January 30, 2014

JAMES TARANTO: Party Like It’s 1959: Fanciful proposals for a sexual counterrevolution.

Let us pause to note the contrast in tone between these two paragraphs. Whereas Saletan’s lecture to women is merely condescending, in addressing men he is gross and dehumanizing.

In substance, he is essentially calling for a turning back of the clock–for men and women to approach sex with the same sort of caution that was typical in 1959, adapted to today’s technologies and laws. It would be simpler just to advise both sexes to save sex for marriage, but of course we know from debates over sex education that “abstinence doesn’t work.” Even before the pill and Roe v. Wade, people were having premarital sex, or there wouldn’t have been shotgun weddings.

Yet actually abstinence does work; the problem is that moral suasion is of limited effectiveness. Even assuming Saletan’s advice is sound, there is no reason to expect it to be widely followed.

The shotgun wedding was not a prescriptive formula devised by some writer or policy analyst. It was a spontaneous adaptation to the constraints and incentives that existed at the time. When those constraints gave way, the incentives changed, and individual men and women changed their behavior in response.

What about Saletan’s reductio ad absurdum of Douthat’s argument? Could the shotgun wedding be restored if society were “to go back to restricting reproductive freedom,” as Saletan puts it?

The question is unanswerable, because the premise is flawed. Changes in the law surely accelerated the sexual revolution, but they did not cause it. Advances in technology did–specifically, the development of the pill, which the FDA approved for contraceptive use in 1960. The current extremely permissive abortion regime may or may not be here to stay, but a ban on modern contraception is no more feasible a proposal than a ban on automobiles or guns, both of which have deleterious social consequences as well as “awesome” ones, and bot of which enhance individual freedom.

After propounding his “ethic of sexual responsibility,” Saletan issues a challenge: “Some of you might view this advice as too austere or prudish. If so, let’s hear your alternative.” We don’t have one. But the absence of a better idea doesn’t make a bad idea good, and when analyzing social trends it is well to remember that not every problem has a solution.

Yeah, I noticed that Saletan was a lot harder on men than women, too, but that’s to be expected. Under Saletan’s proposal, of course, we’d expect to see more men turning to Internet porn, or prostitution, rather than dating. Also because of incentives.