Critical Thinking in a NY Times Opinion Piece on Sex? Unfortunately, No.

This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

The NY Times has an opinion piece up the other day by Ross Douthat, Why Monogamy Matters, which highlights what happens when people who don’t think all that clearly about sex write about sex.

Douthat starts with the recent research from the Centers for Disease Control that says that US teens and 20-somethings are waiting longer to have sex. Leaving aside an analysis of that research, I think there’s a pivotal sentence in the piece that shows how muddy Douthat’s thinking on sex is:

But there 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 seems to think that there are only two paths worth mentioning. There’s sex that’s part of a path that takes you towards marriage and there’s sex that’s promiscuous. Now, he seems to try to soften that by saying that it might be promiscuous or it might be ill-considered, but given that the definition of promiscuous is indiscriminate, or lacking standards of selection, this is another case of someone projecting a false dichotomy onto sexuality.

This is a problem for at least three reasons. First, it not only continues to place “matrimony” on a pedestal (something which is especially fraught with challenges in a political climate that restricts marriage to heterosexuality in most jurisdictions), it also requires that any and all relationships need to be a trial run for marriage. There’s no room to have a relationship for any other purpose- if it’s not going to lead you down the path to marriage, it’s no good.

Now, I certainly support people who are looking for a lifetime commitment when they evaluate their relationships with that yardstick. But it’s not the only reason to be in a relationship, monogamous or otherwise. For example, you might enjoy someone’s company and want to be with them while you’re in college or working in a city that they live in, knowing that when you move, the relationship will end. When we base the success of a relationship on whether it leads to a lifetime commitment, rather than on whether it supports the well-being and authenticity of the people involved, we use an external measure rather than an internal one. And that is a source of a lot of people’s problems.

Second, it’s possible to have sex that is neither part of a “let’s see if this person is marriage material” nor lacking in careful selection. It might be based on a different set of criteria, but it’s still a selection process. Researcher David Buss surveyed college students about their reasons for having sex and tallied 237 different ones. With all of those reasons, don’t you think it’s possible that people might have different ways of deciding whether to have sex or not? Even if you, or I, or Douthtat might have a different motivation or decision-making process, I think it’s disrespectful to decide that someone is “lacking in standards” or is “ill considered” without knowing their individual story.

Third, when slut shaming fuses with the idea that marriage or trial-run relationships as the only context in which sex is acceptable, many women end up fearing their sexual desires to the point of needing to be “swept away” on a tidal wave of love/passion/emotion in order to justify sex. (Carol Cassell did a marvelous job of describing this.) As a result, they might not prepare for sex by, say, having condoms handy since that would mean that they were sluts. And that ends up putting them in the very same risky situations that Douthat decries. Perhaps if he actually understood how these sorts of things work, he’d have a better grasp on the situation.

Douthat goes on to write:

Among the young people Regnerus and Uecker studied, [in the book Premarital Sex in America] the happiest women were those with a current sexual partner and only one or two partners in their lifetime. Virgins were almost as happy, though not quite, and then a young woman’s likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished.

This is a much more complex issue than he makes room for. Certainly, some people try to soothe themselves by having sex, even when that makes them feel worse. This is one of the causes of sex addiction, or for that matter, any addiction. But it’s also true that the more closely one fits the loudly-proclaimed definitions of acceptability, the less stress one is under. Given our culture’s obsession with female virginity, many women who have more than a small number of sexual partners experience some stress about their sex lives. And it’s often because of the slut-shaming they experience, both directly and indirectly, rather than their actual histories. Similarly, gays and lesbians often experience distress and pain, not as a result of being gay but as a result of homophobia. Do we say that being gay causes their distress? Well, people used to, but now we know better. Perhaps that’s a lesson that Douthat missed.

This is a perfect example of someone confusing correlation and causation. Does having lots of sex cause depression? Does feeling less happy cause people to have more sex? Are they both caused by some third element? What are the factors that influence these shifting dynamics? What about people who have more sexual partners and are perfectly happy? And what about the folks who are miserable, even though they’ve had a smaller number of partners?i Rather than acknowledging these complexities, Douthat jumps to conclusions in order to support a weak argument.

