I remember as a teen being aghast at hearing a mother defend her son for shacking up by telling me casually—at church—that it was good for young people to “experiment” so they could find out what they liked. So have a bunch of boyfriends or girlfriends. Try out their bodies and personalities like you try out cars and shoes when shopping. It will only help your future love life.
Lots of people believe this. A study out last month found that sexual restraint has gone from being a desirable characteristic of a sexual partner to a disdained one: “Across three methodologically diverse studies we observed that sexually inexperienced adults perceived themselves to be stigmatized due to their inexperience and that sexually inexperienced adults were not highly desired as relationship partners…Although abstaining from sexual activity may bestow some health advantages, our studies show that being a sexual ‘late bloomer’ may result in negative interpersonal consequences such as limited opportunities for romantic relationships.” We no longer slut shame, we virtue shame.
This preference for sexual “experience” is not only morally wrong, it’s experientially false. As the amount of extramarital sexual experimentation has increased in American society, so has sexual and personal dissatisfaction—especially for women. A 2009 study measuring men and women’s satisfaction since the 1970s on several measures has become frequently referenced for its stunning finding that, even though women’s opportunities have drastically increased in that time, their self-reported happiness has significantly declined. Men’s happiness and satisfaction has declined, too, but women’s has been more dramatic.
Here’s one illustration from the report:
Obviously, this indicates correlation, not causation. In other words, it doesn’t prove that extramarital sex is itself depressing women’s happiness over this time period. It could be other things entirely. But we do know that a higher number of sex partners correlates with psychological and health problems, including higher rates of substance abuse and worse health, emotional problems and sexually transmitted diseases (obviously), and cervical cancer.
‘It’s a Contest to See Who Cares Less’
Many other studies and reporting finds a direct link between hookup culture and both women’s unhappiness and men’s callousness. One need read no further—if you can stomach it—than the recent Vanity Fair profile of the booty-call app Tinder. It shows men rating women’s sexual appeal like they would the beer they stuffed themselves with then vomited back up during a college bender.
“You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger,” Tinder-user Alex told Vanity Fair. “It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”
“Rack up 100 girls.” Gee, thanks, buddy. That’s not objectifying or anything. It’s so empowering as a young woman to know men like you don’t think women are even worthy of having a man whose penis has been inside them remembering their names or just about anything about them.
I’m not the only woman feeling bitter about this. Sexual cynicism is on trend. In fact, according to the new book “Girls and Sex” by Peggy Orenstein, girls today attempt to guard against “catching feelings” for a boy they’re sexually pleasuring, because when they’re honest with themselves about the effects of their behavior, it hurts. That ought to be an indicator something is wrong, but rather than altering their self-harming behavior, these women are deliberately tuning out their own psyche’s danger signals. Listen to these post-hookup young women talking in the Vanity Fair article.
‘It seems like the girls don’t have any control over the situation, and it should not be like that at all,’ Fallon says.
‘It’s a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less,’ Amanda says.
‘Sex should stem from emotional intimacy, and it’s the opposite with us right now, and I think it really is kind of destroying females’ self-images,’ says Fallon.
‘It’s body first, personality second,’ says Stephanie.
‘Honestly, I feel like the body doesn’t even matter to them as long as you’re willing,’ says Reese. ‘It’s that bad.’
This sounds like a recipe for female satisfaction, yeah? Obviously, it sounds like the opposite. Does a man who never has to see you again care if you orgasm with him—much less care about who you are as a person and all your other needs from places besides your crotch? I’ll let Brian from the Vanity Fair profile answer that with his comments about why he likes Tinder: “You can’t be selfish in a relationship. It feels good just to do what I want.” Maybe to you, buddy.
The real travesty is that anyone is willing to sleep with this jackass. In a sane world, a people user like him would get no nookie. He doesn’t deserve it. But, hey, I’m just saying that because I think women are valuable in their entire persons as human beings, not cum dumpsters.
If the Sex Isn’t Fun, Why Do It?
Even if you have no pity for women whom men treat, and who allow men to treat them as, human blow-up dolls, let’s just talk in practical terms. Perhaps the saddest part of the Vanity Fair article is a scene at the end among a pack of sorority girls the morning after they’ve let a bunch of guys use their bodies for free. One says, ruefully: “What’s a real orgasm like? I wouldn’t know.”
