The Centrality of Sex and the Failure of Unstable Relationships

[An excerpt from Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying]

Why do so many emerging-adult sexual relationships fail? Reasons of course are manifold, and for many it’s simply part of the script of sex, college (for some), and the natural course of modern relationships. Relationships fail, then, because at some point they’re supposed to. Sex columnist Dan Savage reminds his readers that “every relationship fails until one doesn’t.” While certainly true at face value, this is an observation that can become an imperative: people commence relationships, anxiously awaiting the sure signs of their fatal condition.

The reasons that Americans of all ages could give for their failed relationships are numerous, but one problem may uniquely plague emerging-adult relationships. It’s the role of sex (rather than solely its presence): many couples lack a clear, shared, and suitable role for the sex they experience within a romantic relationship, especially when sex is introduced early. Many testify that sex is often difficult to talk about, in part because the partners are still getting to know each other and deep conversation is considered too intimate. Yet sex becomes a clear goal and new priority–the elephant in the corner that demands attention when they’re together. It acquires an increasingly central role in the relationship while at the same time other aspects of the relationship remain immature. Compare this to the greater sense of security that a shared residence and bed entail. Having sex with one’s college boyfriend in his dorm room, only to wander home later, can be an emotionally unsatisfying sensation for many women, for good reason. Some eventually solve this dilemma by moving in together. And for many that seems a welcome–if only slightly more secure–step.

But when the habit of going out for dinner, a film, and dessert trails rather than precedes sex, even simple conversations take on a strange aura. After all, such a couple knows more about what each other looks like naked than what each other thinks about school, work, politics, religion, family, or future plans–life in general. Writing in New York magazine, Third-wave feminist writer Naomi Wolf wonders if we haven’t gotten the order of sex and familiarity mixed up:

“Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.” “Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?” “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

To imagine staying up late into the night feasting on a wide-ranging conversation now strikes many as something one does after commencing a sexual relationship, not before. Thus one hallmark of the classic hookup scenario is silence. Talking is perceived as potentially ruinous to the moment. When did talking get to be so sacred? When did honest, verbal communication outpace the meeting of penis and vagina in its degree of intimacy?

Apart from relationship security, familiarity, and a shared domicile, sex has a difficult time playing a supportive role in fostering intimacy and building love. Instead, it wants to be the lead character. But when left to sustain a relationship, sex typically falters. Katie, a college student from Tennessee, sensed this in her relationship with Daniel, a man with whom she was in a four-year, long-distance relationship (he lived in Arkansas). Only in the past year did the two begin having sex, and–lacking
as they were in physical proximity–Katie quickly sensed something suboptimal about it for two reasons, her own moral qualms about premarital sex notwithstanding.
First, sex within their sporadic interactions began to claim a place and priority that outstripped its natural boundaries. In most marriages and cohabitations, even in the honeymoon phase, sex plays a supporting role to the mundane activities of normal life. In a relationship where two people are not sharing lots of normal life activities–a scenario common among young adults–sex can quickly take center stage.

Katie summarized this bluntly: “I felt like I was dating his dick.” Their bonding typically ended with Daniel’s inevitable departure. Katie detected that something was clearly amiss and after several months told Daniel she couldn’t do it anymore. Most such romantic relationships do not give up sex without breaking apart, and theirs was no different; the relationship ended. Daniel rapidly became sexually active with another woman, while Katie struggled to make sense of it all, wondered about her future, and wrestled with guilt, resolving not to misplace the role of sex again. Keeping that resolution, however, is difficult, since the atmosphere in which contemporary relationships form among emerging adults is heavy with early sexual expectation. Eight months later, Katie and Daniel were back together.

 

Good News and Bad News in Marriage and Divorce Statistics

The subject of marriage is on many minds lately, not the least of which are journalists and the POTUS. I love nothing more than to sit in front of pages of population estimates by state or country, over time, and discern the stories in the numbers. Since you the reader probably aren’t likely in a position to be—or worse, have no interest in—indulging such an interest, I’ll save you the work and report some interesting factoids here. No politics from this quarter today, just numbers. Here are a few things I learned:

First, the sheer number of new marriages (i.e., weddings) has generally been decreasing, even while the population of the US continues to increase. For example, in the year 2000 there were 2.32 million new marriages in a population of 281 million persons. In 2010, however, there were 2.1 million new marriages, despite a growing population of 309 million persons.

Ergo, marriage is in retreat (and more so among the poor and working class, as data noted below will suggest), a slight uptick in 2010 notwithstanding.

