The Regressives’ Plan for Your Love Life: How Ross Douthat is 200 Years Out of Date

Ross Douthat’s recent column in the New York Times, “Why Monogamy Matters,” suggests that when it comes to premarital sex the views of progressives boil down to a “jaded attitude” that has become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of teen sex. It is conservatives, by his estimation, concerned with the happiness and well-being of young people, who are the true optimists.  His argument hinges, in part, on a recent book, Premarital Sex in America, written by sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, which concludes that there is a correlation between “sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness—and between promiscuity and depression.”  And, though he claims that he is not trying to promote an “Arcadia of perfect chastity” or a “traditionalist utopia where the only sex is married sex,” Mr. Douthat’s arguments reveal that he, like so many other leading voices in the conservative movement, isn’t really a “conservative” at all, but a regressive. 

Sure, Douthat makes it clear that he is not limiting sex purely to within the confines of marriage, he is, after all, also okay with sex that is literally premarital—that is, sex that a person has with a partner whom he or she is likely to marry.  His argument comes down to the fact he believes that, to be as happy as possible, young people, especially women, should wait as long as possible to have sex, ideally with their spouse, but possibly with their fiancée.  Mr. Douthat contends that this is not marriage promotion (perhaps he would settle on “marriage promotion lite”), and that when conservatives “talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy, and marriage,” they have only the happiness of young people in mind. 

I would argue that regressives like Douthat are not concerned with the sexual health and well-being of America’s youth, but with pushing a moral agenda that is anti-woman and unabashedly promotes heterosexual, monogamous marriage as the only acceptable life choice.  You need only to look to their own abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula to see what they are really thinking.  Heritage Keeper’s tells young people “When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are ‘weaker, more violent, and less [equal].”  It goes on to say, “People who live together before marriage experience ‘significantly more difficulty in their marriage with adultery, alcohol, drugs and independence [not wanting to depend on each other for anything] than those who do not live together.’” And Worth the Wait suggests that “marriage improves the feeling of emotional well-being that couples feel because they have a sense that their lives have meaning and purpose.”  Suggesting that the lives of unmarried couples do not have meaning and purpose?

Of course, the programs and speakers are very, very careful not to attack sex per se for two reasons.  First, any claims that sex is not enjoyable are going to ring hollow and untrue on young ears.  They know better than that. Second, sex is used in these programs as the proverbial carrot, described as a beautiful reward if young people will just wait until they are married.  A common analogy is comparing sex with fire (beautiful and useful if in the fireplace, but dangerous if uncontrolled).  Their message is unambiguous: sex is not bad, as long as it is marital sex.

And, yet, Mr. Douthat tries to couch these positions in terms that make him and the other regressives seem like they truly understand the times we live in, while progressives are pessimistic and backwards.  He could not be more wrong.

In fact, progressives believe that, with the proper tools and education, young people will be able to make decisions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their lives, that will allow them to be happy, healthy adults.  It is not at all a pessimistic worldview to have faith in the ability of young people to make these kinds of decisions; it is the definition of optimism.  It is Mr. Douthat who is lowering standards and expectations by setting out only one potential life path and instructing young people to follow it “by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.”  A moral standard that apparently only includes sex within (or almost within) marriage.

Ever since my wife wrote her thesis on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, I have had the opportunity to read Austen’s collected works.  The dominant theme throughout the novels, I believe, is the desperate situation that women were forced into by societal expectations that they marry and marry well.  They were expected to save themselves for marriage, of course, though not all women did.  A woman who had sex outside of wedlock was ruined, unhappy, and destroyed for the rest of her life.  Unless, that is, she could get him to marry her anyhow.  For if she did marry him, her reputation was saved and her indiscretion swept under the rug. 

This is the backwards world that Ross Douthat wants us to live in.  He would truly be a man of the times, if we lived in Regency Era England.

