One of my sisters, when she was in college, once sat with several other women from her dorm watching TV. An ad came on, that was clearly for a pregnancy test. The woman in the ad announced to the man, “I’ve got great news!” In unison, my sister and her friends said, “I’m not pregnant!”
I thought of this story, a few weeks back, when I read in All Our Kin the part where Carol Stack writes about how eager the men are in The Flats for their girl friends to have their babies:
People show pride in all their kin, and particularly new babies born into their kinship networks. Mothers encourage sons to have babies, and even more important, men coax their “old ladies” to have their baby.
I thought of it again when my Alexandria blog master, H. M. Stuart, pointed me to Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic article, Boys on the Side, about how “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.”
There are two ways of thinking about sexual morals (any morals, really, but it’s sexual mores that are the theme of this post). You can either talk about them in absolute terms: What are the basic values that any system of sexual morals needs to preserve? Consent? An it harm none, do what you will? Honesty? Responsibility? Purity? Recognizing the essential meaning of sex (whether as relational, as has generally been the Protestant position, or as relational and open to reproduction, as has been the traditional Catholic position)? Making sure that babies are tied to fathers? Or you can talk of them in relative terms, terms where shifts in the economy, or your own position in the economy, or what technology is available to you, can change what sexual ethics make sense in fundamental ways.
Christian discussion of sexual ethics, not just the conservative Catholic kind, but even more liberal thinking on the matter, such as Rowan Williams’ The Body’s Grace (back when he was not yet Archbishop of Canterbury, and was putting forth his own reasoning on why gay and lesbian relationships could exhibit that grace, rather than trying to hold together the Anglican Communion at the cost of setting aside those views), tends to look to some natural meaning to sex, beyond what you can get from relative, consequentialist sexual ethics.
… Nagel’s reflections prompt the conclusion that some kinds of sexual activity distort or confine the human resourcefulness, the depth or breadth of meaning such activity may carry: they involve assuming that sexual activity has less to do with the business of human growth and human integrity than we know it can have. Decisions about sexual lifestyle, the ability to identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt, are, in this light, decisions about what we want our bodily life to say, how our bodies are to be brought in to the whole project of “making human sense” for ourselves and each other.
To be able to make such decisions is important: a conventional (heterosexual) morality simply absolves us from the difficulties we might meet in doing so. The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other. Not surprising, then, if the reaction is often either, It doesn’t matter what I do [say] with my body, because it’s my inner life and emotions that matter” or, “The only criterion is what gives pleasure and does no damage”. Both of those responses are really to give up on the human seriousness of all this.
I sympathize with these arguments (and they resonate with my own demisexualish nature), but in this post, such sexual ethics aren’t the kind I mean to talk about. I mean to talk about the relative kind, the kind that can look very different depending on your available opportunities, the kind that can change radically with a quantum leap in the effectiveness of birth control, the kind where the rules that work effectively in one community can break down altogether in another. The kind where “hookup culture” can actually be a way of ensuring that children are born to a father and a mother who are committed to each other, likely to stay together, and prepared to support their children.
These are the kinds of sexual values that I see Jonathan Rauch talking about, when he describes the differences between Red families and Blue families and the ways in which each set of family values actually works, given the right set of social and economic circumstances to fit that particular way of forming families.
… in Red America, families form adults; in Blue America, adults form families….
FOR decades—if not centuries, argue Cahn and Carbone—American family and economic norms were framed by two realities, both taken as givens.
One: sex makes babies, and a core purpose of marriage and of many other conventions is to regulate sexual and social behavior so as to provide for the formation of stable, nurturing families.
Two: a low-skilled man, if he apply himself, can get a job, make a living, and support a family….
BUT now along come two game-changers (so argue Cahn and Carbone): the global information economy and the birth-control revolution, which is what the sexual revolution mostly amounts to….