The others grumble in agreement. Research shows their experiences are widespread. Women are twice as likely to reach orgasm when having sex with a longtime partner as they are during a hookup. Two in five will orgasm during a hookup, but four in five will with a committed lover.
Men have their own sex problems, the biggest of which is pornography. As with hookup sex for women, researchers are finding that the prevalence of pornography ultimately creates a lower sex drive and less satisfying sex for men. Last week’s Time magazine cover issue went into the emerging research and experiences of men in this respect. Denny Burk quotes a key paragraph of the paywalled article (h/t Rod Dreher):
A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic—more prone to permanent change—than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning.
We’re Screwed, and Not Enjoyably
Burk explores the cultural effects of porn’s public health crisis, and finds in it a moral and civilizational crisis:
The sexual revolution promised us more sex and more pleasure. It has actually delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure. It has not given us men who know what virtue and honor are. It doesn’t teach men to pursue their joy in self-sacrificially loving and being sexually faithful to one woman for life. It teaches young men to use women for sex and then to discard them when they become unwilling or uninteresting. This means that it has given us a generation of young men completely unprepared for marriage and for fatherhood.
It’s not merely that so many young men are unprepared for marriage. They are unprepared for dinner and a movie. We have sown to the wind. We are reaping the whirlwind—especially our daughters, who are less likely than ever to find a man who hasn’t been corrupted by this.
He’s not kidding. The conversation has developed this week with Conor Friersdorf in The Atlantic attempting to say things aren’t that bad, and others responding by reinforcing Burk’s argument with more research (Dreher summarizes and links here). One of Dreher’s readers makes a fascinating extension showing how pornography creates and results from our emasculated culture.
The problem is that it disconnects a man from the world, by misdirecting his sexual energies. This ultimately leads to a lack of interest in the real world, an inability to be motivated by it. How many young men do you know who seem disaffected, unmotivated, apathetic, aimless, irritable? Yeah, it’s porn. In every single case. This is a subtle but incredibly consequential effect, especially across an entire society.
… The drive for sex, above all in men, is one of the most fundamental and powerful drives present in mankind. Most of the work of civilization consists of controlling this drive and aiming it in socially productive directions (Freud). We used to have some institutions that did that: marriage, along with the concomitant prohibition on premarital sex. (One is completely pointless without the other.) This gave society some say in where a man’s most basic desires would lead him. That is all no more.
For a visual portrayal of the harm this is doing to women and sexual relationships, just witness this terrifying conversation in the Vanity Fair article:
‘I think men have a skewed view of the reality of sex through porn,’ Jessica says, looking up from her phone. ‘Because sometimes I think porn sex is not always great—like pounding someone.’ She makes a pounding motion with her hand, looking indignant.
‘Yeah, it looks like it hurts,’ Danielle says.
‘Like porn sex,’ says Jessica, ‘those women—that’s not, like, enjoyable, like having their hair pulled or being choked or slammed. I mean, whatever you’re into, but men just think’—bro voice—“‘I’m gonna fuck her,” and sometimes that’s not great.’
‘Yeah,’ Danielle agrees. “Like last night I was having sex with this guy, and I’m a very submissive person—like, not aggressive at all—and this boy that came over last night, he was hurting me.’
They were quiet a moment.
According to Orenstein’s interviews, this is representative of young women today: “the acts the girls are engaging in, from oral sex to sexting, tend to be staged, she argues, more for boys’ enjoyment than their own…Fully half the girls in Orenstein’s book say they’ve been coerced into sex, and many had been raped…The sexual playing field Orenstein describes is so tilted no girl could win.” Let that sink in for a minute. This is the opposite of what feminists tell us they want. Yet it’s what their mantras are delivering—with a healthy side of despair.
The sexual revolution we’re all still living inside tells us women and society demand nothing of men in exchange for sex, beside the act itself. Given that women are emotionally and physically more vulnerable, we see the result is unsatisfied, wistful women who don’t know how to get out of this cultural trap. It’s almost like a cultural suicide pact. In fact, given that all this disappointed sex leads to very few live babies and substitutes for the stable, biological, married families that sustain children best, it basically is a cultural suicide pact. Thanks, feminism.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were another way? There is. Besides unequivocally providing the optimal environment for sustaining civilization, research shows that both men and women enjoy sex more when they’re married. In men, a higher number of sex partners predicts lower sexual satisfaction. A 2013 review of the research of heterosexual women’s sexual satisfaction found:
Women in an intimate relationship with mutual trust reported a higher level of satisfaction. Married women reported higher sexual satisfaction than singles….The consistent link in the literature between relationship quality and level of sexual satisfaction suggests that sexual satisfaction, as experienced in the lives of most people, is essentially an ’emergent property’ of our intimate contact and relationships, rather than a merely personal, private, and solitary experience or a skill to be mastered alone in one’s basement. Good relationships and satisfying sex go hand in hand.
