Monday, March 07, 2011

Virgin grooms?

It was my understanding of the past (that general Western, modern past that we can worry about specifying momentarily) that men were permitted to sleep around, to have sex with 'easy' women and prostitutes, prior to marriage, that somewhat older marriage ages for men gave them a chance to have a few good years like this while in the military and starting their careers, and that only the marriageable women were expected to remain virgins. What's new, then, is the fact that there's no longer that split between demimondaine-types and potential-wives - virtually all potential wives a man meets are women who, like himself, will gladly have sex without the promise of a major commitment. While this split means that there are fewer virgin or near-virgin brides, it also, in theory, eliminates the demand for some small subset of women who will sleep with absolutely anyone.

This is not the understanding of socially-conservative commenters. They seem to always present the past as a time when both spouses came to marriage relatively pristine. They seem to always ignore both the premarital sexual exploits of men and the fact that said exploits were considered normal, healthy aspects of masculinity. They present the past as though there was no real gender divide between what was expected. Ross Douthat's latest is no exception. I assume this is because it gets touchy and will rile The Feminists to suggest that the past, when young women stayed pure, was a better time. So they conveniently overlook the fact that the expectations they, to their credit, at least want to apply (mostly) gender-neutrally, were not applied gender-neutrally way back when.

I have other thoughts on what Douthat has written, in particular the notion that one can so neatly divide may-lead-to-marriage sex and "promiscuity," but the aspect of this that's relevant to recent posts here is what I've mentioned above.


Withywindle said...

It was my understanding of the past (that general Western, modern past that we can worry about specifying momentarily) that men were permitted to sleep around, to have sex with 'easy' women and prostitutes, prior to marriage, that somewhat older marriage ages for men gave them a chance to have a few good years like this while in the military and starting their careers, and that only the marriageable women were expected to remain virgins.

I think this is a gross distortion--and characteristic, wherever your source of this belief, of the sinner's hopeful and self-exculpatory doubt that virtue is possible. It is one thing to say that men were permitted sexual incontinence; another that it was encouraged, or that such incontinence was universally exercised--whether from conscious virtue, poverty, timidity, lack of opportunity, or what have you. I doubt that in any time or place in the long history of the West that young men were universally non-virgins at marriage; I would take the incidence of male virginity to have varied widely, and often to have been more common than not. (In the Bible Belt, in Russian villages, etc.) Statistics we will never have; I find it interesting that in Emile Guillaumin's The Life of a Simple Man, our sharecropping Everyman declares he was a virgin at marriage--despite some fumbling and unsuccessful attempts.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm not sure we disagree here. "It is one thing to say that men were permitted sexual incontinence," you write, and that is, in fact, what I'm saying. Men were, women were not. It's not that moralists wouldn't, for example, oppose prostitution, or that there was some kind of rah-rah attitude towards male premarital adventures. My impression - from Coontz's book, if I remember correctly, as well as what I've read about 19th C France - is that it was understood that men could and often (nearly always? depends when/where, and of course, no numbers) would marry after having had some kind of sexual experience with someone or someones other than his wife-to-be, whether during military service, on a rite-of-passage trip to a brothel, or anywhere else in the course of the years leading up to, say, 25 or 30. There was a subset of women men could turn to for this, such that fewer women were having lots of sex with more (not all, but more) men. There was not the same divide between a 'pure' man and a marriageable one as existed for women. Whereas it was not so unrealistic to expect virginity from 17-year-old girls or even 25-year-old women, at a time when means and knowledge of contraception was limited, and when single motherhood wasn't socially acceptable or abortion safe and readily available, to have waited.

Realistic or otherwise, I don't see how it's all that controversial to say that in the past, the expectation of virginity fell far more on brides than grooms, or to point out that today's social conservatives have bought into the idea of gender equality but not sexual freedom, insofar as they feel obliged to tsk-tsk about 'the hook-up culture' as it relates to young women but also young men.

Britta said...

