Why Many College Girls Think They Don’t Have Enough Sex by Ross Douthat

20 12 2013

Why Many College Girls Think They Don't Have Enough Sex by Ross Douthat

Not surprisingly, my weekend musings on the gender-specific anxieties parents might have about their daughters, and how those anxieties might possibly translate into some sort of affinity for moral traditionalism, has prompted a lot of responses from socially-liberal and feminist commentators — some huffy, some bemused, some condescending, some all three. For the purposes of this post I’m just going to work off these remarks from the New Republic’s Marc Tracy, who interviewed Adelle Waldman, the novelist whose “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” served as one of my column’s touchstones, and who used their conversation as grist for the following conclusion:
In my reading, Douthat makes the classic, noble conservative mistake of assuming that rigid social conventions must do the work that we cannot trust young adults to do themselves. Waldman’s opinion (and mine) is that granting young men and women the social freedom to make their own way will result, most of the time and more times than not, in liberated decision-making that leaves everyone better off.
While hesitating to be too much of a spoiler, Waldman explained, “The person Nate winds up with in the book is one that he slept with on the first date. And that was deliberate, because it doesn’t ring true to my experience or to people I know that relationships are better when you wait to have sex.” She added, in a line that should only sound gooey if you have never been through it, “I think that what really makes relationships work depends on the two people and what they bring to it at that moment in time.”
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.
Here’s a relevant example of what I mean. If you look at the sociological literature on premarital sex and the attitudes surrounding it — how soon it should happen in a relationship, how casually it should take place — you see fairly clear gender differences: In the aggregate (note: I said aggregate), women’s stated preferences incline them toward a somewhat longer period of dating before sex and a closer link between intimacy, monogamy and commitment. And then you also see a significant correlation between female happiness and the fulfillment of those preferences: The risk of depression, for instance, is much lower for women with stable relationships and a low number of overall sexual partners, a correlation which doesn’t appear to anything like the same degree for men.

But then when you ask women (and men) what they assume about other people’s sexual preferences and behavior, there is a consistent overestimation of how often and how quickly their peers are having sex. The phenomenon at work here goes by the technical name “pluralistic ignorance,” and its effects are summarized as follows by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, in a discussion of sexual patterns on college campuses:
… pluralistic ignorance happens when within a group of individuals, each person believes his or her private attitudes, beliefs, or judgments are discrepant from the norm displayed by the public behavior of others. Therefore, each group member, wishing to be seen as a desirable member of the group, publicly conforms to the norm, each believing he or she is the only one in the group experiencing conflict between his or her private attitude and his or her public behavior. Group members believe that most others in their group, especially those who are popular and opinion leaders, actually endorse the norm and want to behave that way, while they themselves privately feel they are going along with the norm because of a desire to fit in with the group and exemplify the norm. This pattern suggests that plenty of college students think that they don’t have sex as much as other people do and aren’t as comfortable with uncommitted sex as other people are, but generally don’t wish to appear so. In other words, many college students are more sexually conservative than they prefer to let on. They’re afraid to appear prudish, which strikes many as a social kiss of death. The results of pluralistic ignorance about others’ sex lives, however, can “lead one or both sexual partners to act according to the perceived norm rather than to their own convictions.” In other words, sex becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The more students believe sexual activity is occurring, the more sexual activity occurs.”
If you don’t like the jargon of “pluralistic ignorance,” you can just use Tracy’s language instead: The expectation of relatively-swift sex is itself a “social convention,” no less than the expectation of chastity or courtship, and one that like any convention influences people’s decisionmaking as much as their own internal beliefs and preferences do.
And where gender differences are concerned, it influences them in a very specific way: In the aggregate (note that word again!), the current conventions surrounding premarital sex seem to push women to conform to male desires rather than to their own stated preferences. Look, for instance, at Figure 2 in this paper, which compares female comfort levels with various activities during a casual hook-up both with male comfort levels and with what the women thought other women would be comfortable with. You’ll see a striking pattern: Male and female comfort levels diverged sharply when the options moved from what people used to call “heavy petting” to oral sex and intercourse — men were reasonably comfortable with everything; women weren’t — but the women surveyed mistakenly assumed that other women’s preferences looked much more like the male preferences than their own. (So, significantly, did the men.) In other words, in our sexual culture, 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.

