Trumwill name-checked me in a post linking to a brief series of Ross Douthat columns that, while I have counted myself a Douthat fan since his writing for The American Scene, I had neglected. The columns concerned the ongoing breakdown of Americans’ sexual morality, its attendant social consequences, and the political response (or lack thereof) from the mainstream parties.
It would be dishonest for me to pretend that there are no benefits to severe stigmas traditionally perpetuated by social conservatives. Even Hester Prynne's scarlet 'A' may have dissuaded a neighbor or two from adulterous forays they would've regretted, but today even the vast majority of social conservatives look upon the stigmas of Puritan America (not to mention modern-day Saudi Arabia) as attempts to perpetuate cultural norms that impose costs far higher than any benefit. Less clear are social conservatives' views on the role stigma should play now. They're averse to making people feel bad and reluctant to repeat the excesses of the past, but they're also reluctant to give up efforts to stigmatize various behaviors that they still regard as sinful, no matter how accepted they have become in American culture.
This reluctance persists even though stigma hasn't been a particularly effective tool. The stigma against unwed pregnancy incentivized an unknown number of abortions even as it utterly failed to stop the rise in out-of-wedlock births. Eve Tushnet has argued that the stigma against divorce causes a lot of people to give up on marriage, and it certainly didn't prevent divorce from becoming very common, even among practicing religious believers.
How about the stigma against premarital sex? Sex before marriage is the norm, and the effort to enforce the stigma prevents social conservatives from participating in conversations about the relative morality of premarital sex in different circumstances, because distinctions would undermine the message that premarital sex is always wrong. Stigmas generally cause those who perpetuate them to focus on norm maintenance at the expense of logic or persuasion. For this reason, many purveyors of stigma are left with no well-developed arguments to fall back on when the culturally dominant status that permitted them to shape norms is lost. (See the early stages of the gay-marriage debate.)
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I suspect his posts garner criticism from liberal feminists partly because while they're not averse to women being better able to meet their preferences, they see "a somewhat more conservative sexual culture" and assume that it would entail some amount of what they typically call "slut-shaming."
I'm nearly certain Douthat doesn't want that. In fact, he is very much unlike bygone generations of social conservatives in that he explicitly urges men to change their sexual behavior, rather than urging chastity generally but effectively putting the burden on women to bring it about.
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My general stance in these conversations is that what ought to be stigmatized is the morally objectionable thing itself—thoughtlessly hooking up with someone who isn't ready to do so, even if they consent, for example—and that it's unfair to stigmatize sexual behavior that does no harm to the individuals involved because more typical pairings would be harmed by that same behavior. In my estimation, those are the sorts of stigmas that society is ill-equipped to enforce in a manner Douthat might call Christian, and that it always comes to regret.
One of the advantages of being middle-aged (indeed, the only advantage that presently occurs to me) is that I have lived through enough history to throw the bullsh!t flag on present-day mischaracterization of events that I have lived through personally.
First, sexual immorality has been a feature of the broader society for a long time, certainly since I’ve been walking around. My parents did their part to protect me from its influence, and to be fair, I wasn’t being invited to those parties anyway. But the Christian Church, including and even especially its Evangelical variants, were well aware what was going on, and did, in fact, make efforts to engage the culture.
Conor paints a picture of the Church in which it relied exclusively on its institutional strength to enforce social norms in the broader society long past the point it had such power. I’m not sure to what Conor is referring here, but it’s not to a church that existed during his lifetime or even mine. More typical of my experience was the kind of message put forward by Josh McDowell in his book Why Wait? That book was published in 1987, but McDowell was making Christian education films on this theme some years earlier. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Why Wait?, and if anyone wants to criticize if for inaccuracies based on what was known at the time, I’ll be happy to listen. But I did hear McDowell speak on the subject a couple of times, and will summarize his thesis thus: STDs and unplanned pregnancies will mess up your life; abortion and loss of marital intimacy leave psychological scars.
I have become aware in my adult life that this approach – appealing to the listeners’ self-interest -- has its limitations. I do not challenge any of McDowell’s factual points; if anything, they are probably better supported by social science today than they were then, and I haven’t lately heard even from the Left that the only thing wrong with the sexual revolution is not enough condoms. The limitation is rather two-fold. First, as an epistemological matter, appeals to self-interest ought not normally require so many external constraints, be they physical (“Your curfew is X!”) or moral (as in yet another sermon from Daddy on the importance of chastity). Self-interest, according to Adam Smith, ought to be self-enforcing. I have come to believe, late in life, that the reason for having a Decalogue is that, while the obligation to uphold it falls on the individual, the benefits of doing so are realized by the group. Murder and theft are suboptimum relational constructs for society at large, but I wouldn’t deny, independent of society’s willingness and ability to punish them, that individuals within a society can’t improve their relative position by participating in theft and murder. That, in my mind, is why we need the commandments.