Sexual mores have varied widely across time and location, so I while I agree with Phoebe about the recent(ish) past in parts of Europe, attitudes and acceptance of premarital sex and children have varied greatly. Outside of the nobility, marriage as an institution was not all that important for, say, peasants in the middle ages, nor was having children or getting pregnant out of wedlock even all that uncommon. Also, marriages didn't require witnesses until relatively recently, so peasants could take a roll in the hay and then claim that they were married. I read that at least one third of colonial brides in America were pregnant on their wedding day. Of course, there's a difference between marrying the father of your kid while pregnant/after the child is born, and being a single parent, but isn't that what Portman is being criticized for? Anyways, my guess is even getting married at nineteen, many women were not virgins.
Also, in addition to cultural variations, there are also class variations. The bourgeoisie is famous for being the most socially conservative class, and that seems to be the case--they are the class, unlike the poor, with the most to gain by conforming to moral standards, and, unlike the aristocracy, the most to lose if they don't conform.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Agreed. I'd just add that in the roll-in-the-hay scenario - which I've read about only as it pertains to French peasants way back when - the premarital sex is of the sort Douthat deems acceptable, that is, with the man who will soon become a husband, or who will at any rate be her monogamous life partner/co-parent. That there wasn't marriage-marriage complete with witnesses, white dresses, and clergy doesn't mean that children were being brought up kibbutz-style anywhere outside the bourgeoisie. As far as I know. My knowledge of the Middle Ages is quite limited, so perhaps children were raised collectively. I'll need to figure this out before writing the 'background info' chapter to my diss, but it's not something I've yet sorted out.

Withywindle said...


Military service, of course, was a minority experience until the French Revolution; and even then (see Life of a Simple Man again) you could buy your way out of it. As to trips to brothels, I really don’t know how many peasants could afford to go—and of those, I rather suspect that some were affected by scruple, timidity, etc. And all these factors are strong enough that it is plausible, in many places and times, that most men were virgins at marriage; and that in all places and times, a large minority were. I think this aligns more with a Douthatian argument than against it.

Britta: I think you are failing to distinguish between “marriage recognized by the church” and “marriage recognized by the community.” A great deal of the medieval polemic against fornication was more accurately clerical polemic to gain hegemony over quasi-pagan custom; it doesn’t necessarily speak to the modern issue, since community sanction may still have been required, rather than voluntary desire. Indeed, the farther back we go, the more I would take the relevant contract to be between the groom and the bride’s father, with the daughter/wife a piece of chattel; the “fornication” not a measure of youthful desire, but of a contract between men, about women, arranged independently of the church. As for colonial America: your statistic implies that two thirds of brides were not pregnant before their wedding, and presumably a fairly large number of the grooms too. But this statistic is also America just before the Revolution; it had been climbing steadily for several generations. Accept that statistic, and you accept a much lower rate of pre-marital sex in Masachusetts in 1700 or 1650—and you accept, say, the remarkably low rate in Puritan England ca. 1655, where it dipped near to zero. The European-American past is really quite variable, and includes very significant sections of chastity for both sexes.

I would say, rather, that male bourgeois were more likely than male peasants to go to brothels, simply because they had more money—and that there were far fewer bourgeois than peasants until fairly recently. I would take female peasants with any hopes of being more than impoverished helots to value their chastity highly, as part of their capital—and that this would be a majority of peasant women in most of European/American history, although often not a large majority.

I would take the largest amount of female sex before marriage in the olden days to be female servants, with their masters or their masters’ sons; usually under some form of duress; sometimes with hopes of gain (marriage), with or without the benefit of passion. Barbara Hanawalt, as I recollect, is good on the grim details.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If we're talking about modernity, then why are we dismissing military service because it only became big with the French Revolution? Britta and Withywindle, how did the Middle Ages come into this?

As for peasants and brothels, given that France as well as a number of other countries were undergoing a process of urbanization in the 19th C, it seems as though the brothel experience would have become ever more relevant. But this is getting fuzzy, and without sources on hand I'm not sure I have much more to add on this.

Withywindle said...

Ah, I suppose I focused on "my understanding of the past", and blinked a bit on "that general Western, modern past"; apologies. I suppose the general justification would be "modernity works itself into the patterns of the longue duree"--but never mind that. Focusing just on post-1800 Europe & America? I would take male virginity at marriage to be fairly common in Russian serf/peasant culture, Dissenting Anglo-America (and perhaps Calvinist Europe more broadly), Irish peasant culture, and those areas of Catholic Europe where the Counter-Reformation had established a real grip. (Brittany, and its equivalents across Catholic Europe.) And based only on reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, I'd add a good of Jewish culture in addition. Against the dissolving forces of urbanization, secularization, military experience, etc., I would posit the increasing force of religion in the daily lives of European-Americans, in a variety of denominations, where the aspirations are taken more and more seriously as a measure of actual behavior. And I would note just how limited urbanization and military service was in much of the region, until late in the nineteenth century and beyond. I think you have a stronger case if you restrict it to post-1789, but still one for which the Douthatians can adduce considerable historical evidence to buttress their case.

