Ross Douthat sells sex and young people way too short

Ross Douthat
In his column yesterday, Ross Douthat tried to convince us that he cares about young peoples’ (especially young women’s) “romantic happiness” and is not, in fact, just interested in promoting one conservative sexual ideal. Ha!

He acknowledges that people have always been having premarital sex and a strict adherence to abstinence until marriage is probably unrealistic. But…

“But there are different kinds of premarital sex. There’s sex that’s actually pre-marital, in the sense that it involves monogamous couples on a path that might lead to matrimony one day. Then there’s sex that’s casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.

This distinction is crucial to understanding what’s changed in American life since the sexual revolution. Yes, in 1950 as in 2011, most people didn’t go virgins to their marriage beds. But earlier generations of Americans waited longer to have sex, took fewer sexual partners across their lifetimes, and were more likely to see sleeping together as a way station on the road to wedlock.”

For Douthat, there are only two kinds of premarital sex: the good, moral sex between monogamous couples who are on the road to marriage and bad, immoral sex that’s “casual and promiscuous.”

A dude who can only conceptualize sex in this strict dichotomy clearly knows nothing about the so-called “hookup culture” these days. And, apparently, even lacks the imagination to envision the nearly endless possibilities it offers when it comes to sex, love, and relationships. This makes me sad for Ross Douthat. So as someone who has been having premarital sex for the last several years, I’m going to help him out. With the assistance of some friends, I’ve put together a (by no means exhaustive) list of some other kinds of premarital sex.

  • Sex that starts off casual and then becomes monogamous because people fall in love
  • Sex between friends that turns out to be a mistake but one that needed to be made
  • Sex that helps a young man learn about female orgasm
  • Sex that inspires you
  • Sex that gives you the confidence and knowledge and self-awareness to be a really good person and sexual partner in your later long-term monogamous relationships
  • Sex between friends who are lonely
  • Sex that creates physical connection to other human beings, instead of artificial connection via SMS
  • Sex that helps you get over really being hurt by someone
  • Sex that assures you of what you don’t ultimately want in a sexual partner
  • Sex that teaches you how to come
  • Sex that teaches you how to make someone else come
  • Sex that is scary and awkward because it is your first time
  • Sex that is monogamous but not premarital because you are not eligible to marry under U.S. law
  • Sex with someone you can kinda imagine marrying someday but probably won’t because you’re only 16 and have some shit to do first
  • Sex with an ex because sometimes nostalgia and familiarity are all you need
  • Sex you probably wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t been so drunk (lesson learned)
  • Sex you were sure would become marital until you broke up after many years together
  • Sex that helps you explore your orientation and identity
  • Sex that staves off the boredom
  • Sex that makes you realize your body isn’t as disgusting as you thought it was
  • Sex that is monogamous but you are quite sure will never, ever become marital
  • Sex with someone you’ve loved for years that only happens once but once is enough
  • Sex as protest against Ross Douthat

I think the huge variety of sex that Douthat would lump into the “casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered” category is actually pretty damn important. Is it sometimes “ill considered?” Of course. Not really the point though. And yes, some sex can definitely lead to heartbreak and disappointment. That’s the risk of being human. (And that’s also true if you’re abstinent, monogamous, or married.) This is how we grow. This is how we figure out what we want. This is called living.

Douthat claims that liberals are cynics who are resigned to the reality of sexually active young people, while conservatives believe in a sexual idealism that holds them to a higher moral standard. But the enormous ideological gulf between Douthat’s worldview and mine is actually much deeper than that.

I don’t think that teens having sex is an inherently bad thing, as long as they have the tools and education to do so safely, so I wouldn’t say I’m “resigned.” And the only “moral standard” I have for sex is whether it is consensual, respectful, and enjoyable for all involved, which seems a whole lot more meaningful than Douthat’s standard of: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how close are you to being married?” Above all, unlike him, I think that all the sex on the list above has real value.

As for optimism? Well, while Douthat seems to think that young people will be forever ruined by the unhappiness that can accompany sexual exploration, I believe that they are emotionally resilient, capable of learning from their experiences, and can figure out what’s best for them without a road map to one-size-fits-all marital bliss provided by Ross Douthat. He’s the one selling young people–not to mention sex–way too short.

Additional reading:

Amanda Marcotte points out that Douthat has a big causation vs. correlation problem when it comes to monogamy and female happiness.

Dana Goldstein notes that we should be teaching young people not to marry the first person they have sex with but to wait until they find the right person.

Patrick Malone argues that Douthat’s argument is not just conservative but totally regressive.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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Join the Conversation

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    Great post! I wish you could be the one writing a NY Times column instead of Mr. Douthat.

  • feminismforever


    But can you not refer to it as “premarital” sex? That implies that marriage is part of the equation at some point.

  • Christina

    Thanks for posting this! You’re right, young (and older) people can learn a lot from different kinds of sex. I would argue that they are more prepared than many who remain abstinent to live a happy life because they have exposed themselves to different situations and are more aware of what they want.

  • Matt

    I usually find it questionable when someone says something to effect that things “used to be better.” Given relationship power dynamics, I suspect things used to be worse when considering abuse, safe(r) sex practices, and other practices that could affect the quality and risks of encounters.

    People need to use discretion with sex. Things can go wrong, sometimes even seriously wrong, and people need to understand some of the risks and gain the tools to understand something in the relationship that concerns them. Even when emotions run high, people should not delude themselves. People also don’t just need this good judgment, they need the wherewithal to stand by it.

    Personally, I find the list to be a little rosier than reality, but clearly when you get into issues like how some people can’t marry or that some people don’t believe in the religious institution of marriage. There is also an awful amount of wiggle room when it comes to “might lead to matrimony,” since that sort of invites people to use sex even when there is not already some kind of preconception of commitment but such a notion *could* emerge eventually. It is the sort of qualifier that almost makes the criteria useless to start with (except in some of the nasty examples such as when the partners are same-sex or when a person is polyamorous). To that point, Douthat may be trying to hug the “open-minded” end a little more that he is given credit for, but certainly there are fatal shortcomings: there are limitations with marriage, and his rubrics to judge past and present are coarse, and those issues deserve a great deal of attention given their insidious nature.

    • Matt

      I should probably have finished the first sentence in the third paragraph. Maybe it could read like this:

      “Personally, I find the list to be a little rosier than reality, but clearly when you get into issues like how some people can’t marry or that some people don’t believe in the religious institution of marriage, Douthat’s standard falls short.

  • inallsincerity

    Next time I have premarital sex, I’ll… oh wait, I’m married. And OF COURSE marriage = monogamy, always and forever for everyone who does it! And no one is married ever has sex with someone who is not! *cough*

    So how do young polyamorous people fit into this picture? Oh, that’s right. We don’t. And none of us young people ever have sex with not-young people either, apparently.

  • Sophie

    He also ignores people who *cough* can’t get married, ever, because of people like him’s policies.

  • Danielle

    I think I’ll have the last kind of premarital sex on Maya’s list in about an hour! Ross Douthat IS inspiring, how about that?

  • jack

    not all of us are, or aspire to be, monogamous.

  • Casimir Fornalski

    Oh, how I do loathe the term “pre-marital”, especially because, grammatically, it’s completely absurd to use it in anything but a post-event context.

    You couldn’t refer to the Precambrian period before there was a Cambrian period to be in front of. Neither should doorstops like Ross Douthat and his ilk use the term “pre-marital” to refer to people who aren’t married. To do so insists a gross assumption about a person’s future plans and the general necessity and inevitability of marriage as a social norm.