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  • drdredd

    People who live together before marriage experience ‘significantly more difficulty in their marriage with adultery, alcohol, drugs and independence [not wanting to depend on each other for anything] than those who do not live together


    Really?  Independence is considered a bad thing?  I would think that not having to depend on a partner for everything would lead to a more equal, well-rounded marriage.  Silly me, I guess.

  • equalist

    All I can say is, my fiance and I have a stronger, healthier, and happier relationship than most married couples I know.  I can also say that I’ve lived with previous partners that I might have married had I not had the choice to simply cohabitate.  And in at least one of those cases I would have been an abused spouse with less recourse for escape than I had as an abused girlfriend.  Who a person lives with, and what consenting adult they have sex with is none of anyone else’s business.

  • plume-assassine

    It’s all fine and good to have a personal preference for a certain relationship model like “married monogamy” – but claiming that it is the Only Good System that everyone else should follow (based on shoddy sociological correlations related to ‘cohabitation’) is just plain wrong. Monogamy and marriage aren’t for everyone, as the 50% divorce rate in this country implies.

    And, like I often say, this purity/marriage/monogamy thing all goes back to the conservatives’ obsession with trying to link sexuality with morality. It doesn’t work and it’s not based in reality. They need to stop basing a person’s worth (and a relationship’s worth) based on the presence of sex or lack thereof. They need to stop idealizing and putting sex on a pedestal next to virtues like Integrity and Trustworthiness and Respectability and then maybe we will all be better off, and less repressed.

  • plumstchili

    I have never fit into Mr. Douthat’s world and I never will.

    I have bipolar disorder. One of the symptoms is hypersexuality. I have done more people than Douthat knows even if you include all the incidental clerk’s who make his coffee in the morning, and give him his dry cleaning, or take his bank deposits etc.  

    In Douthat’s world, I am meant to feel shame for that. I give thanks everyday that I do not live in Douthat’s world.  So many men, so little time.



  • datasnake

    Hey. as long as you’re taking precautions to avoid STDs, and as long as you’re doing all those guys by choice (not because you feel compelled), I would say you’re doing a public service, and, at the risk of being tactless, I wish there were women like you in my neck of the woods.

  • invalid-0

    How would you characterize the difference between love and lust? 

  • datasnake

    Lust is physical. Love is emotional.

  • ldan

    What does that have to do with anything?

  • ldan

    err, yeah there is something tactless and a bit creepy about the idea of someone’s sexuality being a public service. It’s a bit too close to the image of women as public property and promiscuous ones as public sex vending machines.


    Not saying you were going there, but the language hits a lot of buttons.


    Possibly because I get a certain amount of grief on something of the other end of the spectrum. I’m as sexual as I want to be and with whom I want to be, but tend to parcel my social time very carefully. I’ve gotten flack for the latter, as if my time and energy are public resources that I shouldn’t be hoarding.

  • ldan

    So what does Mr. Douthat (which I can’t help but read as Douchehat…every time) think about the many happy brands of non-monogamy out there? I’m not sure teens usually have the social or emotional resources to balance polyamory in a healthy way, but plenty of adults do just fine. Are we all deluded?


    Nor does he mention if those studies correlating promiscuity with depression looked at the cause/effect there. Because really, if one is depressed, aren’t they going to have a harder time maintaining boundaries? From my own dips into depression, I wouldn’t discount sex as distraction being part of those stats as well. I’ll bet depression correlates with a lot more TV watching and staring at the internet as well. That’s without even getting into the messages society sends out that promiscuous people are inherently bad and shameful.

  • squirrely-girl

    … but I think it paints love in somewhat a negative light (i.e., people in love aren’t also sexual). Like, in order to “love” somebody you have to get all of that sexual stuff out of the picture. I’m very much just as in “lust” for my husband as I am in “love.” 


    Just my 2-cents…

  • freetobe

    a talk my mother gave me as a young teenager. These people need to mind their damn buisiness! Something I have alway s hated and I mean hated about the Regressive party is  these stupid morals they try to force on everyone and is none of their damn buisiness!! Politics and daddies do not mix it is offensive and disgusting!. This is parents work not the Government.

