Monday, April 19, 2010

"Obviously, it tends to work out."

I'm not sure if Prudie's historically accurate here:

"Over the course of human history, it has been the norm that the young couple gets hitched and then figures out afterward what to do in bed. Obviously, it tends to work out."

There were, I remember reading, times in France when the norm among peasants was to reproduce and then perhaps get married after getting pregnant. And that's not even getting into the altogether frequent Golden Age situation of brides but not grooms arriving untouched at their weddings. This still means "the young couple" first fools around post-wedding, but I don't get the sense that this is what Prudie has in mind.

Of course, there's also the matter of "it tends to work out" - "work out" as in the next generation of humanity gets produced whether couples were love matches or arranged, virgins or experienced at the altar? No doubt that's the case. "Work out" as in, the couple grows to at least mildly enjoy (rather than dread, fear, or altogether abandon) the physical aspect of their relationship? Do we have reason to believe this has been the case for most couples in this situation? I ask this not to pit Tradition against modern-day narcissistic libertines who believe you don't really know you're with the right person until you've had hundreds of partners simultaneously and weighed the pros and cons of each. It's that some relationships truly don't work on a physical level, and the fact that part of taking marriage seriously might, I'd imagine, include wanting to sort this out beforehand, to avoid divorce or, worse, divorce once there are kids. This is, at any rate, the Dan Savage line, and I find it convincing.


Withywindle said...

My sense from sporadic reading is that there's no such thing as a traditional human norm for sexual behavior. First it varies by culture; e.g., I gather that Russian peasants were much more conservative about premarital sex than western European peasants. Then things vary sporadically by family and friend-group; in America, England, and Ireland (the places I know the most about), I gather that some people knew about sexual matters, including passing on tips to friends and family on how to enjoy yourself--and some people didn't. There are statistical generalizations you can make, but the statistics obscure the "some know, some don't" variability within nations.

I'd add that sexual satisfaction just may not have mattered so much one way or the other, when the essential point was "we are an economic partnership working our damnedest to say alive, and have enough kids to take care of us when we're old and worn out at 45."

Phoebe said...


"There are statistical generalizations you can make, but the statistics obscure the "some know, some don't" variability within nations.

I'd add that sexual satisfaction just may not have mattered so much one way or the other, when the essential point was "we are an economic partnership working our damnedest to say alive, and have enough kids to take care of us when we're old and worn out at 45.""

Precisely. Which is the problem with Prudie's "it tends to work out." She's assuming a couple today can start at zero on the wedding night, and that all will work out according to what is today expected of marriage.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think we're missing a key element here. For the sorts of people who sleep around before marriage, sexual satisfaction in marriage is probably a very important (if not the most important) component. For the sorts of people who don't, it likely isn't.

I.e. most attitudes about this issue are tainted by FLG's Big Assumption. Sexually experienced people look at virgins marrying and cannot imagine themselves in such a situation. They imagine that after the wedding they would likely be constantly wondering about the quality of the sex elsewhere (which they would know nothing about). But this is not very likely to weigh heavily on the mind of the sort of person who would remain sexually inexperienced until marriage.

In my dissolute youth, I never once had a relationship which truly didn't work on the physical level. I suppose there's a risk of sexual incompatibility, but it's got to be a fairly small one.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, thought I'd mention the flipside. Occasionally, you see statistics that say that people who live together before marriage are more prone to divorce. While I'm sure these statistics are accurate, they do nothing to tell you whether you should live together before marriage or not. It is extremely likely that the sorts of people who don't live together before marriage are less likely to divorce. So it likely these statistics tell us nothing about whether any given two people (who are the types of people they are) should live together before marriage or not.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

Agreed that those for whom sex is especially important are fewer among the virgin-at-marriage set than among the sleep-around set. That said, what I mentioned specifically in this post was that I wasn't talking about "sleeping around," as in, widely sampling partners, but the importance of some just-to-make-sure premarital something with one's would-be future spouse. I mean, yes it's a spectrum, and enough 'just to see' becomes 'sleeping around' or at least serial monogamy. But since in most cases everything will probably work just fine, it might well make sense to eliminate the few that won't before a greater mess (i.e. divorce) has to be made.