So why should adultery (by which I mean any extramarital sexual activity) be any different? Yes, it leave society much the worse, but can any individual illicitly accrue social benefit thereby? The answer, I believe, is sexually dimorphic: for men, the answer is clearly yes; for women, the answer is mixed, as a matter of biology and sociology. Absent any religious commitments, I can’t think of any reason to recommend to a man that he should do otherwise than calculate the cost-benefit ratios and proceed accordingly. As I have written before from my own bitter experience, there are few points for chaste males even within the church, and probably none in the larger society.
Thus, I don’t really have in interest in “reducing the numbers of semi-forced sexual encounters” (Douthat’s words). I don’t wish anyone harm, but I don’t put a priority on making it “safe” for people to color outside the lines. And while Douthat can speak for himself, I’m not really interested in a “slightly more conservative sexual culture” for its own sake, either. Yes, it would be nice if my daughters could grow up in a country where they never felt pressured to have extra-marital sex, but my expectations here are rather low. As Douthat writes, and Conor seems to concede partially, the culture will not be shared by both chastity and unchastity. Better for my daughters to seek their society within the church, where their values will be (nominally, at least) upheld.
Rather, my goals with respect to sex are two-fold. First, I want, not just “no sex, please” but rather chastity as an expression of devotion to God, loyalty to family, and fidelity to a future life-partners. As I have said before, the goal here are values, not just behavioral outcomes.
And second, I want to minimize the “negative externalities”. Yes, STDs and bastardy. But more to the point, extra-marital sex distorts the sexual economy and disrupts the process of forming stable families. People are getting married later, if at all, and marriages continue to break apart. The reward for being “a reliable husband and father” is greatly diminished, and growing numbers of men find themselves locked out of the mating market.
You might argue that the first does not cause the second, and in this I partially agree. Conor uses the word “stigma” some 28 times in his post as an accusation of what conservatives want; Douthat uses it not once in the four posts linked above, and only a couple of times in his columns during the past year, neither in a context involving sex. It is telling that Conor demands to know how Ross intends to make the culture more sexually conservative; Ross is merely articulating such a culture as a desirable thing, and Conor wants guarantees up front that such a project will not impinge on his commitments to social liberalism.
Fair enough. Again, Douthat can speak for himself, but I submit that all the problems I have identified are functions, not merely of a lack of stigma, but of specific policies directed at female emancipation, and that any meaningful effort at rolling back these problems will necessarily involve curtailing those policies.
I will say candidly that my expectations here are pretty low. There is no level of social dysfunction, material destitution, or even foreign subjugation below which the modern Squealer will not say, “Surely, Comrade! Surely you do not want Jones back?” And so it is.
But to bring this essay back full circle, I offer this as evidence disproving Colin’s assertion that Christianity hasn’t engaged the culture from other than a position of command. It may be true that certain variants of fundamentalism have sufficed themselves to railing against fornication from the pulpit on strict grounds of morality; that is what fundamentalists have done for well over a hundred years, and exactly nobody believes they were ever in charge of America. The appeal of mainstream Christianity to sexual morality, weak as it looks in retrospect, has been looking out, not down, for my entire life.
Colin whines that such appeals discriminate against women “in practice”. On the one hand, this is a step up from the usual calumny, against which no amount of contrary evidence is ever recognized, that opposition to extra-marital sex is discriminatory in spirit. But it is still false for the same reason: it is woefully ignorant of the evenhandedness of Evangelical culture and deliberately obtuse about the state of secular culture as well.
But let me turn the question around. It is feminism that created this mess. It is feminism that has privileged the lifestyles of a handful of elite women at the expense of most other women and a great number of men. And feminism is woefully inadequate to correct it.
Douthat is looking for a “slightly more conservative sexual culture”. But what does that mean? Sex on the third date but not on the first? Apparently, Douthat and Friedersdorf take note that (most) women want to delay sex for longer into a relationship than do (most) men, as well they should. But I’m not sure what’s in that for me. To be specific, and mildly less flippant, I don’t see how any goals of mine are materially advanced by the delay of sex as an expression of female preference. Don’t get me wrong: if women want to delay sex they should delay sex, and good luck to them.
I suspect, however, that when women state a preference for “delaying sex until further into a relationship,” what they are really hoping is that the men they are currently hooking up with will actually invest in a relationship with them at all. And again, good luck to them. But the mathematics – most women hooking up with a minority of men – dictate that most of these women will inevitably go away disappointed.
But either way, if the sex is to happen outside of both marriage and meaningful motions towards that end . . . well, the ethics of Roissy look like a rational way for a man to look at the world.