Thursday, February 23, 2012

The talk, the walk

Says David Brooks: "People in the educated class talk like social progressives and behave like traditionalists."

One hears variations of this all the time these days, in reference to the family-arrangement divide between working-class and white-collar communities. The usual social-conservative take here is that "elites" claim that anything goes, while keeping it an open secret that they're not really making the most of everything the Sexual Revolution theoretically allows. 

And I think this has some truth to it - if one were to go by the calls and letters Dan Savage receives, one might imagine modern adulthood among the college-educated to be one giant pool of potential sexual partners shuffling, polyamorously arranging themselves, and so forth. When in fact, most (over 25, at least) are after a monogamous, married commitment with an opposite-sex partner. This also, I believe, gets at the window-of-opportunity problem - young women, at least in the "elite"-broadly-defined, genuinely believe they're supposed to embrace anything-goes-ness, only to suddenly discover, at (say) 25, that they're actually no less expected than were previous generations to find a man, and quick, before they're menopausal, a state we all know arrives at 30 on the dot. Biological fact. There's on the one hand a world of infinite possibility, on the other, not so much. It's understandable that this split makes it more difficult for "elites" to be anything but blasé about, for example, high rates of out-of-wedlock births, even while keeping their own rates way down.

But something doesn't add up. Isabel Archer, in her response to Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart, gets at what that something is:
[T]here is a long section in which Murray encourages the elites to "preach what they practice." That is, Murray notices that people in his elite groups are more likely to stay married longer, less likely to bear children out of wedlock, and so on. Yet these same people are, according to him, overly shy about condemning illegitimacy and divorce as kind of bad. I'm with him, sort of. I do want elites (and everyone else) to preach why these behaviors are good. But I do want Murray to recognize that the gospel that he would like elites to preach looks very different from most contemporary varieties of social conservatism. It is common for members of Murray's Belmont class to enjoy not-particularly-risky varieties of premarital sex (e.g. within well-established relationships and with use of contraception.) It is also generally common within this class to treat gay relationships as on an equal footing with heterosexual ones. Yet both of these practices draw jeremiads from many contemporary socially conservative politicians.
Yes and yes. Why do these "elite" marriages work? First, because those entering into them - including the precious innocent lovely sweet darling straight-A-student goody-two-shoe tastefully-dressed ladies among them - are sexually active from, say, 18 until marriage at 28. Not necessarily super-active, but not, shall we say, "saving" themselves for marriage. Even if they stay "pure" in high school, they're sleeping with people in college, sleeping with people after college, sleeping with - and living with - their eventual spouses prior to getting married or engaged. Like Léon Blum said back in the day, and before the Pill even made this route plausible, the way to make marriages stable is to make sure that men and women alike have explored other options before settling down. And the person with whom one is to eventually settle down ought to be premaritally explored as well, not for the sake of libertinism, but for that marriage to succeed.

Second, because if same-sex relationships are socially-accepted and (ideally) can and are expected to culminate in marriage, this promotes stability in a variety of ways. It makes gays themselves less promiscuous/eternal bachelor-ish, this most seem to understand. But it also takes a small but significant minority of sub-optimal potential spouses out of the straight dating pool. Sub-optimal, that is, as heterosexual spouses. Perfectly fine as homosexual spouses. A man who makes a commitment to a woman and might one day prefer another woman isn't in quite the same situation as a man who commits to a woman knowing full well he can never be attracted to *any* woman. It is beneficial to "traditional" marriage to keep those whose inclinations lie elsewhere from entering opposite-sex marriages. And given that gays, like straights, tend to want the rest of what goes with marriage (stability, the possibility of raising kids), a good way to keep Elton John from marrying your daughter is to allow - no, encourage - him to marry another dude.

Thus the problem with the now-standard social-conservative line about how admirable today's "elites" are in their behavior, how decadent in their rhetoric, is that the stability in the upper- and upper-middle classes actually results from an extensive embrace of the possibilities the Sexual Revolution allows. If "elites" are to be all patronizing-like, they'd have to do things like tell Those People There not to even consider having sex outside marriage without proper contraception, and not to think of sending Junior to de-gayification camp.

The theoretical, pseudo-nostalgic alternative social conservatives embrace - where homosexuality is repressed, contraception shunned - first and foremost smacks of an attempt to return toothpaste to its proverbial tube. But if it were feasible, all it would mean is the development of a new dichotomy (or, rather, an extension of an existing one), in which conservative elites would know perfectly well amongst themselves that contraception and acceptance of same-sex relationships are actually conducive to stability and success, and would behave according to those rules themselves, but god forbid The Masses catch on.


John Thacker said...

The first problem with your theory as outlined above is that the overall trend is that marriages have become less stable overall. So at the very least you have to introduce other factors besides that of greater acceptance of exploring other options, etc., that are driving the reduction in marriage stability. I think that this is possible, but it's a big hole in the presentation.

The second problem is the apparent assumption that the people not in the "elite" are not sleeping with and living with their eventual spouses, or using contraception prior to getting married or engage. They are. There is some difference in age of first marriage, but consider that both groups are sexually active before marriage, it seems strange to claim that the elite's sexual activity is promoting stability when the "non-elite" are doing it as well.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Re: your first point, what do you mean when you say that "marriages have become less stable overall"? My understanding of this is, marriage has remained about the same, duration-wise, among "elites," but has changed radically everywhere else. There's certainly more divorce than... at times when divorce was illegal or close.

Re: your second point, this is something I ought to have made much clearer. It's not that outside the "elite," one finds virgin brides and grooms. It's that abstinence is held up as the ideal, leading to sporadic/flawed use of contraception, and - as you mention, early marriage, or often enough, no marriage at all, because it's held as an ideal, for later, and "later" never comes. There's no sense that a decade of experimentation is acceptable, so no framework forms for organizing the years of premarital sex that do occur. The so-called "hook-up culture" of UMC college students isn't completely without rules, involves a whole lot more serial monogamy than conserva-rants about it would suggest, and - more to the point - involves a whole lot of condoms-and-Pill.