All Our Kin, you see, got me thinking again about how family and child bearing play out in my own world. I didn’t include those thoughts in my post about All Our Kin (on my own blog, not Alexandria), because I figured that, what with my having way more experience of family life among the middle class and college educated than of making families work in more economically challenged circumstances, the comments about white middle class families could easily have overwhelmed the comments about the families that Carol Stack was actually writing about. I’m going to talk about those middle class and college educated families now, and particularly about the way the culture war plays out in arguments about the romantic and career choices of young middle class women who are either attending or recently graduated from college, but first I want to take a detour back to the world of The Flats, and the childbearing choices of poor women.
It has been much remarked that there’s a sharp divide in the US, in marriage rates, and that this divide now runs, not along racial lines (as it was often described in the 70s), but along class lines.
I’ve seen two kinds of discussions of that divide. The first is the kind where people argue about just how bad single motherhood is or isn’t for children, about whether poor people need more encouragement toward marriage or more economic opportunities, and about whether to see lower marriage rates among the working class as a failure of personal responsibility or as completely irrelevant to poverty, since economics drives marriage decisions rather than the other way around, and in any case family form isn’t nearly as important as economic inequality.
The other is more descriptive. It’s the approach that All Our Kin takes, showing why childbearing choices which would seem irresponsible and reckless in the world I grew up in (and still live in) make sense in a place like The Flats. Ideological divides don’t disappear in this descriptive mode. It’s also the approach I see in Eve Tushnet’s article about her experience with a crisis pregnancy clinic and in Kay Hymowitz’s article about myths of single parenthood. And it’s the approach that Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior when he explains why middle class people’s predictions of what they would do if they were poor might not hold up:
Forget the unprotected sex itself, which we almost all find enticing.
The key is the pregnancy. For a 16 year-old girl regular unprotected sex will result in a full term pregnancy in the modern world with roughly probability one. There is little chance she will die in child birth. Late term miscarriages at her age are rare.
Now, just like any other parent the birth of that child will be the most important event in her life. And, the love of that child will be the most valuable thing she experiences. Some people say that looking back their career was more important than their children, but those people are few and far between.
So, if the girl has unprotected sex she gets right here, right now, the most important and valuable thing in life will happen immediately with PROBABILTY ONE.
Its difficult to get better than that….
Mark’s would have her set all that aside. Put away time that she will never get back – you must remember that no matter what you will never get these days back – for the chance that supposedly she will go on to college and get some job and meet some guy and then later have a different child under what might be better circumstances.
This is a risk….
Now, the fact that you’re talking in descriptive mode doesn’t mean that ideological divides and culture wars go away. Kay Hymowitz is clearly on one side of the debate as she both cites a paper by Melissa Kearney and Phillip B. Levine as describing a reality of single parenthood and adds the aside
(The main thrust of the Kearney and Levine paper is that young single motherhood is not a cause, but a consequence, of poverty and inequality, a conclusion I quarrel with here.)
Carol Stack in All Our Kin, determined to avoid blaming the victim, takes pains to describe the strengths of families of The Flats (closely bound extended family networks of exchange and assistance). At the same time that she follows a discussion of the economic obstacles to lasting relationships between fathers and mothers of children
When a mother in The Flats has a relationship with a non-economically productive man, the relationship saps resources of others in her domestic network. Participants in the network try to break up such relationships in order to maximize the potential resources and the services they hope to exchange.
with an explanation of the social forces behind those obstacles that reminds me of (and may be an intentional nod to) Marx’s theory about the reserve army of the unemployed:
One might be tempted to ask of what value the existence of a class of unemployed and unskilled, but costly individuals could possibly be to the maintenance of our present economic system…. The answer lies partly in the utility of having a large pool of unemployed readily available to be absorbed into the work force in times of rapid economic expansion. Further, and perhaps more important, the existence of a large pool of unemployed people puts pressure on those employed in the lower income brackets and on most of the unskilled positions within the labor force.
Meanwhile, Eve Tushnet, writing about her experience with a crisis pregnancy clinic, emphasizes how to help her poor clients envision the possibility of marriage.
So now I try to concentrate on identifying people in our clients’ lives who can help them view marriage to a good man as an imaginable, even achievable, goal. I try to offer them small concrete steps they can take toward the goal of creating a loving, stable family based on marriage.
