With so many points of clarifications that we could use from social conservatives — Single motherhood is bad! But so is abortion! — one would think The New York Times‘ conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, would have plenty of rich, complicated topics to dig into. But in an op-ed column that ran yesterday, Douhat argued in defense of monogamy, praising social conservatives for their “optimistic” attitudes about love and happiness, and even went so far as to cheer on abstinence-only education sex ed programs that delay sexual behavior in teenagers.In 2008, 28 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds were still virgins, compared to 22 percent in 2002, and that’s a good thing, Douhat writes. While both social conservatives and social liberals can probably agree that it’s unlikely everybody will wait until marriage for sex, one of the best things about social conservativeism, Douthat argues, is that it promotes the idea that young people should wait for somebody. He cites studies which show that the happiest women are the ones who have only had one or two sexual partners in a lifetime. The least happy? Women with more notches on their belts, of course. “A young woman’s likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished,” Douthat wrote. He continued later in the piece, “The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.”
Some of you who’ve taken women’s studies courses before may be familiar with the term “backlash.” Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi, is a 1991 book analyzing how the gains of the 1960′s and 1970′s “second wave” of the feminist movement — like middle-class women’s entry into the workforce, legal abortion, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination law, and changing attitudes towards domestic violence — were battled piece-by-piece during the 1980′s. Generally speaking, the concept of a “backlash” can be described as “[insert gain from the feminist movement] actually isn’t good for women!” Working moms aren’t actually good for women because they don’t spend enough time with their kids. Women earning more money than ever before isn’t good because men no longer feel like the providers. The widespread availability of birth control actually isn’t good for women because it makes us promiscuous. And legal abortion actually isn’t good for women — heavens, no! — because abortion clinics are positively Walmart-esque in their bloodlust for profiting off innocent women.
There is, thankfully, not too much serious public debate on whether women should be paid as much as men or whether sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable. But Douthat’s column arguing in defense of heterosexual monogamy, if you can see where I’m going with this, is “backlash”-eriffic on the subject of sex.
Read any sociology book about happiness (Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, for instance) and you will have it positively drilled into your head that the concept of “happiness” is as hard to define as Jennifer Aniston’s real hair color. To some people, happiness is the absence of a long period of sadness. To others, happiness is periods of sadness interspersed with periods of joy. To others, happiness is wide pendulum upswings of joy. Others still can’t define happiness. It’s just complicated.
I would never disagree with the women who say that they are supremely happy with the fact they have only had one sexual partner, or a small handful of sex partners. Certainly they exist and I know some of them. But Douthat’s making the leap that perhaps we should all benefit from a little less promiscuity smacks of the same-old social forces that punish women for being sexual. How do we know promiscuous women and men are unhappy because they have had many sexual partners? Perhaps they have had many sexual partners because they love sex, yet they’re deeply unhappy because they’re alcoholics or drug addicts or desperately poor or wildly in debt. There are tons of reasons why someone who has lots of sex parters might otherwise be unhappy. While certainly the stability of only one partner has its many benefits — in fact, benefits that I myself am interested in pursuing — it is not at all fair to argue that that sort of stability is desired, or should be desired, by everyone.
Sex is such an intensely intimate, personal thing that I don’t trust people who give advice, suggestions or regulations about what’s best for people’s sex lives while claiming to be agenda-free. At the risk of sounding like I’m wearing a tin-foil hat, I ultimately think the agenda of the “strong moral standards” that Douhat referenced is to control women’s sexuality and therefore control our very lives.
Monogamy can be great, if that’s what you want. But it should be a personal choice.