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.

 

The Ups and Downs of Teaching Sociology of Religion OnLine

Part 2 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

I’ve just finished my first week of a hybrid in-person/online course in sociology of religion to undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of four days we met this week, two times we met in class, one day I assigned a video and a podcast, and the fourth day we met synchronously (at the same time) for a short lecture and class discussion. Thus far, my experience has been both exhilarating and frustrating. Let’s start with the exhilarating.

First, I have flipped the order in which I present material to students and it definitely captured their attention better than before. I used to assign heavy readings, give a lecture, and then give them a podcast, video or interactive quiz to reinforce what the readings and lectures said. Although I’m using the exact same material as when I taught sociology of religion in the classroom, now for each topic we will cover I first assign a video, a podcast, or an interactive survey and require that students write a blog post in response. Once they are excited about the topic, then I assign them sociology texts that put the topic into a broader context using history, ethnography, and survey data, and I have students write short assignments applying sociological theories and concepts to the  specific topic we covered.

It’s working beautifully, so score 1 for online teaching. For example, it was exhilarating to read on my IPAD my students’ responses to the online survey they took on the the Association for Religion Data Archives website that automatically compares their responses to respondents from a national survey. One student wrote:

I was really shocked that many people believed in angels but didn’t believe in demons. I just don’t know why it doesn’t click with me. I mean, if there are good forces shouldn’t there be evil or bad forces? This quiz/survey was indeed awesome and more people need to take it!

Second, I was fascinated to read my students’ blog responses to Anthony Gill’s Research on Religion Podcast Interview with Marc van der Ruhr about megachurches, which I paired with a section on Willow Creek Community Church from Randall Balmer’s documentary DVD on American Evangelicals, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Although I have taught on megachurches in four previous classes, I was surprised to see my students’ responses to the podcast and video on megachurches: most of the students blogged that they found the economic language used by many megachurches to be off-putting. Score 2 for online teaching: presenting engaging audio-visual prior to my lecture or analytic readings gives students a chance to form their own ideas before they have heard my interpretations or those of the scholarly authors I assign.

I was so exhilarated that my students were engaged and expressing themselves online that I rushed out to buy a new MacBook Air so I could make my first narrated Power Point lecture on megachurches. I planned to narrate the lecture over the Power Point Slides then upload it to You Tube for students to listen to, then follow up with an online class discussion. However, when looked at my previous Power Point on megachurches, I realized  it was awful. Having only every delivered that lecture in class before, its audio-visual quality was low, as I had just relied on my own voice, posture and motions to animate the slides.

How did I salvage that Power Point presentation? In about an hour, I totally updated my Power Point slides by adding pictures of some of the megachurches we read about or heard about in the podcast, video and texts, such as Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago and Saddleback. I also added 4 graphs from one of our assigned books, Mark Chaves’s American Religion, that show the underlying trends that help explain the rise of megachurches. Then I recorded my animated voice, holding notes in front of me with the quotes and figures I wanted to be sure to mention, while students watched a beautiful Power Point with images and graphs.

I practiced the narration and it worked beautifully. But when I recorded the full lecture, the audio didn’t save. Discouraged but determined, I re-recorded the whole audio lecture. This time, it saved. But when I went to upload it to You Tube, You Tube did not recognize the audio. I made a few frantic calls to tech support, and we tried desperately to upload it for about an hour, but to no avail. I had produced a beautiful product I was very proud of but couldn’t get it off my computer to show anyone.

To salvage all that work, I learned how to upload a Power Point into Elluminate (our online seminar meeting space) and lectured online, followed by discussion. Does this setback mean my time was wasted? Not at all. I knew I was undertaking a challenge, and learning all the best technology for online teaching is indeed exhilarating and frustrating. When it works, it’s amazing. Although the technology has not been flawless, I’m glad I’m trying, and my students’ responses have been even better than I imagined.

One week down, four to go. It has been great, and I it will only get better from here. Soon I hope to share that beautiful narrated Power Point on megachurches with anyone who can watch YouTube, so stay tuned.

 

Self-Selection into Situations and Church

In the past few years, I’ve started to notice just how often I choose to be in situations that have a lot of other people like me (age, gender, social class, etc….) I don’t think that I consciously choose to do so, rather how I express my interests in the context of the constraints and opportunities of my life end up being similar to how other people with similar interests, opportunities, and constraints do.

An easy example, I usually go grocery shopping early Saturday morning, and, lo and behold, there’s a bunch of other middle-aged guys there that time too. Same with going to the gym in the late afternoon and lots of other things that I do.

I notice this self-selection into situations the most when I end up in non-typical (for me) situations. So, if I change my shopping time, I’m surprised by how many elderly people are there in mid-morning, mothers with kids in the early afternoon, and professionals stopping on the way home from work in the early evening.

Similar principles hold in my experience with Christianity. My family and I attend a church which has a lot of people in the same general demographic categories as us. In fact, during services, we often sit among those who are most like us (think middle-aged).

This general principle–of similar people selecting themselves into religious groups–is one of the general explanations for religious homogeneity, i.e., why people in a given religious denomination or congregation or small group tend to be similar to each other.

Probably the most frequently studied form of religious homogeneity regards race. Bill Graham famously said that Sunday morning at 11:00 am is the most segregated hour of the week. This is because people feel most comfortable with similar others, and an important aspect of similarity in our culture is race an ethnicity.

So far this is rather straightforward, but here is where it gets tricky: Is this homogeneity a good thing?

On one hand, it provides a powerful mechanism for growth. Churches (or small groups or denominations) can probably grow best by targeting “types” of people. So, for instance, popular college ministries now offer different groups for students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, I know of a mega-church that offers different services targeting different groups.

On the other hand, this homogeneity decreases our interactions with people who are different than us, and so we might miss out on some of the benefits of such across-group interactions.

I don’t know if there is a “right” answer to this, and what’s best might vary by situation, but it’s an interesting, powerful dynamic to be aware of. If nothing else, it explains to me why I keep on sitting next to fellow old guys who like to joke around (and you know who you are).

 

 

Asian Americans on the Move

I recently had a chance to see the new Avengers movie and one of the characters, Tony Stark mentioned that he had a hankering for shawarma. And that made me think: “Yeah some shawarma would be pretty good. Hmm, I could sure go for some Indian food right now too. Hey when was the last time I had it? Sigh.) You see, I had returned to an old realization. After having lived in Waco, Texas for almost 8 years now, there is still not a single Indian restaurant for over 50 miles in any direction.

I still remember the challenges in adapting to a place that looked largely devoid of Asian Americans. Indeed I wasn’t too far off the mark as the Census data from 2000 showed that about 1.4% of the city was Asian while the national percentage at the time was about 4%. When I left South Bend, IN where I attended graduate school I left one of the least populated Asian American cities (it was 1.2% in 2000, and now 1.3% or about 1,349 people), for a city that had a couple hundred more Asian Americans in the Waco area. Today Waco estimates of the Asian population are around 1.9% or 2330 people. [Read more…]

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.