On Monogamy

I’m increasingly impressed by Ross Douthat’s willingness to write about important but icky issues. In yesterday’s New York Times he addresses “Why Monogamy Matters” and explains (among other things) why conservatives are unenthusiastic about funding Planned Parenthood.

Douthat tries to walk a careful line, making clear that he knows most people won’t and never have lived a perfectly chaste life up until marriage. He’s not, he says, promoting a “traditionalist utopia, where the only sex is married sex.” He’s making the point that sexual behavior should be shaped by ambitions toward love and lasting marriage. Such ambitions will lead to waiting longer, having fewer partners, and pursuing loving and lasting relationships. He cites social studies that indicate a “significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being,” particularly among women.

I mostly agree with what Douthat says, but I am not completely happy with his willingness to give away the traditionalist utopia. I understand the point he’s trying to make, but I don’t think he makes it very well.

It’s one thing to say that the world is a crooked place, and that people will inevitably fail to live up to the best for themselves. We should leaven whatever we say about sexuality with large helpings of grace and humility (qualities that Christians would have more of if they followed their Savior more rigorously).

It’s quite another to say that you don’t really expect anybody to live by sexual ideals, you just want them to be “shaped” by those ideals. That’s a lot like telling African dictators that you don’t expect them to actually live within the law, just to be shaped by it.

That’s the problem with Planned Parenthood. They say they want the best for young people, and they believe in good marriages and lasting relations. But they are so insistent that chastity is unrealistic for modern teenagers that they aren’t willing to challenge them to be better people. “Liberals argue, not unreasonably,” writes Douthat, “that Planned Parenthood’s approach is tailored to the gritty realities of teenage sexuality. But realism can blur into cynicism, and a jaded attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Sex is too important to be governed by “gritty realism.” We need ambitions and ideals. All of us do, whether we are 15 or 55, rich or poor. It’s true that society as a whole will never be a “traditionalist utopia.” But plenty of individuals do in fact live wholly admirable sexual lives. It is good for them if they do so—very good—and their example has a positive influence on all of us.

Kids (and adults) get plenty of gritty realism. They could use more hope.

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4 Responses to “On Monogamy”

  1. Fred Prudek Says:

    Tim, I think that your point is well taken. If I had had Planned Parenthood’s ethic when I was a young buck, I would have felt that it was permissible to have sex before marriage. I do believe it is worthy to set high standards, especially in areas of sexual permissiveness. Self-discipline and self-control are important qualities that should not be sacrificed on the altar of permissiveness and tolerance.

  2. Steve Says:

    Check this:

  3. Clay Knick Says:

    Excellent, as always, Tim.

  4. James Swenson Says:

    Happy birthday, Tim!

    To borrow a phrase, I’m mostly OK with what you say. On the other hand, none of it convinces me that Planned Parenthood isn’t a blessing to our society.

    It is a long step from “Sex belongs within marriage” to “People who have sex outside marriage don’t deserve health care.” You, particularly, who have written so forcefully about women’s health in the Third World, must value the work that Planned Parenthood does to keep us from seeking the same level.

    All of us have the job of teaching and living the law, but that doesn’t mean we should resent grace given to sinners.

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