Reds and Blues on Cohabitation and Marriage

(Last on a theme from Premarital Sex in America…)

Blues are pragmatic about sex and marriage. Reds are idealistic about them. Sociologist Maria Kefalas gets at this by talking about marriage “planners” and marriage “naturalists,” although I don’t think those terms map nicely onto blue and red because while the number of marriage “naturalists” out there are shrinking by the day, there are still plenty of reds.

Since blues are so pragmatic about relationships, cohabiting is fine. End of story. It’s the default, expected option among the majority of them. Marriage will often follow, but pressure toward that end will most likely emerge slowly, over several years. For reds, cohabiting can be a long-term arrangement—especially among less-educated reds—but it continues to be imagined as a temporary fix, with traditional marriage understood as the preferred arrangement. Among many reds, however, the temporary fix is getting longer and starting to look more and more permanent.

As noted in previous weeks, reds and blues often chase similar things: they both like sex, they’re serial monogamists, and most still esteem marriage. For both, sexual attraction and romantic love, once considered too fragile to sustain marriage, have instead become the primary criteria both for entering and exiting the institution [Read more...]

Blue Sex: How it’s Different from Red Sex

(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. [Read more...]

Red Sex

(This is an excerpt from my 2011 book Premarital Sex in America…)

Martin was a 19-year-old from Virginia when our research team spoke with him for the second time. He had tried college but had dropped out after a year. It just wasn’t for him. Instead, he settled comfortably back into his working-class roots, becoming an electrician. By ignoring the popular narrative that said he needed a college education to successfully navigate life, Martin had found his niche. And a girlfriend. Not terribly religious and yet very culturally conservative, Martin is one face of “red” America.

Although sexually experienced with a previous girlfriend, Martin wasn’t having sex at age 19 because he was dating Bethany, the 15-year-old daughter of a police officer. Indeed, sex with her would’ve been against the law, and he was well aware of that. But the two were hardly unsexual. Martin said they did “everything but,” a common revelation. A vocal opponent of homosexual behavior, Martin is more conservative about others’ sexual decisions than his own. Although he believes the Bible says that sex before marriage is wrong, he adds, “A lot of it, I think, has to do with society to a certain extent.” While it’s not exactly clear what he means by that, we suspect it’s a way of claiming that sex is normal relationship behavior today, regardless of what might have been acceptable in the past. Like many conservatives, he offers a nod to the standard while excusing his diversion from it: “I’ll tell you, I believe in it. But I’m not perfect. . . . I mean nobody is. But I’ll be the first person to tell you I’m not.”

While premarital sex has largely dropped off the map of salient issues among many conservatives, marriage has not [Read more...]

Contraception, Cheap Sex, and the Nonmarital Birth Rate

Every once in a while something in the New York Times will bring a smile to my face and offer hope. Well, that wasn’t this week, yet again. In Saturday’s edition came the discouraging news that over half of babies born to American women under age 30 are being born to unmarried mothers. Since the overall total is 41 percent, it means women over age 30 are more apt to be married when childbearing. But I think most reasonable people can still agree that it’s better—on average—when fathers are engaged in their children’s lives than when they’re not.

Now, I haven’t come down too hard on contraception in my previous writings and two books, but it boggles my mind to think that the logical answer to slowing the skyrocketing nonmarital fertility rate is to pump more (and free) birth control into the relationship system (which is also called the mating market, and once was called the marriage market, back when the pursuit of sex and the timing of marriage were more tightly connected). It’s a little like printing money to stimulate an economy: it sounds like a helpful thing, it could work, but it may backfire, and it’s hard to know with confidence what exactly will happen, and whatever happens may well generate unintended consequences, but it sounds noble because at least it’s doing something.

To be sure, contraceptive usage prevents very many pregnancies—duh—but what it doesn’t prevent is all of them, given normal contraceptive failure rates (which vary) and the fact that many people don’t use them correctly (due to lots of reasons, ignorance being only one of them). But what I think typically gets left out of discussions about contraception—because it’s challenging to accurately discern it [Read more...]


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