Still, when people are writing in descriptive mode, more nuance shows up amidst the left/right divide. In sound byte mode, I sometimes see people on the left either rejecting the idea that welfare ever undercuts fathers’ ties to their families at all (since that argument undercuts the important value of maintaining a social safety net) or else argue that any marriage that didn’t happen due to the availability of welfare probably shouldn’t have (as it’s always a good thing when women aren’t forced to settle). In a more descriptive mode, a more complicated evaluation may come out, as when Carol Stack writes,
Lydia sadly related the story to me. “My oldest sister was cut off aid the day her husband got out of jail. She and her husband and their three children were evicted from their apartment and they came to live with us.”
(In this particular case, Lydia’s sister would have been better off without the husband, since he ultimately killed her. But getting cut off aid and evicted from your apartment could just as easily happen if the husband just out of jail was a gentle soul unfortunate enough to be imprisoned for a nonviolent offense. So as you read the sad story, a welfare rule that cuts people off as soon as the man of the family gets out of jail doesn’t look optimal.)
Similarly, conservative Eve Tushnet, in Sex and the City, makes the not obviously conservative point that
In my opinion, one of the biggest pro-family policies we could institute in America would be to lock up fewer nonviolent offenders and switch to forms of punishment short of incarceration.
And Kay Hymowitz, when in descriptive mode, tempers her marriage enthusiasm slightly
Myth 4: If unmarried couples would just get married, they would be a lot better off. Given the shaky foundations of the relationships described by Edin, Kefalas, and many others, marriage doesn’t look like a good bet.
(though she quickly shifts to arguing that Myth 4 isn’t, after all, altogether a myth).
As I read All Our Kin, I found myself thinking about what a similarly descriptive account of the family and childbearing patterns of my own class and subculture would look like. In a lot of ways, of course, this description is well trodden ground. We all know the rules, right? Study hard, get good grades, and go to college (in my world, most parents tell their children “when you go to college,” not “if you go to college,” and people post cartoons to Facebook suggesting that if you don’t go to college, your career opportunities will all involve asking “do you want fries with that?”). Both men and women need to be prepared for a career, since, even if you do wind up with the husband as chief breadwinner, having him as the only one prepared to really win bread well puts you in a precarious financial position. Prepare for your careers first, then marry, and then have your kids. And do learn to use birth control well and carefully, because there’s going to be a long gap between the time when you want to start having sex and the time when you can afford to have kids (and even then, you’ll only want a couple of kids, so that you don’t have more kids than you can educate to get good jobs).
The world of All Our Kin differs from my world in obvious ways, both ones that seem positive (much more extended kin assistance back and forth) and ones that seem less positive (relationships between men and women that more readily fracture under economic strain). I was prepared for my visceral reaction when Carol Stack got to describing how people in The Flats viewed childbearing.
Unlike many other societies, black women in The Flats feel few if any restrictions about childbearing. Unmarried black women, young and old, are eligible to bear children, and frequently women bearing their first children are quite young.
What I was less prepared for was my reaction to her description of the enthusiasm for children of the fathers and their families.
When Alberta introduced me to her nineteen-year-old son, she pointed to him and said, “He’s a daddy and his baby is four months old.” Then she pointed to her twenty-two-year-old son Mac and said, “He’s a daddy three tiems over.” … A friend of Alberta’s told me later that Alberta wants her sons to have babies because she thinks it will make them more responsible …
… Sam wanted her to have his baby. Rhoda was determined not to have any more children. Sam and his kin in The Flats told Rhoda that she ought to have his baby….
Eve Tushnet similarly describes the men her clients are involved with as often eager for fatherhood.
That’s assuming the man wants to marry, which he often does. Many times, the baby’s father wants the child and wants a wedding much more than the pregnant woman. Men, too, long for purpose and meaning in their lives; like women, they long to sacrifice and to love. But unlike women, they don’t control who gets to care for the babies. A poor, unwed father is almost entirely dependent on the woman if he wants to see his child. His power to break his promises, to walk away from his kids in a way women simply can’t and won’t, is matched by his powerlessness if he wants to keep those promises against the will of a mistrustful mother.