He also misrepresents the research on sex education:

This is what’s at stake, for instance, in debates over abstinence-based sex education. Successful abstinence-based programs (yes, they do exist) don’t necessarily make their teenage participants more likely to save themselves for marriage. But they make them more likely to save themselves for somebody, which in turn increases the odds that their adult sexual lives will be a source of joy rather than sorrow.

If you follow the link he offers, it’ll take you to an article called evaluated a single program which was not representative of abstinence-only programs in general. And that program was used with sixth & seventh graders, so there’s absolutely no credible justification to say that it will make their “adult sexual lives will be a source of joy rather than sorrow.” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see a thin shred of evidence stretched to promote his belief, but it’s further evidence of his sloppy thinking.

Not to mention that using language like “saving themselves” is deeply rooted in the notion that sex (or at least “pre-marital” sex) stains, ruins, or disgraces one. Do I need to explain how that’s based on sex-negativity and shame, or can I leave it as it stands? Or how about how this sort of rhetoric is consistently used to control women’s sexuality much more harshly than men’s?

Douthat wraps things up with another distortion:

But [social conservatives] also see Planned Parenthood’s larger worldview — in which teen sexual activity is taken for granted, and the most important judgment to be made about a sexual encounter is whether it’s clinically “safe” — as the enemy of the kind of sexual idealism they’re trying to restore.

Leaving aside his use of scare quotes, I can tell you that the folks at Planned Parenthood and other sexuality education organizations aren’t suggesting that the most important thing to consider about a potential sexual encounter is whether it’s clinically safe, which I take to mean “at low risk for STI transmission or unintended pregnancy.” The most important issue is whether it supports everyone’s health, well-being, consent, and pleasure. And having known and worked with and spoken with more Planned Parenthood educators than I think Douthat has, I can say with a lot of confidence that they would agree with me. And just to prove it, here’s what they say on their website:

We all have sexual feelings. But we don’t always engage in sexual activity when we have those feelings. When to have sex is a personal choice. Figuring out when you’re ready for sex continues through life. People need to make decisions about sex in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond — every time a sexual situation develops. 

A good sex life is one that keeps in balance with everything you’re about — your health, education and career goals, relationships with other people, and your feelings about yourself.

If you’re considering having sex, ask yourself these questions:

* How clear can you be with your partner about what you do and don’t want to happen?

* How will having sex will make you feel about yourself?

* How will sex affect you physically and emotionally?

* Are you considering having sex because you want to or because someone is pressuring you?

* Will sex change your relationship with your partner?

Sometimes it’s helpful to talk these kinds of decisions through with someone you trust — a parent, a friend, a professional counselor, or someone else who cares about you and what will be good for you.

That’s a far cry from Douthat’s misrepresentations of the matter. But then, Planned Parenthood is used to having people distort their work in order to score easy points.

What Douthat leaves out is that whenever we hold monogamy as the gold standard against which every other type of sexual relationship is measured, we reinforce sex-negativity and sexual shame. Monogamy works well for some people, not so well for others, and not at all for still other folks. What we need is room for people to figure out where they fall on that spectrum, to develop the skills they need to navigate whatever relationship structures work for them.

We don’t need more sexual shame in the name idealizing monogamy. And we certainly don’t need more muddy thinking about sex pretending to be intelligent analysis of the issue. What we need is intelligent analysis and critical thinking around sexuality topics. Unfortunately, that’s not what Douthat brings to the table.

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One Response so far.

  1. Will says:

    Thanks so much for posting this response! There’s much that can be (and been) said about the kinds of thinking which inform Douthat’s piece, but this provides a strong and detailed starting point for further discussion. As an ethical slut / polyamorous person, I see Douthat’s article as a potential rallying point for organizing material resistance to these dehumanizing ways of talking about sexuality. After all, as you mentioned above, the production of lifelong monogamous (i.e., two-person) relationships as a moral standard by individuals and institutions (like the NYT, it would seem) has unethical effects: sexual shaming of women in particular, mental dissonance between what people are told relationship ‘should’ look like and their own relationships, consequent depression/unhappiness, oppression and marginalization of non-heteronormative people (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, and asexual, just to throw out a few helpful identity-tools)- in short, the production of this mononormativity, with lifelong monogamy as the moral norm, makes peoples’ sexuality a reason for dehumanizing them and discouraging them from happiness.

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