Link here.

Of course, the ambient culture is still promoting hookups, and college students continue to report that dating barely exists on college campuses, so how does it happen that more young people should have refrained from sexual intercourse?

If I had to venture a guess, I would say that all the publicity about hookups and sexting might well have produced some serious parental pushback. Given the current culture, and given the way most parents feel about it, I would not be surprised to learn that more than a few parents of teenaged girls have been setting down some very strict moral values.

Counting virgins does not tell us all that much about sexual behavior. Nor is it the most telling statistic that recent research has reported.

More interesting is the finding that monogamy correlates well with happiness.

Douthut reports on the conclusions reached by a new book: “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.

“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.”

To his credit, Douthut is carefully defining his terms. He is not calling for a return to a day when young women were virgins on their wedding night. He is merely saying that when sex takes place with a relationship, and when that relationship involves a commitment, then, the participants are likely to be happier.

Why does monogamy make for greater happiness? Perhaps the authors mention it, but, in case they did not, one reason might be that people who are married have more sex than people who are not. If that's true, then monogamy implies less, not more, sexual restraint.

I mention this because people who oppose hookups and other forms of random, impersonal, sexual encounters are often denounced as killjoys. In truth, it’s the other way around. If you want more sex, commit.

I would add that the more your intimacy is something that you only share with your spouse or significant other, the more likely it is that you will be having more, not less, sex.

Again, people think that the public display of sex denotes an open mind and a body open to greater sexual experience or greater sexual exploration.In truth, the opposite is probably true. Going public with your sexuality is likely to lead to fewer, not more, libidinous encounters.

Of course, these studies are hopeful because they suggest that teenaged girls and young women are becoming less willing to give their sexual favors away for free. Perhaps they have gotten the message.

Douthut reports: “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 quite, and then a young woman’s likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished.”

I think it fair to add that marriage offers a level of social stability that might well enhance feelings of connection and belonging. Marriage grants the security of knowing exactly where you stand in relation to your mate or partner.

Since much of what we call depression is really social anomie, any relationship that defines where you stand in society is a step away from unhappiness.

All of these studies suggest that there is some considerable advantage to be gained by marrying young. Of course,  certain people of the feminist persuasion take serious exception to the notion that women should marry young.

Given that contemporary feminism has been actively encouraging women to marry later, this should not come as a surprise.

Feminist dogma has insisted that career development should come before marriage and that an older, wiser, more experienced person will make a better, more informed choice of mate than will a young, callow, sexually inexperienced person.

The argument makes a certain amount of sense. Older often does mean wiser, so why not wait to get married until you have seen a bit of life and explored all of its possibilities?

Two good reasons argue forcefully against what I will call: deferred marriage.

First, when people marry young they can build a life together. When two older individuals marry they will be obliged to merge two independent lives.

It is far more difficult to merge two independent lives than it is to build a life together.

Second, when people marry later they will necessarily have racked up a series of failed relationships before they find “the One.”

These failed relationships will count as traumas, and traumas cloud judgment. When you have been hurt, your first priority will be to avoid being hurt again. Thus, you will choose a partner who is less likely to hurt you, not because that person would be the most suitable long term mate.

That much being said, one Amanda Marcotte has taken very serious exception to Douthut’s views, and also, by extension, to the views expressed by Regnerus and Uecker.

Unfortunately, she has written a rather badly thought out screed in the DoubleX blog. Link here.

Marcotte indulges in some of the worst forms of rhetorical hyperbole. She accuses Douthut of wanting to use “force and deprivation” to promote monogamy, of saying that the solution to all of women’s problems is a boyfriend, and of wanting to deprive everyone of women’s health services because he questions some of what Planned Parenthood does.

In Marcotte’s words: “And that therefore the solution to all of women's problems is to make sure that they all have boyfriends.  This implicates Planned Parenthood, because they offer health care and advice that assumes that not everyone is in a monogamous relationship.  So by depriving everyone of that health care—monogamous, non-monogamous, in-between (as many college kids are)—you will magic all those single ladies into be-boyfriended ladies, and no one will be sad again.”

I assume that Marcotte is trying to be ironic. If so, she fails at it. Saying that a stable relationship makes women happier does not mean that Douthut, or anyone else, is saying that having a boyfriend will solve all women’s problems.

But, just when you were beginning to conclude that Marcotte cannot think at all, she makes a cogent point that is worth our attention.

What if correlation does not mean causation? Perhaps happier people are more likely to marry young because they are easier to get along with and more open to relationships.

Perhaps the people who wait longer are more depressed, more difficult to deal with, and thus, more likely to marry later.

In her words: “Because non-monogamy is an option, people in monogamous relationships are a self-selecting group…. In reality, most people who choose monogamy don't choose monogamy, they choose a specific person.  Or, to get in the nitty-gritty, you go on a date with someone.  And then another.  And then another, and so on until you're spending a lot of time together, and then usually declarations of love are made, instigating the magical transformation from ‘promiscuous‘ to monogamous.  People who are stable and happy to begin with are far more likely to get that second date and to inspire desire in others for love and commitment.  On the flip side, people who are suffering from depression struggle more to find partners who are willing to buy in on that level. People tend to choose partners based on who they feel is going to be a value add to their lives.”

