A woman who has sex with multiple partners (maybe hooking up a lot if
she's at a more elite college), contracepting throughout and having at
least one abortion,
then cohabits, then marries in her early 30s if at all, might be a
hedonist or a relativist. In my experience she's much more likely to be
trying to do everything right, finish her education and start climbing
the economic ladder and make good rather than hasty choices in her men.
Her mother usually supports or even pressures her in her decision to
abort, and many of the decisions I've described are made not in the
service of personal sexual liberation but as a means to preserve her
A lot of the time it doesn't work -- the marriage or
cohabitation she really hoped would be "the one" still breaks up -- but she
sees all the alternative choices as even riskier, and therefore
As Tushnet noted
on another occasion, research into why young people are marrying later
found the answer wasn't a slowness to "grow up" or a desire to pursue a
full decade of hedonism. In fact, "most frequently mentioned was a
desire to 'do it right'
and marry only once, to the ideal partner, leading some to view
cohabitation as a 'test-drive' before making 'the ultimate commitment.'
The belief that marriage was difficult to exit was mentioned nearly as
frequently, with examples of how divorce caused emotional pain, social
embarrassment, child custody concerns, and legal and financial
problems." Later marriage is partly a consequence of the need for more unpaid education prior to starting a career, and partly a reaction against the epidemic of divorce, something
that now occurs more frequently among some subsets of traditionalists.
Writing from within the subculture of a northeast graduate
school, Phoebe Maltz has poked fun at the alternative norms of educated
The unfortunate fact of female sexuality in our society is that too-young is very
quickly followed by too-old -- to conceive, or even to attract many men
in the first place. 'You're not allowed to date, young lady' (from
conservatives) or 'You're too young to settle down' (from liberals)
segues almost instantaneously into 'What, no boyfriend?' The elusive
window-of-opportunity -- not the Pill, not the tendency of 20-somethings
in crappy relationships to end those relationships -- is the problem.
Her suggested solution:
As it stands, all long-term romantic commitments begun prior to age 30
are viewed as having rushed into things. Without reverting to a system
where women are stigmatized for not having settled down by 21, we could
shift to one in which 23-year-old couples wouldn't be treated like
experimenting middle-schoolers. I wouldn't suggest encouraging those who
wouldn't do so otherwise to marry or similar at 20. I would suggest
removing the stigma that says that to be well-educated and impressive
and so on, you have to find 'that special someone' at 29-and-a-half,
marry at 31, and reproduce before (horrors!) 35. I'd instead encourage
the happy couples 18-25 that exist anyway not to end their
relationships simply because 'there's so much more to experience.' I
mean, if you're in a relationship at any age and you feel there's
so much more to experience, that's not a great sign about the
relationship. But if all is well, the social pressure to explore other
options isn't terribly beneficial.
If this change occurred, while there'd still be plenty of women trying
to have kids for the first time at 40, there'd be more having their
first child with their husband of several years, whom they'd dated
several years prior to that, at 25. A certain number of women who'd
resented having gone the 'explore other options' route unnecessarily
would have reproduced. This is, at any rate, the only way I could think
of to address the 'crisis' of coastal-elite female fertility that is
about increasing women's freedom, rather than the reverse.
Attributing a cultural change to decadence when its causes actually lie elsewhere almost guarantees that social conservatives will be unable to speak persuasively to people whose behavior they'd like to change. Tell someone that they're "shrugging off basic sacrifices," even as they understand themselves to be sacrificing in service of responsible living, and they'll conclude that you don't even enough understand their choices well enough to evaluate and criticize them.
Usually, Douthat understands that people who choose to order their lives differently than their grandparents or their socially conservative peers aren't doing so as a result of moral degeneration and decay. As a result, he is an uncommonly persuasive socially conservative pundit. The average socially conservative pundit is far less charitable in evaluating people unlike themselves. The result is analysis less incisive and persuasive than it might otherwise be.