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Cynicism, Vain Hopes, and Realistic Optimism about Pre-marital Sex

Ross Douthat, in yesterday's New York Times, writes an insightful column examining the character of various attitudes regarding pre-marital teen sex.  He rightly notes that social conservatives--on this and on other issues--are often taken for cynics resigned to be forever condemning the downward spiral of a sickly culture.  But, in the face of good news regarding a trend among young people to delay sexual experience, Douthat wonders whether the true cynics are not those who advocate a more "realistic" and gritty understanding of teen sexuality; the type who exhibit concern, only, for the "safety" of the sex and forget that no one yet has invented a condom that can do the job of protecting the soul.

Douthat takes to task the straw man argument springing from the left (an argument, I'm sorry to say, that some social conservatives are only too happy to prop up in direct reach of the left's flame throwers) that holds conservatives to be unrealistic and silly because monogamy as an ideal ignores the impulse and drive of human sexuality by suggesting that a world where every person waits until marriage to have sex is an achievable goal.  Instead of accepting the smirking head-pat that the left wants to offer social conservatives on this score, Douthat rightly turns their argument on its head.  In other words, only a naive and unsophisticated sort of person incapable of understanding subtlety and accepting the occasional and tragic moral imperfection would imagine that conservatives actually believe a "wait till marriage" ethic would translate into 100% (or even 60%) of brides having the strictly technical legitimate grounds for wearing white on their wedding day. 

Pre-marital sex would still exist . . . but its character (however sinful according to religious standards) would still be a lot better when considered by societal standards.  Douthat (quite rightly) makes a distinction between sex that is "casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered" and sex that is more accurately described as "pre-marital" because there is likely to be some additional sex that is post-marital.  The second kind--though not without its own set of difficulties and heartaches--is, obviously, a world apart from the first.  This is particularly true when it is taken as a societal phenomenon rather than as a personal one. 

The ability to see this distinction and to recognize the desirability and possibility of restoring this ethic is what sets social conservatives apart from their counterparts on the left as the true but realistic optimists in this debate.  Their concern for the whole person and the whole society--even as they understand the pitfalls and the probability of some failure--do not keep them from insisting upon the standard.  The left instead notes the difficulty of the standard and then brings it down . . . to safety. 

When one notes, as Douthat does, the real difference between male and female emotional well-being in this current state of affairs, it always amazes me that feminists have chosen to cozy up to the left in this debate.  Such women appear very clearly to be the sell-outs and the dupes of a cynical philosophy designed for wicked men who would use and discard them as suits their impulses.  Where is the female empowerment in that? 
Categories > Men and Women

Discussions - 9 Comments

the real difference between male and female emotional well-being in this current state of affairs, it always amazes me that feminists have chosen to cozy up to the left in this debate. Such women appear very clearly to be the sell-outs and the dupes of a cynical philosophy designed for wicked men who would use and discard them as suits their impulses. Where is the female empowerment in that?

Because people are used and discarded through various processes - not merely the contemporary sexual derby among young singles. Another means is through divorce courts. Unilateral divorce on demand is something creatures like Karen deCrow have favored a great deal, because it suits their understanding of what men are for.

And yet, even here, it turns out that the experience of most women (excluding perhaps the very wealthy exceptions to the rule) is that they end up the poorer for it and no more happy than before said divorce.

In terms of realistic hopes about pre-marital sex I would say the general arguments on both sides display a flawed methodology.

I am not sure I believe in "left" men and "right" women. Men in general want sex, martial or pre-martial. Women may or may not be in such a situation.

Fewer people are having much sex, so the temptation is simply to turn what you are already doing into a moral principle or stand.

In other words as you lose realistic hopes about having pre-marital sex, the cost of buying a "conservative" principle that holds that pre-marital sex is wrong decreases.

In other words the left and right positions may simply track the realistic optimism or pessimism of people(men and women) about getting lucky.

It is certainly in the interest of the condom manufacturers to fuel optimism about sexual satisfaction. They are looking for folks who are bullish about having lots of sex, or at the least they are looking to ride human nature into fueling a bubble in "realistic" optimism about sex.

Wicked men who would use and discard them as suits their impulses?A condom can't protect your soul?

Don't buy! Sell, sell, sell!

It is not the case that you can outrun your own judgement, but it seems the desire to interpret indicia in terms of what you want to believe is rather strong.

It may in fact be the strongest force in the universe, and perhaps we can call it love.

That is what is to say that your position on premarital sex isn't simply a position on rhetoric, after all pre-marital sex is about openess to persuation, and satisfactory mutual exchange of delusion, and there is no condom for that other than cynicism to shield us from those who sell principle to enable wicked men to use and discard them as suits their impulses.

And yet, even here, it turns out that the experience of most women (excluding perhaps the very wealthy exceptions to the rule) is that they end up the poorer for it and no more happy than before said divorce.

"The experience of most women"... well, among others.

I do not know why the proportionate reduction in standards of living should be lower for patrician women than for other women. Nor do I understand why the sturm and drang of a self-initiated divorce suit should necessarily be less severe for patrician women than for others. Come to think of it, they have more to fight over and divorce lawyers have more incentive to keep 'em fighting.

It might occur to some people that the one consistent element in all their dissatisfying relationships is...themselves. It often does not. Contemporary girl culture is not heavy on serious introspection and Ms. has never been in the business of promoting it.

@Art Deco

Maybe because the wealthy are more realistic before hand

If the goal of the marriage was wealth, then they acquire the wealth they desired.