I suppose I think here of The Playboy of the Western World, where "what would the priests of Rome think?" governs male behavior to a remarkable extent.

Britta said...

My larger point is that sexual mores have varied widely over time and location and also among different classes/status groups, etc. I know I did it myself, but it's hard to generalize about peasants, or "the Middle Ages" without specifying a specific time or place, so maybe that's why the conversation has gotten muddled. The Colonial America is just one data point (though if 1/3 of brides were pregnant, considerably more would have had sex, since a woman has between a 0 and 20% chance of getting pregnant each time she has sex, so all we can take is pregnancy as a definitive sign of having sex, whereas non pregnancy does not mean the bride was a virgin.) You are right of course that in some places premarital sex has been highly stigmatized for both genders.

I also am not sure to what extent marriage was always a contract between two men, outside of classes where dowries were meaningful. Does serf X care if his daughter marries serf Y vs. serf Z?

I recognize that Scandinavia is very much an outlier when discussing European social mores, but it seems like out of wedlock children and free choice of marriage were fairly common and not stigmatized there, at least since viking times, and probably before. While certainly not universal, it does speak against a certain natural, or even a certain European/Christian way of doing things.

More importantly, there are plenty of non-European cultures where concepts such as trial/starter marrriages, travelling marriages, etc. exist, none of which conform to a monogamous partner for life sort of social structure. Indeed, when we realize that there have probably been millions if not billions of people who did not live in what we would recognize as a monogamous partner for life social structure, then the whole "naturalness" of monogamy argument begins to fall apart.

Britta said...

I didn't see your most recent comment until mine posted, so this is a reply to your earlier one.

Also, I am guilty of not focusing on the recent modern European past (except for Scandinavia).

Also, from reading Tolstoy, Gogol and Bakhtin, I didn't get the impression male Russian serfs were expected to be all that chaste. But then, I don't really know much about them.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Let's try it like this: do we, using all the historical-anecdotal evidence we've got in the back or front of our minds, think it's in any way a sign of something new that a Douthat or a Hymowitz would expect the same marriage-and-kids behavior from 20-something males as from 20-something females? Or do we think that there was just some aberration, in which people looked the other way in 1860s France when bourgeois men visited prostitutes?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

From Withywindle:

Britta: It’s now outside the relevant discussion, but: “Does serf X care if his daughter marries serf Y vs. serf Z?” First, of course, the lord of the manor may care, if he gets money from approving the marriage. And I think what matters is impoverishment, not the legal status of serfdom. A well-to-do serf—a serf with any sort of economic prospects at all—would care. An utterly impoverished serf might not. I think dowries were meaningful at any level where you had more than just your labor to sell, and I would say many/most serfs had at least a chicken or two to their name. Indeed, since one point of serfdom was to keep a minimum of land available to even the poorest members of the community, I would suspect “impoverished laborer who doesn’t care who his daughter marries” applies more to post-feudal Europe. My sense is that Scandinavia was indeed, as you say, very much an outlier. You take variation to undermine arguments as to the naturalness of monogamy; I take variation to undermine arguments as to the naturalness of incontinence. And this, ideally, allows us to make the various arguments without reference to nature. I don’t remember unchaste serfs in Anna K or the Brothers K, but it’s been a while; and you’re doubtless better read in Russian lit than I am.

Phoebe: Since neither Douthat or Hymowitz directly address your concerns, I’m not sure I could affirm that either of them “expect the same marriage-and-kids behavior from 20-something males as from 20-something females.” I don’t really know quite what they believe, what rhetorical omissions they choose to make, how much space limitations matters, etc. I think there is a strand of modern social conservative argument that assumes gender neutrality, and that this strand, for better or for worse, bears a tenuous connection both with past history and past social conservative argument. But I don’t think it’s necessarily any more tenuous than some liberal readings of the past. And I don’t think the past they’ve created is entirely imaginary; which is more than be said for most pasts.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

From me:

"Since neither Douthat or Hymowitz directly address your concerns"

Hymowitz and Regnerus do, though, in that they refer to the unreadiness of today's 20-something male for marriage and kids as unprecedented. This implies that they see much - if not all - of the past as being a time when 20-something males were - and were presumed, or else moralists would have also been making a fuss about this then - ready for all that settling down entails. We can analyze this in terms of, say, finding isolated cases of 13-year-old grooms and elderly wives, or we can look at what Hymowitz herself actually said in the NPR interview, which is that what would have happened way back when is, a 23-year-old woman would have settled down with a somewhat older man. Which makes the question of why we're supposed to care that men are marriage-ready at 30 rather than 25.