It seems reasonable to think that a person who is depressed will be less likely to be able to commit to a relationship. And it seems reasonable to say that the happy few who marry younger are a self-selecting group.

As I said, the point is cogent.

But, does it require scrutiny.

Strangely, Marcotte is telling us that happier and better adjusted people marry young. If that is true, then it must be a good thing to marry young.

And if it's a good thing, why not encourage it?

As for those women who marry later, Marcotte seems to be saying that they are sufficiently miserable to be poor prospects for marriage. I confess that I find her point decidedly dismissive and un-nice.

Some people marry later because of reasons that have nothing whatever to do with whether or not they are happy and fulfilled. Marcotte seems to be stigmatizing those women who follow the lead of feminism and defer marriage. As I say, it is not very nice of her.

Beyond that, Marcotte’s vision of mating assumes that people are making autonomous decisions, unaffected by cultural influences.

In truth, there is no such thing as a perfectly autonomous decision. We all belong to families and communities, and we all receive an education in the values the pertain to those communities. We know what we have to do be members in good standing of our communities. More often than not, community values have a great deal to say about when we get married.

I do not need to tell you that some cultures require people to marry young. They do not ask whether you are happy or depressed, or whether you have found the love of your life. These cultures impart a strong value system, and they often have lower divorce rates.

I am thinking of cultures that allow young people to choose their own partners and that do not force them to marry against their will. So, let’s limit our speculation to American subgroups where early marriage is strongly encouraged.

Surely, we understand that a woman who belongs to a culture where she will be encouraged to marry young will be less likely to hookup than will a woman who feels obliged to postpone marriage.

In America, feminists have touted deferred marriage, to the point of actively encouraging it. A woman today who wants to get married straight out of college will be warned against it. She will be subjected to peer group, and perhaps even family, opprobrium, and will be told, quite explicitly, that she is going to miss out on all the fun, that she will be completely dependent on her husband because she has not developed a career, and that she is writing herself a ticket to divorce court.

By Marcotte's logic, feminism would appeal more to people who do not belong to strong communities. The weaker your community ties, the more you will suffer from anomie, and the more you will suffer from anomie the more difficulty you will have finding either a mate or happiness.

For many women feminism offers a substitute for community. It promotes a value system that people must adhere to if they want to remain members in good standing of the feminist virtual community.

But feminism is an ideology. It requires that its adherents hold fast to certain dogmatic truths, and this is hardly the royal road to happiness or to a successful marriage. One might conclude from Marcotte that feminism either makes women miserable or preys on their misery... or both.

People who belong to stronger communities develop better social skills, feel more confident  because they know where they belong and what they need to do to remain members in good standing. Communities have codes of personal conduct; they ought not to be held together by ideological beliefs and dogmas.

Perhaps, people who belong to such communities are happier and more capable of finding mates at an earlier age.


Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman, et al.
RE: Uuuuuhhhhh....

dogmatic truthes -- Stuart Schneiderman

The more I see of 'dogmas', the more I'm convinced that that term, 'dogmatic truthes', is an oxymoronic.


[The Truth will out. And it doesn't require 'dogma' to be the Truth.]

Anonymous said...

P.S. It IS Spring where I live.

The grass is greening. The tulips and irises are coming up. The catlains are coming out on the aspens. The evergreens are coming back to 'green' instead of their Winter drab.

The Canadian geese are moving North. And someone said they saw a gathering of male Robins.

David Foster said...

"Communities have codes of personal conduct; they ought not to be held together by ideological beliefs and dogmas"

This feels right, but could you expand a bit on the difference between a "code of personal conduct" and a set of "ideological beliefs & dogmas"?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I'm working on this right now. One of my sources will be an article about the new work of Francis Fukuyama in the Times. You might find it interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/science/08fukuyama.html?smid=tw-nytimesbooks&seid=auto

Anonymous said...

TO: All
RE: Marriage Is Good

Yes. It is. For both men and women.


....divorce is (1) good for women....in the feminist way of thinking and (2) VERY BAD for men.

Therefore, Risk Assessment dictates that men should be very, VERY, VERY cautious about getting into that situation.


[If marriage is outlawed, only outlaws will have inlays.]]

Anonymous said...

Your commentary implies that you belive that marriage will turn a depressed woman into a happy woman, regardless of who she marries. Hmmm .....

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I certainly did not mean to present marriage as a panacea. As I understand the research findings, we are talking about degrees of happiness. Marriage enhances the possibilities for happiness. It is not a cure for depression, but it certainly does help both men and women, in the sense that it gives them a defined role in society. And in the sense that a defined role is better than an undefined role and the attendant anomie.

I hope that this clarifies the issue.