(Another clip from Premarital Sex in America…)
Jeff is a freshman at a state university in Minnesota, a blue state. He’s an overachiever, very future focused, and gifted. He has had little trouble steering clear of temptation. But he doesn’t intend to always steer clear: “I’m not perfect, you know. I like to enjoy myself. I am at . . . the number-one party school, so I’m gonna have some fun.” Jeff has not had sex yet, which is in consonance with his persona and academic orientation, and is typical of younger blues. He has no real qualms about losing his virginity, either–another blue trait. Unlike Martin, Jeff feels no need to make deferential remarks about marriage or morality. While he hopes to marry someday, he also considers the idea “kind of corny.” He passively notes, “Hopefully I’ll find someone that I’m in love with and happy with and all that garbage. I don’t know.”
Like many blues in college, Jeff is utilitarian about life and insists that relationships right now must take a back seat to grades, enjoying college, having some fun, and preparing for a career. Love and marriage can wait. The delay in pursuing sex so far is about his future focus; nothing is worth getting sidetracked in school. Indeed, relationships must play a secondary role in emerging adulthood–that’s a basic rule among blues. When asked about the purpose of dating and relationships, Jeff’s opinion became clear: “Have fun. Learn about someone else. I mean, not get too hardcore committed or anything like that.”
Not all blues are in college, of course. Allison is 18 and dropped out of college after a year at a state university in Illinois. There are two men in her sexual history, one of which is her current boyfriend, Brendan. Allison met him while she was with Jason, who was several years her senior. She had tired of Jason, and wanted a change and Brendan looked inviting: “I have a great body, so I’m going to show it off, and all these clothes I really shouldn’t be wearing.” It worked. Although unreligious, she nevertheless struggled over the morality of just dropping Jason:
“I thought I could probably marry Jason someday . . . but then I met this new guy, and I like him. But I don’t want to break up with Jason, because I do love him. I want to be with him, too. And, like, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And I’m young, and you know you only live once. Guys come and guys go. . . . I was just like, ‘You gotta look out for yourself sometimes,” you know? Not just other people.’”
Allison is largely dissociated from her family and childhood friends: “I just hang out with [Brendan] all the time.” She sleeps over at his house–and with him–frequently, and uses condoms “every single time. . . . I probably should get on birth control, but I never have the time to make appointments. I just always forget.” Her daily routine is simple: “Work [as a waitress], boyfriend, work, boyfriend, work, boyfriend, work, boyfriend.” She hopes to get back into college with Brendan and take classes with him, but is not actively working toward making that happen. What are the long term prospects with Brendan? “I’m just trying to play it as it goes. I don’t want to be like, ‘We’re going to be together for a long time.’ Or you know, whatever happens, happens.” Her dialogue around sex and relationships is filled with common normative claims, and repeated one cliché after another. In a few short sentences, we detect several norms:
1. If you don’t follow your heart, you’ll always wonder what might have been.
2. Men tend to move on in relationships. If women don’t, they’ll eventually get hurt.
3. What matters most is you. A relationship can only augment the self.
4. Sexual relationships just happen, and they run their course in due time.
5. Youth shouldn’t be wasted. It’s the best time to try on new experiences and relationships.
These norms are not the propriety of blues alone. Reds often believe them too, since they draw on what we call “romantic individualism,” a powerful American narrative that knows no social-class boundaries. The generation of romantic love and excitement is popular among reds and blues, rich and poor. Dozens and dozens of films annually bring in untold billions of dollars in service to its themes: love, the pursuit of romance, sexual fulfillment, the quest for a soul mate.
In emerging adulthood, the point of sex for most blues is enjoyment. Reds like sex no less than blues, but they feel compelled to motivate sex for reasons beyond that. For reds, sex is supposed to serve some overarching relational purpose, as Hannah articulated (in hindsight): “I don’t see having sex as just getting into bed and doing the deed. I see it as, you know, just showing your affection and your love for somebody. It’s an important thing in a relationship. It’s making love. Not, you know, just humping somebody’s leg or something crazy like that. . . . It’s a very emotional connection between two people, not just a physical need.”
Cultural conservatives tend to be more relational in their sexual attitudes and tend to stake boundaries about the moral legitimacy of sex within certain relationship forms. They may break their own rules and transgress their own boundaries—and we know they do—but they aren’t interested in rewriting the rules or moving the boundaries, even if they can’t articulate why those rules and boundaries are there in the first place.
Red and blue differences over sex are less about sexual practices than mentalities. They’re about ideals, attitudes, and stories–the ways people are “supposed to” think about sex. One example of this is in the evaluation of others’ sexual choices. While reds no less than blues have been well-educated into the American ethic of tolerance, blues are simply more accepting of others’ sexual decisions than are reds. Plenty of blues with whom we spoke reject short-term sex for themselves, but they don’t extend that judgment to the decisions of other people. If their friends want to hook up, they don’t stand in the way. Reds and blues both hook up, but reds are more apt to regard hookups as wrong or regrettable or to report ambivalence about them. For red sex, the duration of the relationship matters. It makes sex more defensible, more moral. Blues, who arguably hook up less than reds, are more intellectually tolerant of relationship-less sex. Reds may do it, but they make apologies for it.
Since blues are more likely than reds to pursue advanced education, they tend to be more strategic about their relationships, slower to sex, less likely to draw a strong link between sex and marriage, more supportive of abortion (but hardly flippant about actually getting one), and perceive fewer direct connections between their religious beliefs and their sexual decision-making. They’re also more paranoid about pregnancy than reds are. While they wouldn’t judge someone for having a child outside of wedlock, they will for having a child so early in life.
Natalie declares that it would be “a horrible thing” if she were to get pregnant right now: “I don’t care what other people would think, but I just, I want certain things in my life, and a baby would just not be part of it right now. It would definitely not help my career.” Children and family are important to blues and reds alike, but they’re important at different times. For blues, it’s later. For Dahlia, now 21, everything points to the essential norm of using birth control: “If they knew that I didn’t [use contraception], I’m sure most people in my life would ask me what I was doing!”
Sexual experimentation for reds is primarily reserved for the mid-to-late teenage years (and done well before 25), and for blues, it is the entire decade of the 20s. Blues are more positive about the idea of sexual experimentation—including sex with different people and possibly members of the same sex (especially among women)—if not always the reality. Reds prefer to confine sexual experimentation to a more circumscribed set of contexts and period of time, and they are more apt to avoid same-sex sexual behavior as part of the experimental repertoire. Most reds believe they ought to be done with it by their early 20s, at which point it’s time to settle down and assume adult roles and responsibilities.