Should Social Conservatives Really Stigmatize Premarital Sex?

Or would they do better to attack the stigma faced by young people who want to wait before becoming sexually active?
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People sharing a first sexual encounter with each other frequently experience very different levels of comfort with the pace at which their "hook-up" is proceeding. Things might be moving too fast or slow for the taste of a particular man or woman. Individuals vary so widely, the complicating factors in a given situation are so numerous, and the opportunities to feel or unwittingly inflict heartache are so many that single life confounds virtually everyone at one time or another. 

Now imagine that sexual culture among straight men and women operates in something like the way Ross Douthat suggests in recent posts at the New York Times. Citing sociological evidence, he plausibly argues that: 

  • In aggregate, men prefer to have oral sex and sexual intercourse more quickly than women.
  • Men and women alike misperceive the pace at which the average woman will become comfortable with these kinds of hook-ups, due to cultural norms that make it seem as if others are hooking up sooner than they really are.
  • Women’s happiness increases when their sex lives conform to their own preferences—more intimacy prior to sex, and "a closer link between intimacy, monogamy and commitment"–rather than to "the culture’s more libertine script." 

"In our sexual culture," Douthat argues, "the male preference gets treated as normative even by women who don’t share it, and whose own comfort level with sex outside a committed relationship is actually substantially lower." In response, he calls for "a somewhat more conservative sexual culture," and in another spot, for "a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them." That is where I stop understanding his argument. How would bringing about a more conservative sexual culture work? 

Let's situate ourselves on the campus of a residential college—still assuming, for the sake of argument, that Douthat is accurately diagnosing one problem: a culture where the preferences of many, especially women, are misperceived and thwarted. A social conservative like Douthat, one of his feminist critics, and an individualist like me might all agree that certain responses are desirable. Students could be educated about the fact that they overestimate the speed at which their peers engage in sexual activity and could receive accurate information. They could be exposed to the perspectives of men and women who prefer relatively high degrees of intimacy or commitment before sexual intercourse, and encouraged to take care not to pressure anyone to go faster than they want. Better information alone could change the campus culture in salutary ways.

Speaking more broadly, efforts could be made to eliminate any stigma students feel due to a failure to hook up at the perceived or actual pace of their peers, on the theory that diverse choices in this realm are expected, normal, and not at all shameful. "Many college students are more sexually conservative than they prefer to let on," Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker write. "They’re afraid to appear prudish, which strikes many as a social kiss of death." If inculcating a more conservative sexual culture is a matter of making sexually conservative young people feel more comfortable and less stigmatized, what reason would there be to object? Stigmas, real or perceived, can hurt the individuals who run afoul of them. 

But I can imagine another, more traditionalist approach to making sexual culture more conservative. Rather than working to reduce instances when sexual conservatives feel a stigma against prudery, social conservatives could try to resurrect stigmas against people who engage in sex "too quickly," however that is defined. 

Which role would stigma play in the more conservative sexual culture that Douthat imagines? If I'm reading him correctly, he assumes stigma is inevitably going to exist:

I actually have no idea what kind of romantic landscape would result from perfectly “liberated decision-making,” because—much like the anarcho-capitalist utopia of certain libertarian imaginings—no such perfect personal liberation is possible. To be human in society is to live with conventions, patterns, expectations; if you do away with one set on the grounds that it’s too “rigid,” as Tracy puts it, you can expect that whatever social system emerges after the revolution will have its own set of pressures, assumptions, and constraints.

There is truth to that. And I have no desire to decrease the stigma associated with sexual behaviors like bestiality, date rape, and emotional manipulation. My disagreement with social conservatives concerns the utility and morality of stigmatizing consensual intercourse or "hook-ups" between young adults who do their best to treat one another as they would want to be treated (and diligently guard against STDs and unwanted pregnancy).

Unlike social conservatives, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with premarital sex. 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.)

There are exceptions. Douthat is one of them. He writes with rigorous logic, always attempts to persuade, and adds moral insight to most conversations he enters by arguing for what's most moral within the framework of his interlocutors and audience, even when it's different from his own moral framework. In this conversation, he stops at urging 

a somewhat more conservative sexual culture. Not a culture where the Ministry of Virtue locks Nathaniel P. away for crimes against chastity; not a culture where nobody ever has a one-night stand or a friend with benefits; not a culture where women are treated like porcelain or taught to quiver in fear of the ravening lusts of lecherous males. Just a culture where it’s a little easier for women (and men) to act on attitudes and preferences that, in the aggregate (!!!!), seem to correlate more with happiness and flourishing than many social liberals are willing to acknowledge or admit. 

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. In any case, I can actually imagine a more conservative sexual culture that wouldn't particularly rankle anyone. There are in fact overlapping conservative, feminist, and individualist goals.  

But I'd still be curious to know whether Douthat's project to bring about a more conservative sexual culture would proceed by eliminating stigmas against being too prudish ... or by resurrecting stigmas about being too promiscuous. He would perhaps argue that a man's preference for intercourse sooner in a relationship than most of his partners ought to be stigmatized, even by secularists, because in aggregate that preference will result in more semi-coerced sexual encounters. 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.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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