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What marriage conserves

Damon Linker has an interesting article at The Week in which he makes the case that the Culture Wars are really all about sex, and while he identifies himself as in tune with the new understanding of sexual morality, he urges respectful contemplation of traditional beliefs.  In essence, he’s saying that maybe those traditions endured through centuries – right up through the late Two Thousands – because they had something useful to say about human nature.

For an ever-expanding number of people born since the mid-1960s, the sexual world is radically different. Sex before marriage is the norm. There is comparatively little stigma attached to promiscuity. Masturbation is almost universally a matter of moral indifference. Even if there’s some dispute about whether private businesses run by religious conservatives should be forced to pay for every form of contraception, birth control is available everywhere, and it can be used without stigma. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy is becoming increasingly common; and for women who become pregnant and don’t wish to carry the baby to term, the pregnancy can be terminated. Divorce, meanwhile, is common and considered perfectly acceptable to most people.

Most of this was true a generation ago. More recently, we’ve also witnessed the rapid-fire mainstreaming of homosexuality and the transformation of the institution of marriage to accommodate it. But that’s not all. Thanks to the internet, pornography has never been so freely available and easily accessible. Websites like Ashley Madison facilitate extramarital affairs. Othershelp people find various kinds of “arrangements,” from traditional prostitution to a more informal exchange of financial support for sexual services. Smart-phone apps put people (gay or straight) in touch with each other for no-strings-attached hook-ups. Then there’s the push to normalize polyamorous (“open”) relationships and marriages, a movement that seeks to remove the stigma from adultery and even positively affirm the goodness of infidelity.

A “push to normalize polyamorous relationships and marriages?’  Why, I’m old enough to remember when anyone who said that was the next step after same-sex marriage was derided as a fearmongering reactionary.  In other words, I was born before 2010.

Welcome to sexual modernity — a world in which the dense web of moral judgments and expectations that used to surround and hem in our sex lives has been almost completely dissolved, replaced by a single moral judgment or consideration: individual consent. As long as everyone involved in a sexual act has chosen to take part in it — from teenagers fumbling through their first act of intercourse to a roomful of leather-clad men and women at a BDSM orgy — anything and everything goes.

Yes, and how’s that working out for everyone?

Sure, some people are perfectly happy in the new anything-goes order, but the social pathologies caused by the breakdown of the traditional family are horrific.  Linker goes one way in his article, and talks about how the traditional understanding of sexual morality was based on some observations about individual human nature which modernity has been eager to deny.  I would go the other, and note that when discussing a vast population, traditions can have profound social effects.  Was the older understanding of marriage and sexual fidelity superior to this new post-marriage approach?  I would submit the answer is demonstrably yes.

The other areas Linker discusses are somewhat peripheral – I doubt any society will ever stand or fall based on its attitudes toward masturbation – but marriage and sexual fidelity are different.  That’s what the defenders of traditional marriage, the social conservatives, have been saying all along.  This is a core issue, part of the basic programming language that supports society itself.  Honoring those standards in the breach, with a good deal of playful violation, is one thing.  Erasing them is another.

If Linker’s provocative thesis about sex as the final reduction of the Culture Wars holds up, then three points stand as the essence of the Sex Wars: (1) sex between men and women is different than any other variety, because it produces children, (2) children generally prosper best when raised by their parents in marital unity; and (3) even without considering children, society functions better when sexual fidelity between men and women is valued highly.  Much depends on whether any or all of those points can be either refuted, or rendered moot by arguing that they don’t truly matter to the health of our civilization.

I don’t think any of them can be refuted, or de-emphasized, and it’s dangerous to try, but we seem collectively willing to take the risk.  The first point is an indisputable fact of biology, at least for the moment.  We might not be too far from a post-human future in which most, or all, of our children are created under laboratory conditions, perhaps with a little genetic engineering thrown in.  I’m not sure if that’s something to look forward to, but for this generation and at least the next few to come, it’s science fiction.  Stable populations require a vast number of men and women to have sex and make babies.  In fact, stability requires a sizable number of them to have more than two children.  That’s hard to do, and while we can debate how much direct government assistance (through child tax credits and such) we should provide, we should definitely provide social recognition, encouragement, and special respect for those who undertake the adventure.

