The Centers for Disease Control released a new study on March 3 reporting a significant decline in premarital sexual activity for teenagers and young adults. You might think the news would provoke universal rejoicing, but you’d be wrong.
Committed feminists, like Dana Goldstein, who blogs as “ladywonk,” dismissed premarital sex as the inevitable baggage of “50-year macro social trends that have brought about unprecedented gender equality and personal fulfillment.”
Why would someone like Goldstein shrug off a social issue that has a disproportionate impact on teenage girls? (Unintended pregnancy comes to mind.) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently ventured a guess: “Many progressives and feminists have committed themselves to an absolute defense of everything that changed during the sexual revolution, out of a fear that one concession will cost women every gain.”
In Douthat’s judgment, when radical feminists dump on abstinence-only sex-ed programs or tolerate pornography, their puzzling behavior is actually an attempt to shore up gender equality. From their perspective, the two radical social movements that converged in the ’60s — sexual liberation and women’s liberation — can never be separated without weakening women’s advances in society and the workplace.
Douthat’s incendiary column, “Why Monogamy Matters,” and his follow-up blog post on the unexamined assumptions of diehard feminists, “After the Revolution,” are worth reading, but they don’t go quite far enough.
The columnist’s honesty and courage must be applauded: How often are Times readers reminded that casual sex is linked to higher rates of unhappiness and depression in young women? But we need to take the discussion to the next level: actually grapple with the distinctive purpose of femininity and masculinity in a culture bent on erasing those differences.
When Douthat first reviewed the CDC data, he described it as “good news.” He acknowledged that some young people, who remain virgins for now, might engage in premarital sex as they matured. Still, he suggested that any delay should be applauded.
“[T]here are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.” He added, “This distinction is crucial to understanding what’s changed in American life since the sexual revolution.”
Douthat noted that social research confirmed the negative consequences of casual sex: Women who had multiple partners reported a lower level of happiness, even as they experienced economic advancement. Perhaps the previous generations that delayed sexual initiation “may have been happier for it.”
The direct assault on received feminist wisdom provoked predictable broadsides from the blogosphere. Susie Bright fretted in the Huffington Post: “Douthat’s faith is based on the tenets of unapologetic misogyny, sexism, gender determinism, and an all-around ‘Daddy Knows Best’ approach.”
Douthat refused to give an inch: “Yes, an ethic of sexual restraint can be turned to patriarchal ends, but so can an ethic of sexual permissiveness, as anyone who’s hung out in a frat house for any length of time can attest.”
Douthat suggests that we should be content with a slight uptick in delayed premarital sex. But can’t we aspire to something greater? And how do you really know whether a non-marital sexual relationship is altar-bound without the benefit of hindsight?
If there’s one thing we’ve learned since the onset of the sexual revolution, it’s that wishful thinking fueled by sexual passion often obscures the brutal truth of human intention. How many women have viewed cohabitation as a form of “courtship,” only to discover that it was just a “way station” before graduate school or a better job in another city?
Before the sexual revolution, Americans understood that marriage vows secured and celebrated fundamental truths about human dignity, true love and personal fulfillment. To thrive and grow, the love between a man and a woman required permanence, fidelity and openness to children.
The sexual revolution rested on a new way of thinking about sin and personal responsibility. It embraced a utopian vision of human nature as intrinsically virtuous and fully rational. Everyone should be free to exercise his or her freedom and responsibility in creative ways — without the stultifying and unnecessary intrusion of traditional moral taboos — we were told.
The women’s movement was shaped by this utopian vision. Radical feminists embraced the need for a deep transformation in women’s self-perception. Women were exhorted to discard the priority they gave to family life and embrace the working world and its rewards as the basis of their identity: to think and act like men.
Almost a half century after the publication of Betty Freidan’s feminist blockbuster The Feminine Mystique, women have moved away from some of the early feminist rants. But their thinking and behavior have been skewed by a mainstream culture that has normalized selfishness, including exploitative sexual relationships.
For many women, the culture has failed to provide answers to some fundamental questions: What is their vocation? If they can do without men and family life, who or what constitutes their destiny? And what is sex for — recreation, pleasure, mutual manipulation?
These perennial questions drew the attention of Pope John Paul II, who also sought to safeguard and advance the rights of women, but he proposed a very different path for achieving this goal.
In his encyclicals and other writings, and in his teaching on the theology of the body, the Pope offered an integrated vision of the human person that began with a fundamental principle: Real human freedom must be rooted in moral and spiritual truth.
“When freedom is detached from objective truth it becomes impossible to establish personal rights on a firm rational basis; and the ground is laid for a society to be at the mercy of the unrestrained will of individuals,” he wrote in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae).
In his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), John Paul II meditated on Mary’s fulfillment of all the riches suggested by sexual difference. He showed that the inalienable dignity of women — first established in Genesis and developed in the lives of the strong women of the Old Testament — achieves a new dimension in the life of the Virgin Mary.
“The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way,” explained the Pope. “But this entrusting concerns women in a special way — precisely by reason of their femininity — and this in a particular way determines their vocation.”
The Pope acknowledged the reality of injustice against women. But he urged them to respond with moral and spiritual strength rooted in Christian truth, rather than bitterness and resentment. Through word and deed, he said, women have been called to recapitulate Mary’s self-gift in response to God’s invitation. Even in the midst of real evil, they must look for opportunities to affirm and defend their own dignity and the rights of those “entrusted” to them.
An unredeemed view of human existence leads women to tolerate, rather than oppose, selfish, exploitive behavior. Pope John Paul II offers words of wisdom and of hope to women — and men — yearning for true fulfillment.
Ross Douthat shatters some feminist taboos, but that’s only the beginning. The growing disconnect between feminist ideology and the actual experience of young women in 21st-century America provides fertile ground for the New Evangelization.
Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase Maryland.