Second, there has been change in the marriage-to-divorce ratio nationally. This is the statistic that most people (incorrectly) use when they state that “half of all marriages end in divorce.” The ratio has commonly hovered around 2-to-1 since no-fault divorce became a reality. (Before that, it was about 4-to-1 from 1950 to just before 1970.) In other words, this means for every two new marriages recorded in a given year, there is one divorce.

But that ratio has exhibited some change recently. In 2010, the ratio stood at 1.89-to-1, compared to 2.05-to-1 in 2000. Not a radical shift, but a notable one. The action is largely on the marriage side of the equation: the marriage rate has dropped 17 percent in 10 years, while the divorce rate has dropped 10 percent. The two tend to rise and fall together, but clearly not tightly so. People are being more selective about marrying, likely, and as a result there are fewer divorces.

Third, some states exhibit dramatically different stories here. The marriage rate in Mississippi has dropped 48 percent in 20 years (from 1990 to 2010), while their divorce rate has dropped 22 percent. Their ratio of new marriages to divorce is now 1.14-to-1, meaning that if you were going to go ahead and misinterpret that statistic the old-fashioned way, you’d say something like 88 percent of all marriages in Mississippi will end in divorce. Of course we don’t know the future, and any given year’s new marriages aren’t often also reflected as divorces that year—Hollywood goofballs notwithstanding—but the ratio tells us that there are nearly
as many divorces in Mississippi now as there are marriages. Not good.

So which state has the best ratio? Which means (to me at least) the most marriages relative to divorces…the blessed state of my birth: Iowa, where 2.9 new marriages were registered in 2010 for every one divorce. Sociologist Maria Kefalas wrote about Iowa as having many “marriage naturalists,” and it appears so. Even though I’ve been gone from the place since I was 13, cultural traces remain, no doubt.

I should admit that there is one state that artificially has a better ratio than Iowa, but let’s not be serious about counting it as best. It’s Nevada, whose whopper 38.3 marriage rate is so far out of step with the rest of the country, due to its marriage industry. But whereas many wealthy and unhappily-married Easterners used to flock to Nevada for its tolerant divorce laws, that’s no longer necessary. But it remains a marriage factory…for now. But look at this: its 38.3 rate is a fraction of what it was in 2000 (72.2) and before that, in 1990 (99.0). I’m sure that’s not lost on the wedding industry. Times are tough for Elvis impersonators, I suspect.

Indeed, only in Hawaii do we see a marriage rate that has not lost ground since 1990. (I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it has to do with a rise in “destination weddings,” since Hawaii’s elevated marriage rate—17.6—is second only to Nevada’s.). A few other states whose marriage rates haven’t dipped nearly so much as, say, Mississippi’s 48 percent plunge: West Virginia (7% dip, from 7.2 to 6.7), North Dakota (13% dip, from 7.5 in 1990 to 6.5 in 2010), and Vermont (15%, from 10.9 to 9.3).

And in the end, the reliable conclusion tends to remain true: states that exhibit lower divorce rates tend to exhibit lower marriage rates as well, signaling elevated inclination toward cohabitation as a longer-term relationship strategy.

p.s. Note to marrying couples: only you like the idea of a destination wedding. Seldom does anyone else in your orbit feel like spending loads of cash to fly someplace exotic to watch you tie the knot and chat for three minutes. Get married where you live.

Wolves in Gaudy Sheepskin Clothing

Fleecing the faithful,” it’s called. The sort of story featured on the front cover of Saturday’s New York Times tends to rankle everyone’s feathers, from the utterly agnostic to the truly devout. I might also add that such stories tend to surprise no one. There’s news here, to be sure, about grandchildren calling their grandparents out on their moral and fiscal crimes. But it’s hardly new news.

While it may raise eyebrows that Americans continue to bankroll televangelists—$20, $50, or $100 at a time—exactly why they continue to do so when such ministries are so self-evidently opulent and excessive remains something of a mystery to the rational mind. I suppose some would simply reply, “If you can believe in something as outlandish as basic Christian doctrine, then you can be convinced to do things as gullible as that, and worse.” Hmmm…perhaps. Perhaps not. Lots of us, religious or not, are capable—under the right conditions of charismatic authority and legitimation—of heinous evil. Has always been true.