The altogether-not-working situation is one I've read about occurring, mostly long ago. I'd imagine it was more common in times when mutual interest hadn't entered into choice of partner in the first place, or when girls/women had no idea what sex even was until their wedding nights. That you never ran across this sort of incompatibility doesn't surprise me, since presumably a) you were with people where there was mutual attraction, and b) your partners were not altogether startled to learn that people do that behind closed doors. Still, there are any number of reasons even today, it could occur. (That one or both partners went in for saving-themselves because they were in fact either gay or otherwise not physically attracted to the other is just one possibility.)

Matt said...

I think that even pros probably can't deal with having hundreds of partners simultaneously! ;) Other than that, I largely agree.

As for Russian peasants, I think there was also still lots of variation and play- some with things like people celebrating Den Ivan Kupala in the traditional way, with a sort of wild orgy, some with things like depicted in _Quite Flows the Don_, where there's lot of pre-marital sex and no one bats an eye at it. So, even there, I suspect there was lots of variation.

William said...

But really, what does sex have to do with marriage? Not much methinks.

Miss Self-Important said...

Aren't Andrew Stevens's marriages between people who care so much about sex that they're constantly wondering how good it might be elsewhere kind of foredoomed, regardless of how much sexual experience the partners may have acquired beforehand?

Also, I'm not sure whether "works out" is a comparative judgment here (as in, "could've been better elsewhere if I'd tried") or an absolute judgment ("all the parts work synchronistically and perform their functions"). Is there some level of working out that is a precondition for getting or staying married? What would that be?

Andrew Stevens said...

Aren't Andrew Stevens's marriages between people who care so much about sex that they're constantly wondering how good it might be elsewhere kind of foredoomed, regardless of how much sexual experience the partners may have acquired beforehand?

I'm not quite sure what you're referring to here. I never said anything about marriages between people who care a lot about sex. I was referring to the perception that some people have that people who marry as virgins will constantly be wondering about sex elsewhere.

For example, Dan Savage once wrote, "Do you know how many letters I get from men and women who were virgins on their wedding nights and are now, five or 10 or 20 years later, just dying to fuck someone--anyone--other than their spouses? Most of these I-wanna-cheat letters are from married women; almost all of them tell me they want to fuck some other guy so they'll have something to compare to the sex they've been getting at home." Mr. Savage believes, based on his voluminous letters, that this occurs all the time. I tend to doubt it and I seriously question whether his letters are any kind of significant sample of people who remained virgins until marriage, but he thinks that having no sexual experience completely dooms the marriage from the get-go. (He also believes that people who wait to have sex until marriage are sociopaths.) For whatever reason, Mr. Savage does not take as dim a view of marriages between "normal" people. I assume his advice would be that once you've had sex with a couple of hundred people, you stop wondering. Or something.

Phoebe said...


By "works out," what I mean is, yes, the parts work, but also that neither partner turns out to be a) gay, b) asexual, or c) genuinely turned off by the other person. A couple who marry as virgins-as-in-no-intercourse but already know they're attracted to each other physically are, I would think, much less likely to have this problem. That said, if a particular sex act is going to be central to a couple's postmarital life, I do see why trying it out with that person beforehand, especially if one is very opposed to divorce, might be a wise idea. But overall, I think the not-working scenario is probably by and large eliminated once couples pair off according to mutual attraction.

Andrew Stevens,

I think you exaggerate Savage's opposition to premarital celibacy. What he says is basically the same as what Leon Blum wrote around 1906, which is that people tend to want to experiment at 20 (give or take) and to settle down at 30 (give or take), and that people who would like to date/sleep around a bit at 20 but don't end up really wanting to do so at 40. Which anecdotal evidence tells me is sensible. (Even the 1950s-nostalgics would be pro-dating-around-before-marriage.) Savage is not pro-anonymous sex, so the "a couple of hundred people" doesn't strike me as accurate. And he even defends the idea of keeping something, as in some particular act, as 'special' for one's future spouse/life partner. So basically, no, he's not about to become a hero to social conservatives, but he's not quite the libertine you're making him out to be.