There’s more. Lots more. Research shows that not only is how much you enjoy sex directly related to how good your non-sex relationship is with your sex partner, your likelihood of getting that good relationship with your sex partner goes up if you’ve had fewer sex partners and did not cohabit before marriage. Other research shows that cohabitation reduces sex frequency and increases relationship conflict. In other words, age-old cultural and religious injunctions against premarital sex (besides being, you know, morally right,) are also the prescription for increasing the fun in your sex life and your mental peace in general. Who knew!
A quality marriage—which, again, is more likely if you do not have sex before it—has other lifetime benefits besides sex, which you might care less about now if you’re a millennial but will in about 40 years, trust me. Happy marriages, besides having the best likelihoods of fostering enjoyable sex, are linked with better health and fewer disabilities later in life and better psychological health long-term.
Researchers also recently found that “young men in their 20s were more likely to have difficulty with depression and excessive drinking if they were single, compared with their peers who were married…They were also markedly less likely to report that they were ‘highly satisfied’ with their lives, with just 35 percent reporting such satisfaction compared with 52 percent of their married peers.” This is just a small sampling of the many benefits married people enjoy compared to single peers. In other words, it doesn’t just stop at sex.
You Can Get Off the Crazy Train
Young people don’t know how to get off the downward spiral they’re in. Nearly nine in ten millennials want to be married, and the vast majority want to raise kids. Yet we’re delaying both of those things perhaps longer than any generation in history. For this, we can blame a lot on our parents, who taught us happy-sounding lies about love that are proving devastating.
They also psychologically scarred us by divorcing at high rates: “You ask millennials about marriage, and they are afraid,” Joneen Mackenzie of the Center For Relationship Education in Denver told the Deseret News. “They want to set themselves up for success, but they don’t know how.” We know it’s a mess. We know our current cultural arrangement hurts both women and men. But we don’t know how to untangle it.
There is hope for us. My own life is one such example. Because of my parents’ marriage, I was extremely gunshy of marriage. It helped some that I wanted to have sex. Thanks to our religion, my now-husband and I unwittingly followed the social science script for a happy marriage (plus awesome sex): saving sex for marriage. Yes, it was hard. But we did it, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have had and continue to need to learn better relationship strategies than I learned implicitly from my own family. But I’m an adult, and I can do this. So can you. And the experience of putting together a marriage and family has been by far the happiest thing in my life. I never expected I could be so happy.
I also know from personal experience that people who didn’t manage to save sex exclusively for marriage can have happy marriages and great sex . The emerging science on porn and tech addictions bolsters this experience by suggesting that addicted minds can be restored, that people can learn different mental and physical habits, that they can look forward to healed minds and hearts. There is hope. Young men and women don’t have to forever writhe down the rabbit hole.
Everyone else needs to help us. Among other things, we need to rethink the life script that requires young people to wait a decade or two between puberty and marriage. Homeschoolers prove young people can learn all the K-12 material far earlier, and graduate high school and thus college at something like 20 years old, if not earlier (seriously, community college is so easy a well-prepared normal high schooler can do it). But college is not necessary, and the biological imperative is yet another to find better paycheck pathways than college for everyone when it’s only a good fit for, at most, a third of the population.
Parents and adults need to re-assert their place in kids’ lives as moral gatekeepers, and speak early and often about the sexual and personal habits that will prepare one for a fulfilling marriage, as well as the science about how porn and premarital sex destroys people and society. Planned Parenthood, which financially benefits from premarital sex and the hookup culture, should not be a legitimate sexual educator or health provider, and neither should similar groups. Lawmakers should look at stricter divorce laws, and people contemplating divorce should stick it out for the kids again.
American young people, and therefore American society, is in crisis. It will probably be a miracle if we can pull through. To make that happen, we all need to do our part. That starts with reasserting a very old, very valuable virtue—in fact, possibly the biggest predictor of life satisfaction. That’s self-control.