Now there are three ways you can look at this kind of data, three attitudes you can take. One possibility, which I take to be view of a number of the feminist writers who criticized my column, is that the division in stated preferences is itself a social convention — one of the legacies of patriarchy and male privilege, an entirely socially-constructed divergence that reflects the historical shaming of promiscuous women and the devaluing of female sexual pleasure. In this view, women who think they want to wait longer to have sex than men and who are more uncomfortable than males with the idea of sex with near-strangers are victims of false consciousness, disconnected from their actual desires and own best interests, and their enduring hang-ups are an obstacle to equality, freedom, and truly liberated decision making.
But this argument ends up in a peculiar place. It is one thing to argue that, say, the association between female promiscuity and depression, and the absence of a similarly strong association for men, is just an example of how the old sexual double standard warps women’s sense of self-worth. That’s a plausible-enough argument, though one that I think is somewhat incomplete. It’s much more sweeping and strange, though, to argue that in the name of female empowerment, male attitudes toward sex should be treated as comprehensively normative and healthy, female attitudes should be treated as self-deceived and borderline pathological, and that women should reshape and renovate their own desires about sex and relationships to conform to what men already want. The logic can be made to work, I concede, with sufficient intellectual gymnastics. But it still feels like a very strange sort of feminism that looks at the literature on sexual and romantic preferences and makes what men want the measure of empowerment, happiness and health.
The second possible attitude, which I think is actually more commonplace (though often unstated) than the strict feminist take, doesn’t dismiss these patterns but basically denies that they have any clear relevance to individual lives and relationships — because every sexual situation is so different, every romantic encounter so distinctive, that trying to draw any kind of specific life lessons from what a bunch of men and women tell a sociologist is a fool’s errand. Or, alternatively, perhaps, it’s not a fool’s errand but it is a dangerous business, because the risks from having too many rules (repression, misery, etc.) are much more significant than the risks from having too few, and the “rigid social conventions” of the past were so self-evidently anti-sex and awful that it’s better not to question whatever conventions we’ve replaced them with.
I think you can see a hint of this idea in Waldman’s comment about waiting or not waiting to have sex, and how she had her protagonist end up with a girl he slept with quickly because that was true to the experiences in her social circle, and to the broader mystery of how specific couples interact. From a novelist’s perspective, that’s a wise choice: Every relationship really is different, which means that plenty of relationships begin with sex and become something deeper and more durable — and no work of fiction, even one that doubles as a work of social criticism, should privilege sociological findings at the expense of the raw complexity of real human interaction.

But it still feels like an abdication of intellectual responsibility — and of personal responsibility, to return to my column’s theme, in the case of parents and families and communities — to simply ignore the sociology, to insist that the patterns and preferences have no relevance to people’s happiness, or to try to paper them over out of an implausible fear that merely acknowledging them will send us hurtling back into the world of “Mad Men,” the Victorians, or worse. Because actually, for instance, in the aggregate (yes, that word again) it does seem to be the case that relationships are better when you wait to have sex — not till marriage or even engagement, necessarily, but just longer than the average, longer than the current cultural norm. And pretending that this knowledge shouldn’t have any relevance to individual sexual and romantic choices, and can’t possibly justify any kind of structural critique of contemporary mores, seems like a weird sort of anti-empiricism, a kind of faith-based liberationism that recognizes no challenge to its dogmas.
Which brings us to the third possible response to the sociological findings and patterns mentioned above. If there’s evidence that 1) women’s stated sexual preferences are somewhat more conservative than what men say they want and what our cultural norms encourage, that 2) women’s happiness increases when their sex lives conform to their own preferences rather than to the culture’s more libertine script, and that (at least anecdotally) 3) men tend toward a kind of indecisive, listless, semi-exploitative relationship style when their preferences are too easily fulfilled, then perhaps — just perhaps — what we have here is a case for 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.
—-The NewYorkTimes

 


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