Back to the Trinity Broadcasting Network. What has long perplexed me about TBN is their look. I don’t quite understand the appeal of their truly faux architecture, gaudy sets, and personal attire. Maybe it’s the simple Midwesterner in me, but is there really an audience in America who thinks that look is attractive? I recently drove past a TBN facility of some sort halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, and it stood out—an accomplishment in that area, let me tell you—for its outlandishness. To whom does this appeal? To North Texas Pentecostals over the age of 60? (I don’t know.) No, I haven’t been everywhere (unlike the Johnny Cash song), but the only places that seem comparably cheesy are old sections of Beverly Hills, or perhaps some parts of South Florida.

I presume that most of TBN’s checks aren’t coming from those quarters, but who knows—perhaps the health-and-wealth gospel is underwritten by the healthy and the wealthy, not the poorer and disabled, as many have long presumed. It’s an empirical question, of course, but one that’s only answerable by open access to accounting. And we know that’s unlikely. And yet the checks keep rolling in:

“Clearly, many viewers have heartfelt responses. In 2010, TBN received $93 million in tax-exempt donations, according to its tax report. The company also had $64 million in additional income from sales of airtime and $17 million in investment income that year. It spent $194 million operating its far-flung network and investing in new programs. The company was in the red for the year, but could draw on its cushion of $325 million in cash and investments.”

It may sound like a lot, but it’s comparatively not. Think about it: if 1 out of every 337 Americans gave TBN $100 bucks this year, $93 million is exactly what they’d take in. For comparison, say a 6000-member suburban congregation witnessed, per capita, about $1500 in the offering plate in a year; there’s $9 million–and that’s just one congregation.

I nevertheless take some heart in the mass antagonism toward the small minority of Christian ministers who live opulent lives, whether honestly gained or ill-gotten. Because there remains a seed in all of us that just knows that the lives of the shepherds are to be more Christ-like than that. (Can you imagine St. Francis of Assisi staying here, in a hotel and city named after him?)

People expect better of shepherds, as they ought. Give them neither poverty nor wealth, I pray. And the same for me. (All of this raises disturbing questions about my own feeble level of generosity and excessive self-concern.)

Finally, let’s remember to retain some perspective here. After all the Christian hand-wringing, sheepish looks, and obligatory “we’re not all like that” apologies—blah, blah, blah—the fact remains that there is an extraordinary amount of legal-but-immoral wealth out there already, and little of it has been gotten by way of preaching in front of cameras or building cheesy theme parks. Plenty of modern wealth has been built upon fleecing people by more socially-acceptable means, including convincing people of things they “need” but cannot afford, or by—gasp—creating silly, time-wasting games and selling millions of them. Indeed, apparently my fair city’s tech future relies on such foolish sources of income. There are many ways to fleece, whether by taxation, donation, or clever marketing.

But as noted above, we expect better from (so-called) believers. I hope we always do.

I am “in a relationship”

Culture is, among other things, the power of legitimate naming. Or so says James Hunter, sociologist of culture at the University of Virginia. Makes sense to me. In his book To Change the World, he notes that culture change is most enduring when it penetrates the structure of our imagination, our frameworks of discussion, and our perceptions of everyday reality.

This became evident to me the other day when, while on Facebook, I noticed that a kid (age 10 or so, I think) whom I once knew was a Facebook “friend” of a “friend” of mine. I don’t think I have “friends” that are kids, and so the sociologist in me quickly wondered what kids do and say on Facebook, and how is it different from what adults do and say. So I took a look. The first thing I noticed was that another friend of this child was someone I had also once known (as their basketball coach). I took a look at his profile and wall. It was noted there that he had recently changed his status from “in a relationship” to “single.”

That struck me as odd, and rather adult-like. Which of course it is, because Facebook apparently doesn’t use old-fashioned kid terms like “going with” to describe childhood romances. (Never mind the “going where” questions…). And it hammered home to me the reality that, as children uptake Facebook, that the latter will have a great deal of say over the terms—and more importantly, the ideas and norms and expectations behind the terms—in which youth describe lots of things.

Facebook has—via our active participation and ample passivity—done exactly that in the domain of relationships. But I don’t really think of a 12-year-old as “single.” (Do you?) I have historically thought of singles as unmarried persons. Now apparently singles are persons who are not “in a relationship.” I am in a relationship, for the record. At least Facebook allows me to say that I’m married. Imagine the hullaballoo if FB were to drop the married status and simply use “in a relationship.” But imagine if they stuck to their guns about it. FB has real power in cultural naming, and with it legitimation. Far too much, to be sure.

I am not actually problematizing the relationship play of kids. Been there done that, didn’t come away from it warped or traumatized. But when you imprint adult-like statuses on children, the latter come to seem and act more like the former (and arguably vice versa). But with Facebook, one size fits all.

Except that it doesn’t.

 


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X