Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sexual Permissiveness and Marriage

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.


Ares Olympus said...

I agree on STD risks, and if nothing else seems like the best reason to limit your number of sexual partners. (Avoiding pregnancy is the best best reason, but that's what contraceptives are supposed to solve)

I might suggest serial monogamy as the standard for premarital sex, so you know someone at least a few months before having sex, and only when you believe the person you are with is someone you could marry, and if you're planning to have kids, someone who you would want to be the father or mother of your children.

I admit the hookup culture perplexes me, even if you could avoid the STD issue. But if I imagine a little deeper, I can see sexual desire is a rather vulnerable thing, and there needs to be some sort of "experimentation" phase, something more than what you can discover on your own, and maybe more for women than me, and yet with issues of shame, its easy to worry your sexual expressions will be judged as perverted.

So if you're with someone you'll never see again, I can imagine you'll be willing to experiment a little more, and if you decide what you learn isn't for you, you can then "erase" such experimentation from memory with someone you don't care about. In contrast if you're with someone you think you may spend the rest of your life with, you might be more cautious about experimenting because those mutual memories can't be erased.

I mean all of this goes deep into myth, and the "shame of being naked" from leaving the garden of eden. So if we all depended purely on our adult pride, probably no one would be having any sex at all, it seeming just too primal and animalistic, undignified. And then the religious leaders would have to talk about a "duty" for a woman to submit to her husband, so the next generation could actually be born. (And perhaps the reproduction rates of many modern countries is below 2.0!)

The other side to consider is alcohol, apparently a way to sidestep self-consciousness, and surrender to primal passions, without feeling responsible for them.

And that reminds me of another idea. One extreme can say "sex is just biological drive" so like an itch, you scratch, and then go back to ordinary life.

And a related understanding of that same extreme can say "sex is sacred", recognizing a sort of archetypal relationship, so when a man and a woman come together, they are two individuals, but they are also two archetypal representations for all men and all women, and so there is something impersonal there, something that exists outside of the ego, our sense of self.

So if these are "real", if impersonal sex is categorically different than personal sex, how do we bridge those? I mean I might even suggest sex within marriage becomes boring because it is connected to a large net of personal issues that get in the way of the impersonal archetypal sex. And that's what makes straying in marriage attractive, because you can depersonalize sex with someone else in a way that is harder with a spouse?

It would be interesting to know if men or women are more interested in depersonalized sex. You might say men, but given women's interest in romance novels, you could argue the reverse.

So if any of this makes sense, it might suggest we have to identify personal and impersonal sex within ourselves, AND recognize the second has archetypal qualities that exist outside of the ego. So both of these aspects are needed within a marriage, or sex will lose its appeal.

And a last thought, I agree it seems hard to see how a person could go from having many sexual partners to monogamy, and its an open question how to deal with that. Suppression is probably most popular, but perhaps that's what kills the archetypal connection?

I wonder if religion can help ground the impersonal aspects of sex? But it also reminds me of the old testament "I am a jealous God", an interesting phrase, accepting there are other gods, like the archetypes of Jung?

Lastango said...

So the feminists are claiming credit for saving an institution they destroyed, eh?

War is peace. Lies are truth.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"One appreciates that Smith's argument is logical."

Indeed. Another exhibit in the limits of logic.

Sex is a fundamental desire, and the energy behind it is primal. Yet it remains a desire, not a need. And in a complex social structure like human society, there are significant consequences for sexual impulsivity. One may be a child, who is then depend not on its parent(s) for an extended period of time. And then there is the strong desire for bonding and instinctual need to build a family that lies within all of us. When this becomes optional, there is a crisis in trust between persons. This is acutely true between men and women. When society abandons a universal structure for the social contract, the individual rightly concludes that he/she is on his/her own.

Not much of this is necessarily logical or rational. We've all been there, in the moment, when we feel the attraction or urge. Desire is real, and pleasure is persuasive. We tend to rationalize our choices using our conscious mind, but I'm not so sure all these choices are conscious. Our limbic brain is powerful, and many scientists have said this is where we make our decisions... explaining our choice doesn't negate it. But what part of us is making the choice? We like to think we're in control, but...

So this is why Seligman said the key to a successful life is deferred gratification. Educated upper class people like Smiith like to rationalize that their formal education -- degrees and credentials -- is an indicator of their "earned" superiority. I disagree. What's required to get a degree is a certain degree of self-denial or deferred gratification. The degree doesn't get you a ticket to the upper class -- the discipline of focusing on delivering a future outcome is what does that. Staying the course for a long-term desired result IS the education.

This is why our "elites" are failing those in the middle class. The "elites" are not holding those in other social strata to the same expectations they hold their peers. This trend represents a powerful conceit that fuels all kinds of social and economic disparities. This is the locus of our society that can't say no... to anyone. Because saying no is paternalistic or mean. After all, "Mean people suck." And no one wants to "suck." Yet this is an abdication of responsibility. It's a lack of leadership. It's the sophisticated libertarian posture of tolerance as a substitute for true love. It's actually condescending in the worst way.

Feminism is an inherently elitist idea, conceived and propagated by the wealthy (and angry) leisure class. High school-educated people working as career clerks at department stores do not view store managers as villains in a narrative of patriarchy. They have a job, and they want to keep it. They want to work 40 hours so they can pay the bills and take care of their family. This is s form of deferred gratification that used to be a source of pride in America, and a source of economic stability and upward mobility for the store clerk's children. Now these jobs are frowned upon in a "service" economy dominated by clever, uber-educated management who increasingly see no obligations to their employees as part of a larger social contract. It's all optional.

The consequences of feminism are (a) social immobility, and (b) making masculine contribution optional. Not enough time to explain that here, but you get the drift. Feminism did not save marriage.

Dennis said...

For your edification:

David Foster said...

"High school-educated people working as career clerks at department stores do not view store managers as villains in a narrative of patriarchy. They have a job, and they want to keep it. They want to work 40 hours so they can pay the bills and take care of their family. This is s form of deferred gratification that used to be a source of pride in America, and a source of economic stability and upward mobility for the store clerk's children. Now these jobs are frowned upon in a "service" economy dominated by clever, uber-educated management who increasingly see no obligations to their employees as part of a larger social contract."

Some do regard their store managers as villains (and a few managers actually are villains), but in general the people with this attitude will not be the ones who get promoted.

The inculcation of resentment against a wide range of jobs has done huge harm. In my post Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia, I excerpt a story about how a GM program to interest kids in manufacturing/engineering careers was destroyed in the 1960s by politicized rage against corporations and technology.

I'm sure this was just the tip of the iceberg.

David Foster said...

It is probably true that historically there were a considerable number of people who got married largely out of horniness, and got married to the wrong people by making the decision too early.

On the other hand, serial monogamy has the problem that it reduces the parallelism of the search process. In the 1940s through mid-1960s, it seems to have been common for individuals to date multiple people at the same time; ie, not just single dates with a particular person but multiple continuing relationships. Usually there was no actual sex involved, though there were probably levels of making out of which Mrs Grundy would not have approved.

With serial monogomy, the two individuals who are having sex (and possibly living together) terminate the getting-to-know you search process until they break up (if they do.) It is apparently now pretty common for a couple to have sex after about 3 dates, so they are in effect making what is a multi-month to multi-year decision based on knowing someone for a few hours.