Ross Douthat:

When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind. The point isn’t that we should aspire to some Arcadia of perfect chastity. Rather, it’s that a high sexual ideal can shape how quickly and casually people pair off, even when they aren’t living up to its exacting demands. The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.

This is what’s at stake, for instance, in debates over abstinence-based sex education. Successful abstinence-based programs (yes, they do exist) don’t necessarily make their teenage participants more likely to save themselves for marriage. But they make them more likely to save themselves for somebody, which in turn increases the odds that their adult sexual lives will be a source of joy rather than sorrow.

Andrew Sullivan critiques Ross for creating a false binary between pre-marital monogamy and “everything else.”  Along the way to defending the role of “experience” in determining who to marry, he writes:  “There is nothing lonelier than a bad marriage made for good reasons; and nothing but experience that can help you figure out if you are making a huge mistake.”

It strikes me that the emphasis on “experience” as grounds for deciding who to marry has stepped into the void that has been left by the decay of wisdom and the erosion of the communities that supported it.  Joyful, lifelong sex seems, like anything else, to be fundamentally a matter of character and love–traits that are discernible outside the marriage bed.

What’s more, Ross’ non-utopian vision for a sexual culture seems to rest on a subtle distinction between chastity and romance that I’m not quite ready to adopt.  The point of advocating for the former isn’t simply to encourage young people to “wait a little longer” so that they have better odds of achieving “romantic happiness.”  Instead, a chaste culture identifies such romantic happiness with the marriage vow itself, such that even those who engage in premarital sex risk their own marital joy (and if the social scientists are right, there’s some reason to think that this is the case).

I don’t think the arcadian vision is possible, at least this side of heaven (though that is different than Andrew’s reading that “sex outside marriage cannot be avoided”).  But it seems that limiting the ideal’s social aim potentially undermines much of what gives it its force in the first place.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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