Wealth can't buy happiness but it can buy a form of misery you can live with.

Because of (among other things) the economies of scale of being married, it seems certain that marriage can leave folks financially less well off.

Happiness philosophically may be a state of mind, but to play the game of social science it certainly is correlated to income.

Happiness rises with income till around 100k and then levels off and continues to increase till around 300k, where it actually starts to drop. (But it would be absolutely hillarious from an economics perspective to reject going from 300 to 400k)

Actually Douthat is close enough to what I think, that I am inclined to agree. The happiest women had enough partners to get a feel, but not more than two or three and were in a relationship.

It isn't really abstinance that leads to the ideal level of happiness but discretion and judgement.

Girl culture isn't about serious introspection, and can't be. Actually no culture can sustain serious introspection.

The happiest people are willing to be fooled, and thus not dissastified with themselves when the illusion catches up to them.

Abstinance is a form of cynicism or an acute waryness against rhetoric. It is more or less a question of how credulous you wish to be, but there certainly is an ideal level of credulousness.

Which is also why intelligent people are less happy.

Divorce being a mechanism for terminating a contract, I tend to support it. The simple idea of being sworn to an eternal level of credulousness, regardless of exogeneous circumstances seems mental.

Then again generally I think the same thing of being "conservative" or "liberal", I suppose it is tied up in carrying on the bluff of unconditional love to absurd levels.

So you guys haven't persuaded me about divorce, but I don't reject the idea that it might leave you worse off on certain metrix corrolated to happiness.

But again all this has to be a sort of joke, in terms of lived behavior. No one goes to the bar looking for policy sex.

Trust me I have been ridiculous enough to test this.

John Lewis: Your last line was enough to make reading all the preceding ones worth the effort. And now you get the credit for giving me the best laugh of the day. Next time you're in a bar, try comedy. But try to stay credulous . . .

From Douthat's piece:

"Why is this [the statistic about longer-lasting virginity] good news? Not, it should be emphasized, because it suggests the dawn of some sort of traditionalist utopia, where the only sex is married sex. No such society has ever existed, or ever could: not in 1950s America (where, as the feminist writer Dana Goldstein noted last week, the vast majority of men and women had sex before they married), and not even in Mormon Utah (where Brigham Young University recently suspended a star basketball player for sleeping with his girlfriend)."

but yet, he still arrives at this:

"Social conservatives look at the contemporary sexual landscape [with the "gritty realities of teenage sexuality" that Douthat just mentioned] and remember that it wasn’t always thus, and they look at current trends and hope that it doesn’t have to be this way forever."

1. What "current trends" - the trend of people waiting longer to lose their virginity?

2. Didn't he just concede, a few paragraphs before, that even the romanticized 1950s were no "traditionalist utopia" where "the only sex [was] married sex"?

In a free society, people can, might, and will have sex before marriage and outside of marriage. Some people (not just gays, who mostly don't have a choice) will opt to never even marry. There are those who will act carelessly or even cruelly despite claims to having strong connections to religious faith and religious institutions (I trust I needn't provide a list; start with Gingrich), and all of the strong moral values contained within. There are those who will act carefully and considerately, and will consider other factors than just their own immediate pleasure. Some of these people are religious, some definitely not.

"Their concern for the whole person and the whole society--even as they understand the pitfalls and the probability of some failure--do not keep them from insisting upon the standard. The left instead notes the difficulty of the standard and then brings it down . . . to safety."

As it stands now, perceptive spectators of the public scene can easily discern that a lot of social conservatives (politicians and their various "concerned" enablers) who offer the loudest and most bombastic moral grandstanding are frequently revealed to have committed subsequent infractions of grandiose proportions, stuff that only Charlie Sheen might outdo - with some effort. So they might rightly wonder, do these people even believe their own words? It seems doubtful at a certain point. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to avoid the zealous preachers (religious and non-religious alike) of certain personal behaviors. These are personal struggles.

"Their concern for the whole person and the whole society--even as they understand the pitfalls and the probability of some failure--do not keep them from insisting upon the standard."

1. It is reasonable to wonder if (the most zealous) social conservatives are really concerned with the whole person and the whole society - or if they just know how much they can manipulate a given audience for their own personal benefit by stating, by expressing their concern in words.

2. Again, the probability of failure seems most high among those most obsessively harping on their given concern for some personal moral failure.

3. The best way that social conservatives can "insist upon the standard" at this juncture would very much seem to be - let's aim for the next 15-20 years, to correct their current reputation - to quietly live up to their own standards of behavior. If it's the way that people SHOULD act, then demonstrate it. The most laughable hypocrites do not make the best moral beacons, instructors, or scolds. Then, when people can take them seriously again, perhaps they'll stand a better chance of winning a future (haha) where no social conservative Republican woman ever procures an abortion (at a clinic or otherwise), where no kids are even interested in the free cache of condoms (except to make water balloons) because they have no need for them, and where divorce lawyers and prostitutes go out of business.

Short of liberty-infringing legislation and/or compulsory church attendance (which church?), that's probably the social conservative's best bet at the present time.

Allowance for various safety valves does not require anyone to use them. But if it saves lives if/when they do, then that's appropriately pro-life, right?

who offer the loudest and most bombastic moral grandstanding are frequently revealed to have committed subsequent infractions of grandiose proportions, stuff that only Charlie Sheen might outdo

Who did you have in mind?

"Who did you have in mind?"

There are plenty in here - take your pick:

http://www.republicansexoffenders.com/

I already mentioned Gingrich, but let's not forget Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol's speaking tour for chastity.

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