The second point is not a painfully obvious aspect of biology, but it’s very difficult to dispute, given the reams of sociological research on the benefits of children being raised in an intact family setting, with both a mother and father.  Whether or not same-sex couples can provide the same benefits to adopted children is beside the point, because this isn’t an argument for banning same-sex adoptions.  We’re talking about the whole of society here, millions of people.  The only way most children can be given the advantages of growing up in an intact family is to strongly encourage marriages between men and women to form, and endure.

That’s only going to happen in a cultural environment where traditional ideas of sexual fidelity are highly respected.  There is nothing as sobering as the polls that show young people regarding marriage as an entirely optional endeavor to be undertaken at the end of their lives, after career, sexual adventures, and even childbirth have been explored.  This fits in with the modern notion of extending adolescence as long as possible.  After all, one of those traditionalist ideas about sex is the sense that adolescence ends decisively with marriage.  For the benefit of younger readers, that’s why people in old movies nod approvingly when they learn a job applicant or prospective business partner is married.

The third point is the really challenging one, challenged directly by the shifting attitudes Linker describes, rather than being ignored or bypassed.  One of the arguments advanced by proponents of same-sex marriage is that traditional marriage doesn’t require the couple to have children, which is supposed to make arguments linking the sanctity of marriage to child-rearing hypocritical or incomplete.  There isn’t really an intrinsic expectation that a married couple will raise kids, although a few generations ago there was – a married couple without children was regarded as unfortunate.  If that attitude has decisively shifted, then we’re down to the third core traditional idea: that sexual fidelity between men and women is important, even without children.

I’d be ready to defend that proposition, even though I suppose at this point I’d be saddling up to defend a fortress that has already been burned halfway to the ground.  Is it really so difficult to make the case – with both common-sense reasoning and empirical evidence – that fidelity is highly valuable to society?  And while one can make the case that redefining marriage to include same-sex couples has a salutary effect on encouraging their fidelity too, the core of this most controversial traditional ideal is that fidelity between men and women is something different at the social level.  That’s not at all to dismiss its importance among other pairings, or deny them respect, but the simple truth is that the vast majority of sexual relationships occur between men and women, and that will likely remain the case for generations to come.  Sociology is a numbers game, and biology is what it is.

The sexual revolution Linker describes pulled a vital linchpin out of the social fabric, because most of the aftershocks he describes descend from refuting the idea that men and women should seek each other out for long-term relationships, which generally tend to carry the promise of children.  A society that strongly values this ideal has plenty of room for individuals who don’t accept the traditional ideal – that’s what “tolerance” is all about.  Tolerance does not require abandoning ideals.  It is possible to celebrate one thing without declaring the alternatives to be rubbish, although you wouldn’t know it from scrolling through the average Internet forum.

It has been observed that the upper class in American society retains much of the traditional appreciation for fidelity, marriage, and family continuity, leading to wistful hopes that someday they’ll preach what they practice.  They don’t, because class-war ideology means the people who most need to hear the sermon would be least willing to listen.  They’ve also been persuaded that energetic support for the old traditions is impossible under the new traditions that define our culture.  It is not at all true that the new culture is less judgmental – on the contrary, today’s “Duck Dynasty”-bashing Internet flash mobs are intolerant prudes beyond the dreams of bygone Puritans or Victorian scolds.  The cultural conversation on sexual morality is mean to be entirely one-sided; public dissent is not permitted.  For a fundamental sea change in our society’s thinking, the sexual revolution is awfully insecure.  The revolutionaries seem perpetually nervous that young people will be exposed to ideas they claim are dead and buried.

“Conservatives” of any stripe are, by definition, supposed to explore existing ideals and understand them completely, in order to defend them against changes that might not be wise.  When Linker ends his thoughtful piece by saying that maybe those old traditions contained wisdom that modernity should not be too quick to discard, he’s describing the mission statement of conservatism.  (Then you get into the robust debate over just how much wisdom is contained in which traditional ideals, which is where the exciting arguments begin.)  I’m skeptical that the notion of “fiscal” conservatism can be fully separated from “social” conservatism, because the structure of society has a profound effect on how it views the size of government, and what the State spends money on.

What marriage conserves is either a bunch of trivial old hang-ups that empower judgmental prudes to attack lifestyles they frown upon, because they enjoy making other people feel bad… or the very foundation of an enduring and prosperous society.  Social conservatives lean toward the latter view, and can marshal considerable evidence to support their analysis.  Linker is tactically correct to judge them the “losing” side, at the moment, but people do change their minds.  At least, that’s what liberals and “progressives” used to claim, as one of their core ideals.

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