I’ve written, in the past, about how I tended to spin baby fantasies about my college boyfriends, how there were, in fact, three men before my husband (four, counting my husband) whom I fantasized as the father of my future children, and how basically nearly every guy I’ve ever slept with wound up figuring in such a fantasy. How I see myself as particularly bad at separating sex and the desire to be together (complete with kids) over the very long term. But reading Stack’s account of the ways in which men in The Flats, and their families, pressured women to have their babies brought home to me, at a gut level, just how horrified I would have been, in college, if one of my boyfriends had wanted me to have his baby anytime remotely near right away. I’d have been delighted to hear that he daydreamed of that possibility someday. Someday after we both had our degrees and suitable jobs. Any desire for babies before that would have appalled me.
It’s one thing, like the 16-year-old Karl Smith describes, to see a baby right now as more desirable than the remote prospect that maybe in the distant future you’ll get a college degree and a suitable husband. It’s quite another thing when waiting means nearly a 100% probability of getting a Stanford degree, a very high probability of having both a husband and children if that is what you want, and the likelihood that said children will be way better provided for than they would be if you didn’t wait. Everybody I knew, in college, saw pregnancy in the same way that my sister and her friends did when they saw the commercial. The joyful news is that the pregnancy test says you’re not pregnant.
And so I return to Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic article. Hanna Rosin writes about the ways in which “hookup culture” is empowering to women:
So there we have it. America has unseated the Scandinavian countries for the title of Easiest Lay. We are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold.
Is that so bad? Or is there, maybe, a different way to analyze the scene that had just unfolded? …
But this analysis downplays the unbelievable gains women have lately made, and, more important, it forgets how much those gains depend on sexual liberation. Single young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s, the same age as the women at the business-school party—are for the first time in history more successful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind….
Katie Baker at Jezebel concurs
“Hookup culture” — which essentially just means having a fair amount of sex without monogamy, right Patti Stanger? — is something most of my friends and I experimented with in our late teens and early 20s before realizing that, 9 times out of 10, we’d rather hang out with friends or eat pizza than have unsatisfying sex with people we don’t care about. Since many (but not all!) women (and some men too!) eventually prioritize emotional connection over casual sex as they grow older, “experts” love to deduce that “hookup culture” has left us women feeling hurt, dissatisfied, and alone. (Men, as we all know, have no emotions, since they are biologically required to spread their seed wherever and whenever possible.) …
That’s why my favorite takeaway from Rosin’s piece is her point about how admitting that emotions do matter, for both men and women, doesn’t mean that hookup culture is a bust; it’s all about figuring out what you want and what you need. “Hookup culture” gives us the means to do exactly that.
This will either make lots of sense to you or none at all, partly depending on how you see women, but also partly depending on how you see “hookup culture.” Not that many women like completely anonymous sex; rather more are capable of enjoying sex without long term commitment up front. Throwing alcohol into the mix makes all sexual choices more dubious. But where I want to go with this is not so much the interaction of “hookup culture” with people’s emotions as the interaction of “hookup culture” with that old rule of sexual morality, try to act such that your babies are tied to their father (if you’re a man, of course, that would be “so that you don’t have babies you’re not prepared to be a daddy to, or with women who reasonably won’t trust you to be a good daddy”).
Sex doesn’t naturally come without strings. Stringless sex, if you’re to achieve it in any kind of satisfactory way, requires careful discipline. You need to be scrupulous about using condoms, because there’s at least one severly life altering incurable STD already (AIDS), and, for the ones that are treatable with antibiotics, we may be coming to the end of the time when they can be easily treated, as antibiotic resistance grows. An additional birth control method besides the condoms may also be a good idea. You need to be careful about who you pick and how you communicate expectations, because if one of you wanted stringless sex and the other wanted the more stringy kind, you may have problems. Etc. Absent your having carefully arranged it otherwise, the natural state of sex is full of strings. Sex doesn’t naturally come without strings, but if you need extended education to be able to support a family, whatever your preferences in the degree of casualness of your sex life, pregnancy is a string you can’t afford.
The part of the culture war that rages over middle class women’s sexual decisions often feels odd to me, in two ways. The first way in which it feels odd is that I feel as if people are frequently making arguments that would make no sense if you tried to live them, in the kind of social environment in which I actually live.