    No wonder this country is such a mess. Do your damn jobs get the american people jobs and stay out of the bedroom.

    Where is the Seperation of Church and state anyway and how can the vatican keep influencing our politicians? They had better start paying taxes if they are going to constantly interfere. Better yet go back to Rome and stay there!! YUCK just disgusted with the stupid idiotiotic Regressive party!


  • beenthere72

    … which just put this song in my head…


  • prochoiceferret

    … but I think it paints love in somewhat a negative light (i.e., people in love aren’t also sexual).


    Maybe it just comes from the perspective of someone in a sexless marriage. You’d figure, as much as they don’t respect women’s sexuality, and get annoyed at young people having sex, conservatives have good reason to believe “love” and “lust” have as much to do with each other as “Glenn Beck” and “sanity.”

  • therealistmom

    “You don’t buy a car without taking it for a test drive.”


    It may sound like that trivilizes sex and relationships, but in fact it actually stresses their importance. If you wouldn’t buy something without getting a feel for it first, why the hell would you make a lifetime commitment to someone emotionally and, yes, sexually without really knowing if you’re compatible?

  • therealistmom

    As a person with chronic Major Depressive Disorder I have to say that YES sex is kind of far down on the ol’ list. How the hell could I be promiscuous when I can’t get up enough energy to do much beyond get on the computer and stare into space? And with my self-esteem in the gutter how am I going to go out and find partners?

  • crowepps

    Love is an emotional enthusiasm for a person, lust is a physical enthusiasm.  In a really great marriage, each party feels BOTH for the other.


    Those who voluntarily choose a path of physical self-denial and asceticism certainly have a right to do so if it serves their purpose, whether it satisfies an obsessives need for ‘purity’ or the rituals involved meet a need for structure or as masocists who crave punishment or as spiritual people they want to set aside the distractions of physicality in a search for transcendence.


    I can see absolutely no moral positives for anyone in IMPOSING asceticism on the unwilling.  The people on whom it is being forced spend MORE time thinking about what they have been denied and how much they want it and sink into perversions trying to obtain it, while the person(s) imposing the requirement has to be ever vigilant to prevent happiness and pleasure and so are distracted from a search for transcendence.

  • datasnake

    I meant “public service” along the lines of doctor, teacher, public defender, clinic escort or firefighter: choosing to do something that makes the world a better place.

  • datasnake

    I didn’t mean to imply that they were mutually exclusive, they’re just independent. It’s possible to feel either one separately, or both, or neither. 

  • princess-jourdan

    I gotta agree, Realist Mom, that is really good advice.  You’re right, how much would it suck to save yourself for marriage and then find out on your wedding night that NEITHER of you (or your partner) know jack squat about what to do or how to please each other in the bedroom??  Let’s be honest here, good sex is the glue that holds a marriage together.  If one or both partners are completely clueless, uptight, repressed, or just downright suck at it, then you’re doomed for a frustrated, unhappy, SHORT marriage!!  I’ve seen the proof of this all too often.

  • prochoiceferret

    I meant “public service” along the lines of doctor, teacher, public defender, clinic escort or firefighter: choosing to do something that makes the world a better place.


    I like this approach if only for the Public Service Announcements it would entail!

  • arekushieru

    TRM, I have something called dysthymia, which can best be described as a lower form of even the more commonly experienced depressive disorders, but it is also mixed with something called non-verbal learning disability, which have both tended to suppress my sex drive far beyond what it would normally be, which I think would still be lower than what is considered ‘normal’.

    So, I can *somewhat* comprehend what you mean.

