Are young women's lives all that "grim"?

Examining culture and the arts.
Oct. 26 2005 3:14 PM

Theories of the Erotic

Male traditionalists wring their hands at the "grim" lives of young women.

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Papa Kass on the Mamas

Last week, Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield told students that the sexual revolution may not have served the best interests of young women. Instead, it had merely "lower[ed]" us to the crass level of men, who pursue sex thoughtlessly and without hopes of marriage. In a talk titled "Feminism and the Autonomy of Women," he suggested that men who grow used to "free samples" in the bedroom are going to leave women high-and-dry when it comes to committed relationships. And then he revealed his insights into the erotic: "[Today's] women play the men's game, which they are bound to lose. Without modesty, there is no romance—it isn't so attractive or so erotic," said the professor. The solution to the problem, clearly, was for women to start saying no a little more often.

The need to tell young women how to behave often comes over middle-aged men—it's an itch right up there with buying a flashy new car. And Mansfield's case for modesty is merely a new version of, say, Leon Kass' argument in "The End of Courtship," a 1997 article currently posted on the Public Interest Web site, which I happened to stumble across after reading Mansfield's remarks. One similarity between them is particularly worth note. Mansfield and Kass don't suggest that female sexual activity is immoral or wrong. They suggest that it makes women unhappy: "Young women strike me as sad, lonely, and confused," Kass writes, voicing an avuncular worry about our "grim" lives. Like Mansfield, he goes on to express concern that contemporary sexuality isn't morally but erotically bankrupt. The best sex, he argues, is stimulated by reading poets like Shelley, and, "if properly sublimated, is transformable into genuine and lofty longings—not only for love and romance but for all the other higher human yearnings." Reading these two pieces back to back, one finds oneself envisioning conservative elders gathered over brunch with teary-eyed twentysomethings, Sex and the City-style, nodding and patting hands: I feel your pain, honey, they soothe. And I'll tell you how to really get your groove on. First, go get a ring.

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Forty years after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the terms of the debate over sexuality have irrevocably changed, and it is curious to watch middle-aged male traditionalists trying to keep up. If they have not quite absorbed the notion that women need to have a voice in shaping their own sexual identity, they acknowledge that it is no longer permissible, or at any rate very popular, simply to pronounce that premarital sex is wrong. Thus they cast the sexual revolution as something that makes women unhappy, couching their critique in the fuzzy language of gratification and personal gain that we Oprah-raised kids can relate to. Beneath Kass' pronouncements on what is erotic is a struggle not to come off as a prude; beneath Mansfield's, a quest to establish his credentials as not anti-sex. By adopting a soft stance of empathy, they conveniently skirt the need to supply any facts and figures about just what is going on in the hearts and bedrooms of America's youth.

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"Birds do it/ Bees do it ..."

In a way, this shift in rhetoric (from morality to gratification) makes it look like the argument about the criteria Americans should use to shape our ideas about relationships and marriage has already been settled. But it's more complicated than this. There's something slippery about the "sex will make you unhappy" position. It relies on a retrograde notion of female vulnerability while pretending to take women's side. It's offered in the name of an open-mindedness that is something of a pretense: Professor Mansfield does not exactly wish that sexual freedom had panned out for us—or recognize the extent to which it has. He presumes, for example, that all women have similar experiences and want the same things: love and marriage, the baby in the baby carriage, and so forth. Finally, this position holds women responsible for the supposed unwillingness of American young people to get with the marriage program and settle down. But what evidence is there that women are deeply unhappy in their sexual relationships with men? And if women really are, why is it up to them to "fix" what's broken by insisting on early marriage rather than on, say, serial monogamy followed by marriage later? If things are so bad, how do we explain the fact that social indicators are, for the most part, on an uptick over the past decade?

In fact, the evidence is thin that a woman should be concerned that giving out a "sample" will make a man less prone to marriage—or a future husband less likely to want to stay with her. First of all, according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, "only 36% of single men agree that 'single men have better sex lives than married men.' " And only 22 percent of unmarried men report feeling that marriage is "personally" not for them, even if they're not interested in marriage in their immediate future. Second, engaging in premarital sex with the partner you eventually marry apparently does not make you more likely to get a divorce, according to a 2003 study cited by the National Marriage Project. Kass complains that "the elite, those who in previous generations would have defined the conventions in these matters, lack a cultural script whose denouement is marriage." But is this the case? The majority of "elites" still get married, according to recent reports. And if they get married a little older—as Kass complains they do—this only seems to make their marriages more stable. The National Marriage Project reports that getting married after the age of 25 reduces the chance of divorce.

Fears of sexual anarchy and uncurbed licentiousness afflict every age. But the supposed sexual anarchy we live in is not as nihilistic and free of "family values" as these sorts of pieces make it out to be (just as the golden age of 1950s marriage wasn't as golden as it is retrospectively made out to be). A 1992 study (conducted before Kass wrote his piece) found that 79 percent of Americans between 25 and 29 had had zero or one sexual partners over the past year, and the same was true for a significant (often larger) majority of Americans of all ages. It also found that the majority of marriages are characterized by fidelity and do not end in divorce. Another study found that this is especially the case among white Americans who are educated and get married over the age of 25 (a category the majority of Mansfield's Harvard students fall into). A recent study of teen behavior actually found that intercourse was down and oral sex was slightly up—which suggests, in fact, that students are listening to sex ed messages that advocate postponing full intercourse.

Of course, there remains important stock-taking to do, and Mansfield and Kass assume with good reason that the results of the sexual revolution are imperfect. But if the men who assume they have their pulse on the female experience were really paying attention, they might realize they could entrust some of this work to women themselves. Mansfield is making his gallant argument at a moment when there are plenty of women raising concerns that he might well appreciate, among them Ariel Levy in her recent book Female Chauvinist Pigs. Levy argues that we do live in a culture that celebrates—in its magazines, TV, and movies—an unbridled sexuality that hasn't served women well. And she claims that the proliferation of pornography has posed some intractable problems. But her proposed solutions don't presume that experience follows a tidy script of wanting to get a ring on our finger right away. She takes into account lesbians (who mostly can't get married) and women who aren't looking for long-term commitment. Her willingness to rethink ingrained liberal assumptions—and to make women attentive to the consequences of promiscuous Girls Gone Wild-style behavior—is appealingly unpredictable.

The irony is that we seem only to have grown more demanding about what constitutes a happy marriage. And while marriage is undeniably less stable than it once was, it hardly seems on the verge of collapse. Recent studies show only a slight decline—5 and 8.5 percent respectively for men and women—in the reported happiness levels of married couples since the early 1970s, and we don't know what, exactly, accounts for this shift. Meanwhile, it remains unclear what role Mansfield and Kass think modesty actually plays in stable romantic relationships. Is Mansfield so sure everyone—not to mention today's 20-year-olds—finds it erotic? Take, for instance, the activist Havelock Ellis, an advocate of "trial" marriages, who in the 1920s—he was then in his 60s—was saying things about women that sound eerily familiar: "Modesty may almost be regarded as the chief secondary sexual character of women on the psychical side," he observed. But he went on to suggest that women would have to overcome this attribute before a happy sexual marriage—of precisely the type that Kass is advocating—could exist.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.