It has been said that Charles Murray wants upper-middle-class Americans to “drop their nonjudgmentalism and start preaching what they’re practicing.” Whether you believe that or not (David Frum has a plausible argument that more preaching on the part of the upper-middle-class wouldn’t do much good), actually practicing the nonjudgmental values that we sometimes preach seems to me a road to personal disaster. I’ve seen articles patiently explaining why single parenthood has nothing whatsoever to do with poverty (except in the reverse sense that the poor can’t afford marriage), but in the community where I actually grew up, getting pregnant too young or without yet having a stable relationship was clearly a road to a less secure life. If pregnancy didn’t, in fact, derail our educations and careers, it was because we all took down the lesson.
And I’ve seen explanations for why marriage is just a piece of paper. To some degree, they’re even true (how you actually carry out your responsibilities to each other and your shared kids is more important than who witnessed you making promises). But in very practical ways, being married makes it easier to raise kids together. Everyone around you recognizes the father as father of your kids. If you divide up the childcare and the paid work unevenly, as often proves convenient, you can expect that, in the event of divorce, courts will recognize both your contributions, imperfectly perhaps, but better than they would if you didn’t have that contract. (In a world of relative morality, divorce is one of the benefits of marriage.) I’m not talking, here, about whether I should live in a marriage culture. I’m saying that I do live in a marriage culture, and that, regardless of what any of my family and friends think of Maggie Gallagher (which, for my particular family and friends, in most cases turns out to be “not much”), we still get and stay married, because it’s mostly in our interest to do so.
On the other hand, the other side of the culture war tends to preach to middle class women about the dangers of focusing too much on education and career, and too little on marriage. Marry him. Don’t set your sights so high that you don’t find a husband. Certainly don’t put off marriage too long for a career. If you do, you’re in danger of being a lonely cat lady, or one of those women who can’t believe she forgot to have children. They are, of course, roundly ignored. Husbands can die young, husbands can get sick, husbands can have their jobs outsourced to India, and, besides, unless your husband is very high earning indeed, do you really want your mortgage payment and college savings to be based on what only one income can supply? Not to even have the option of going back to work at a decent salary (should you take time off when the kids are young) if your husband’s income tanks?
Who really wants, these days, to be looking for a husband while still in college? Hence, deferred marriage and family commitments (along with what’s often called “hookup culture”), not just for fun or a chance to sow your wild oats before settling down, but as the responsible way to prepare to form a family. Responsibility means a degree and a good job, for both men and women, before marriage and kids. It means careful use of birth control (perhaps with an abortion as backup should that careful use of birth control fail). It means not marrying too young, because we all know that young marriages are more likely to end in divorce, and who wants that for her and her kids if she can improve her odds simply by choosing her marriage a few years older. And it means, probably, a fair amount of sex with various people on the way to that marriage, so your decision is better informed.
The actual, lived family values of the kind of people I grew up with and went to school with are, in one sense, very traditional.
I’m not kidding. If Murray is right, traditionalists need to forget populism. Their “cultural differences” with the elite are largely cosmetic. Elites are the answer to traditionalists’ prayers. They work hard, avoid trouble, get married, and give their kids a good home. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better.
And, in another sense, they’re firmly non-traditional. Birth control is here to stay. Women expect careers. No one is about to marry all that young. “Hookup culture” persists. And, if you look at these choices, not in terms of the meaning of sex, but in the same consequentialist terms followed by the people making them, all of these choices work. Many college women may have a few hookups, find them emotionally unsatisfying, and, like Katie Baker and her friends, decide that they prefer their sex with emotional connection rather than without, but they muddle through this process without obvious disaster. They delay marriage, but not so long, on average, that they’re likely to have much trouble either marrying or conceiving children (women with college degrees both marry and become mothers in large numbers). They get good return for that delay, both in career preparation and in knowledge of what they do and don’t want from their relationships. If there’s strain and worry among the college, it’s about the rising burden of student loans, rather than any dearth of viable husbands. In consequentialist terms, and among the middle class, the kids are all right.