Andrew Stevens said...

Judge for yourself here. It is, of course, possible that his views have evolved on this; he's allowed to change his mind.

Phoebe said...

Several things:

-I was going by the podcasts, which are more recent than 2001. Not sure if he'd retract this, though. But I don't see how the "judge for yourself" item you link to in any way contradicts my assessment of his take. Find me the column where he advises singles to sleep with hundreds of people before settling down. From what I've read and heard, this is not at all his view. He's for people marrying or otherwise settling down once at an age when the relationship's likely to last, against divorce/breakups when there are children, and against random/anonymous sex with hundreds of partners. And even in the very column you link to, he's fairly upbeat about the woman who's a virgin about to marry.

-Re: "sociopath" - Savage uses extreme/obscene language to refer to everything and everyone, and has gotten flack for using language offensive to, oh, just about everyone, including gay men such as himself. People who don't read/listen to him need his overall tone as context. It is unlikely that he really believes those who don't have premarital sex are sociopaths. Now, this tone has some drawbacks (i.e. allowing people to say things like 'Dan Savage thinks people who do X are sociopaths' and point to textual evidence), and it's not an approach I'd opt for, but if we're trying to figure out what he actually thinks, and what message his audience gets, then no, I'm not convinced he thinks virgin brides/grooms are sociopaths, or that his 2001-era readers would have assumed this was what he meant. To translate from Dan Savage-ese, he's saying that not having premarital sex is a bad idea.

-His point about saving one's self as being "deviant" was a comment about how it's typically assumed that the reverse is subversive. This is the aspect of his tone I do appreciate.

-Given his role as a sex-advice columnist, Savage hears disproportionately from people whose love lives fail, and may have a skewed perception of the failure rate of virgin marriages. Since I have not surveyed couples on this, I can only go on anecdotal evidence and common sense re: how curious someone might be as to what else is out there according to prior experience. Those who marry their first crushes probably do wonder 'what if' more than those who've dated a bit more. Those with a really blasé attitude towards relationships might wonder 'what if' at 20 and at 40. It is my altogether anecdotal sense that there's a middle-ground that would work/does work for many people, that allows curiosity to be satisfied while young, thus promoting stability later on.

Andrew Stevens said...

If you believe it accords with your original view of Savage's thinking, then I'm not going to disagree with you. That's why I said you could judge for yourself what his view is. He did say,

"Your fears are well founded, WNW: On your wedding night, your new husband will most likely find you to be inept--because you will be inept. Sex is a complicated business, WNW, and getting good at it takes time, practice, and experience. People don't expect to be good drivers the first time they get behind the wheel, or to bake a perfect cake the first time they walk into a kitchen, so why do they expect to be mind-blowing lovers the very first time they have sex?

"Anyway, kiddo, there are no sex tips that can make an inexperienced virgin fuck like a seasoned pro on her wedding night. If you can't bring yourself to run out and sleep with, oh, 50 or so guys before your wedding night, you're just going to have to embrace and celebrate your sexual ineptitude."

I am fully aware that this is not actually an endorsement of going out and sleeping with 50 guys, but I'm pretty sure we all see where he's coming from. I used similar hyperbole above with my "couple of hundred people" line above which you insisted on taking literally.

In any event, I'm not actually interested in Dan Savage's opinion. I don't believe he has any insights on why marriages work or fail which anyone should bother to listen to. I was just explaining what I meant above by using him as an example of the thinking I was describing.

Phoebe said...

What can I say? I've heard/read a lot more Savage than Stevens, and so I knew to take his "50" comment a particular way, whereas your "hundreds" comment I immediately saw as contradicting what Savage typically argues. I had no reason to believe, from some broader context, that you meant it as hyperbolic. (I don't insist on taking it literally if you say now that it was meant otherwise.)

Anyway, I was correcting what I thought was a misinterpretation of Savage's message not only because I imagined you were interested in his actual views (I accept that you're not), but on the slight off-chance someone else who is interested is reading this thread and might get the wrong idea of what Savage is about. I disagree with him in some areas, but think he does give fairly sound advice, and so I thought it was important to correct the idea that he urges promiscuity.