  • princess-rot

    You imply that both are extreme opposites, like lust is inherently bad, and love inherently good. There are plenty of people who love in unhealthy, harmful or destructive ways, and their relationships reflect this just as there are plenty of people who lust in perfectly healthy, happy ways as well as harmful ones. There are also people who mix the two with varying results. A good example is actually Mr. Douthat himself, who wrote this weird paragraph:

    From Ross Douthat, Privilege, bottom of p. 184:

    ‘One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend’s parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point–“Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?” she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business… and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered–“You know, I’m on the pill…” ‘

    You can’t read that and seriously say that there is a clear, definitive line between love and lust when this is a prime example of the author trying to draw that line, failing miserably, and making himself look like a colossal asshole.


    I think trying to define a solid “difference” between the two beyond what Datasnake wrote (the superficial definition) assumes everything happens in a vacuum and doesn’t take into account the vagaries of individual experiences.

  • arekushieru

    I understand where you’re coming from, DS.  It’s just that, I think lust and love are both hormonal responses, but different types of that kind of response.  Lust is purely a physical hormonal response while love is mixed with those plus  hormones that contribute to the emotional centers of our brains.  


  • prochoiceferret

    with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks.


    Well, no wonder he’s so down on healthy non-marital sex. He was with a chunky, Reese-Witherspoon-ish woman who was an avowed masticator, and he didn’t even have the courtesy to attempt to give her the earthquake-inducing orgasm that she richly deserved. Even her breasts were fooled.


    And now, Mr. Douchehat so reviles himself for having shirked his masculine responsibilities, that he wants everyone willing to give him the time of day to do so as well, so that he ends up looking less like the clit-blocking anal orifice that he really is.

  • colleen

    You can’t read that and seriously say that there is a clear, definitive line between love and lust when this is a prime example of the author trying to draw that line, failing miserably, and making himself look like a colossal asshole.

    What Douthat describes is neither love or lust but, rather, another fairly mundane example of the repressed nastiness of American conservative males. I seriously doubt that Mr Douthat (or Arex, for that matter) have the faintest notion of what normal people are talking about when we discuss love or lust. I’ve certainly never seen any evidence that they do.

  • colleen

    please delete

  • kater7

    But then you have to ask the question: how do they KNOW that they don’t know jack in the bedroom? I always wonder this when people who were formally virgins before marriage start a rapturous description of how GREAT their love life is, and how the sex is so much better because they waited – but how would they know if they have nothing to compare it to? 

    Not that I think their choice was bad for them or anything, and I’m glad they’re happy – but geez, that’s just illogical. You can think something is great, for you, but if someone else were in the situation, would they think the same thing of your husband/wife who has no skills?

  • plume-assassine

    I don’t think that “love” and “lust” always exist separately. You can have both within one relationship, or just one. A person who loves someone can “lust after” their partner and a person who thought they “only” lusted after someone can feel love for their partner. Love by itself is an emotional bond with someone that isn’t primarily based on the need/desire for sex. Lust by itself is an emotional bond with someone that is primarily based on sex. I think any relationship is a valid relationship as long as it is mutually beneficial and consensual, no matter what combination it is based on. Some people prefer one over the other, some would rather not mix the two, and some enjoy both, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think it is wrong to judge someone’s private relationship as “immoral” or attach moralizing values to someone’s sexuality, especially since one’s relationship preferences are not detrimental to the people involved, to you, or to society. It is wrong to impose your own preference for a particular relationship model on other people.

  • plume-assassine

    As a personal example: I consider myself a very sexual person, a somewhat jealous person, and not at all a promiscuous person. I am interested in love/lust as it fits into a monogamous model. So, I’ve found that the most fulfilling relationship model for me is monogamy.

    Since I don’t think in a black/white worldview, I understand that this relationship preference does not and should not be applied to everyone. I have friends that describe themselves as very sexual and rather promiscuous, and they are happiest in polyamorous, “friends-with-benefits,” or “hook-up” relationships. I also have friends that are neither very sexual nor promiscuous, and are primarily interested in love as it fits into a monogamous model. They refuse to have sex unless they are sure that they are going to be with that person forever, and will only ever be with 1 person in their life.


    So, like I said before, all relationships are valid, as long as they are mutually beneficial and consensual.

  • wendy-banks