Sunday, January 20, 2008

Men, Women, & Moral Universalism

In my latter high school years, I had the opportunity to attend a small private Christian School. One of the non-credit classes mandatory for all students was sex-ed, taught by the high school principal.

You might think that there would be little useful left for a tenth grader to learn about sex, expecially at a religious school, but such was my innocence (okay, ignorance) up to that time that the class did, in fact, clarify a number of the technical details. And before you ask, birth control techniques were discussed, but no condoms were distributed.

In addition to the technical and moral issues of sexuality, we had several lectures on the differences between men and women. And among these differences were those relating to both how we behave sexually and what we value in our dating and marriage partners.

In fairness, I should write carefully here when I describe what I "learned" in this class, because in all honesty I wore pretty heavy ideological blinders at the time. Specifically, one of my dominant paradigms relating to women was their moral superiority, and this was used to filter out a lot of what I heard. Years later, thinking about sex-ed, I was able to recall that, yes, our principal did say X, Y, and Z that agreed with my paradigm and therefore was readily integrated, but he also said P and Q which, had I not filtered it out, would have given me a more nuanced view of reality than the one I actually came away with.

For instance, one of the things the principal said was that women were monogamous, men less so. Put this way, as a generality, with due regard for outliers, I am pretty sure that few people of any politics would argue with the observation. However, given my paradigm, and given that I believed my own moral universalism to be, well, universal, I came away with the conviction that women valued chasity as a virtue; in other words, that they would respond positively to sexual restraint as a character trait, a general pattern of behavior.

This was a very different thing altogether, and whatever its veracity during my principal's generation, it did not, um, hold up well as a generality about the world I experienced after graduation. As so many men in my situation realize to our chagrin, when women say they value something like fidelity in a relationship, what they mean is that they want their men to be faithful to them. Not only does a man's prior promiscuity not bother them, it actually works to their advantage.

This can be tricky to apprehend. Despite their protestations that they want monogamous relationships, what they actually respond to are demonstrations of social status. Now I realize that the factors that buy social status (wealth, power, physicality, charm, etc.) manifest themselves in a variety of ways and are probably context-dependent. It is not my purpose here to comprehensively predict how all these add up in attracting women. But I will insist that, all else being equal, the ability to sexually attract women does constitute proof of status in the eyes of other women.

As moral particularists, women see nothing problematic in their ambition to marry James Bond. "Yes, my love," they say, "you may have spent a life bedding hotties around the world, but now you're mine, and I expect you to give up all that for me."

Consider also their oft-stated desire for kindness. This, too, I learned in high school; this, too, I interpreted as a desire for kindness in the abstract; and this, too, did not long survive contact with the wider world. For here again, when women actually mean is that they want their men to be kind to them; moral particularism. But what they respond to is dominance. Yes, in theory, dominance does not necessarily require harshness, cruelty, or mistreatment. But in practice, the Christian virtue, "blessed are the poor in spirit" is most assuredly NOT dominance. If the meek really do inherit the earth, it will be after all the women have left it.

I should at this point make clear that this post is not an assertion of male moral superiority by virtue of our moral univeralism. On the contrary, I am inclined to think that the differences between men and women have a purpose, whether viewed from an evolutionary or creationist perspective. In general, I am therefore reluctant to cast judgment on these differences. And specifically, I can appreciate the value of, and am indeed grateful for, the particularism of the women in my life: my wife and my mother. They have always been on my side in any outside conflict, indeed, they are more my partisans than I am. I am much more inclined to see misfortune as my own fault, while they are quick to point to the mistakes and malice of others.

But I will say this: in the examples shown above, women may be poorly served by their particularism as they go about the process of finding a mate. Yes, it's possiblethat the rake will domesticate, as it is possible that the tyrant will become gentle. But women need to more honestly evaluate the likelihood that these sudden reversals of character will occur and stick. Because in truth, absent a life-changing religious conversion (and even then), these character changes are seldom so dramatic, and often reverse under the inevitable stresses of life and marriage, and for women to believe otherwise is often an exercise in wishful thinking.

Update: In the comments, Trumwill says:

I'd love to see some numbers.

Here are a couple of scholarly treatments:

"The Social Organization of Sexualty", by Edward O. Laumann, is "the complete findings from America's most comprehensive survey of sexual behavior." Laumann, a professor at the University of Chicago, finds that compared to those who marry as virgins, men are 63 percent more likely and women 76 percent more likely to divorce if they have had sex before marriage.

"Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce", by Joan R. Kahn and Kathryn A. London, Journal of Marriage and the Family,, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Nov., 1991), Kahn (University of Maryland, College Park) and London (National Center for Health Statistics) find that individuals who engage in premarital sexual activity are 50 percent more likely to divorce later in life than those who remained abstinent prior to their marriage.

There are also many non-scholarly examinations:

"Not Just Friends", by Shirley Glass. Google's book view doesn't include this particular chapter, but Glass has been quoted elsewhere to the effect that pre-marital sex increases the odds of infidelity.

Christianity Today did a random survey of its subscribers and found that those who had engaged in sex before marriage were more likely to commit adultery than those who had no premarital sexual experience.

Physicians For Life (see finding #9) assert that the research supports a positive correlation between premarital sexual activity and infidelity, but do not offer citiations.

The more-narrow link between pre-marital cohabitation and the likelihood of divorce has also been examined. Among the professional literature:

"Sexual exclusivity among dating, cohabiting, and married women", by Renata Forste and Koray Tanfer, Journal of Marriage & the Family, v58n1 (Feb 1996): 33-47 ISSN: 0022-2445 Number: 02878128. Forste (Brigham Young University) and Tanfer (University of Washington) find that women that had cohabited before marriage were 3.3 times more likely to have a secondary sex partner after marriage. So I guess men have to consider this factor, too, not just women.

Alfred DeMaris and K. Vaninadha Rao, “Premartial Cohabitation and Marital Instability in the United States: A Reassessment” Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 (1992): 178-190;

Pamela J. Smock, “Cohabitation in the United States” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000)

The upshot is that cohabitation increases the likelihood of divorce, although there are all sorts of confounding SES variables.

Perhaps my readers (all three of you) can point me to other references?


trumwill said...

This is only tangentially related to the James Bond issue, but I ran across a Telegraph article that was positively gushing over increasing infidelity on the part of women in Britain. Though it's pretty intuitive, this (specifically the part in parentheses) jumped out at me:

While today's women of 40 and younger see having great sex as their right (some studies show that the more sexual partners a person has before marriage, the more likely she or he is to cheat on a spouse), many fifty- or even sixtysomething women, in common with their male counterparts, don't want to be left out.

It's difficult to imagine that the same is not true of men. I'd love to see some numbers.

Burke said...

Trumwill: an outstanding question. Thanks for holding me accountable. Please see the update.