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The Sex Trap: Why Women Should Never Say Yes Before Marriage
All the promises made to us about our ability to achieve freedom and independence as women, the promises of sexual emancipation may have been the most illusory. In denying the essential differences between the sexes, we have abandoned the customs that used to protect and civilize both sexes, that constrained men and women but also obliged them to live up to their best natures. We might now be more free. But we enjoy less happiness, less fulfillment, less dignity, and, of all things, less romance.
In retrospect, it's almost charming the way our teachers attempted to teach us about sex. Other generations may have been left to grapple with this most intimate of topics in the dark, but mine, beginning in the early 1970s, would be the first to be educated openly on the subject in junior high school classrooms in the full light of day. At my high school, the task fell to a gym teacher, who was also the football coach. He was not, even at the best of times, an articulate man.
This wasn't usually a problem: Most of what he needed to say could be grunted or shouted at a field of adolescents, ordering them to tackle, kick, or run around until they threw up. Unfortunately, for him, he found himself — like everyone else in the 1970s — at the forefront of sexual enlightenment. Believing that such critical knowledge as birth control and the functions of our sex organs could not be trusted to our stammering and embarrassed parents, education officials passed the duty along to this stammering and embarrassed gym teacher. Why it had to be the gym teacher, I'm not sure — perhaps because those same officials hoped to keep the topic safely within the realm of the athletic and away from the romantic. That's also probably the reason why they entitled the sex curriculum “Health” or some similar euphemism (as opposed to “Fellatio 101”), and our textbook spoke about “intercourse” completely matter-of-factly, as if it were no more fraught or controversial than the digestive system.
Of course it was — and is. The gym teacher knew it, and we knew it, I remember him vividly, standing at the front of the classroom in his red Adidas track suit, grimly tapping a pointer at a full-colour diagram of an enormous, bisected vagina. “So, uh, girls have ovaries, right? [tap,tap] And in their ovaries they have, um, ovums, which are tiny eggs. They travel along here [pointer follows strands of red ribbon to something that looks like a cross-section of a bloodied pear] and, uh, sort of nest in here after they've been, um, fertilized by the sperm.” The teacher would attempt to deliver these lectures like a Soviet minister addressing the United Nations — monotonously, without a flicker of emotion
Having sex, though, was obviously not like doing gym class or algebra. By approaching it as coldly as any other subject, the curriculum managed to strip away all of its ethical context . So while we learned to rattle off the most effective forms of contraception as expertly as any prostitute, we never discussed under what circumstances we should consider sex right or wrong. We were certainly not taught as girls, that our ability to conceive imposed any special, or extra, responsibility upon us to practise more restraint than boys. From the curriculum's view-point men and women — if different in basic plumbing — shared essentially the same sexual desires and were entitled to pursue them and express them in similar ways. The prevailing wisdom then, as it is now, was that for too long, children — particularly girls — had been kept ignorant of their bodies and taught to be ashamed of their sexual desire. If left to our allegedly prudish and/or ignorant parents, we might have been told not to have sex until we were older — or, more unrealistically, until we were married. But an enlightened education system was one that understood the “reality” of teenage sexual behaviour and tried to accommodate it rather than change it. They had not yet begun to hand out condoms or instruct students in how to unroll them over bananas, but the assumptions that led to these advances were all in place.
As my friends and I grew into young women, our sexual experience may have varied, but our attitude toward sex did not. You had sex with someone or you didn't. You regretted it or you enjoyed it. You wanted to see him again or you never wanted to see him again. You sometimes used a man or felt used by him. But unless you were unusually religious, you did not think about sex as a privilege of marriage, or even of an especially devoted relationship. If you were attracted to a man and he was attracted to you, you expected to have sex with him as naturally as you expected a grey sky to rain or spring to follow winter: the only questions were when and how. Carelessly, thoughtlessly, casually, sex, in the short space of a single generation, went from being the culminating act of committed love to being a pre-condition, a tryout, for future emotional involvement. If any.
Today, few would still advocate the heady, unbridled, anything-goes approach to sex that prevailed in the `70s. The right to sleep with as many men as a woman pleases turns out to be a rather hollow freedom — at least, if a woman seeks more than a series of groping, bodily encounters with men with whom she shares little but compatible sex organs. Anatole France bitterly remarked, “The law, in its majestic impartiality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.” The woman who comes of age today quickly discovers that she enjoys a similar guarantee of sexual “equality”: the right to make love to a man and never see him again; the right to be insulted and demeaned if she refuses a man's advances; the right to catch a sexually transmitted disease that might, as a bonus, leave her infertile; the right to an abortion when things go wrong, or, as it may be, the right to bear a child out of wedlock.
Indeed, in all the promises made to us about our ability to achieve freedom and independence as women, the promises of sexual emancipation may have been the most illusory. These days, certainly, it is the one most brutally learned, at an early age, when all the sexual bravado a girl may possess evaporates the first time a boy she truly cares for makes it clear that he has no further use for her after his own body has been satisfied. No amount of feminist posturing, no amount of reassurances that she doesn't need a guy like that anyway, can protect her from the pain and humiliation of those awful moments after he's gone, when she's alone and feeling not sexually empowered but discarded. It doesn't take most women long to figure out that sexual liberty is not the same thing as sexual equality.
There's a crude Yiddish expression that sums up the ancient sexual bargain between men and women: “No chuppy, no schtuppy.” It means, literally, “No marriage, no sex.” There's that other cliche, too, muttered by disapproving mothers for generations: “Why buy the cow when they're giving away the milk for free?” We may smirk at its primness, but as women, even as liberated, sexually uninhibited women, we still know exactly what it means. Men and women, by the very nature of their biology, have different, and often opposing, sexual agendas. Eventually, most women want children and, with them, a committed husband and father. Yet so long as there is no readily understood and accepted way for women to say no to men they like and they hope to see again, women lose their power to demand commitment from men. Our grandmothers might have led more sheltered sex lives, but they also controlled what amounted to a sexual cartel: setting a high price for sexual involvement and punishing both men and women if they broke the agreement (either by forcing them into marriage or by ostracizing them from respectable company). Sexual rules create sexual solidarity among women. If men feel that they can flit from woman to woman, they will. They will enjoy our ready availability and exploit it to their advantage. But if women as a group cease to be readily available — if they begin to demand commitment (and real commitment, as in marriage) in exchange for sex-market conditions will shift in favour of women.
This is, to put it mildly, an unfashionable idea. To modern women, particularly young modern women, the loss of sexual freedom may not seem worth it. And it would fly in the face of our sense of fairness — if men are not constrained, why should we be? Today, a woman's right to pursue sexual pleasure is regarded with the same sanctity as her right to free speech. An unhappy single woman may attempt to improve her life by giving up such things as chocolate, fatty foods, and men who treat her badly, but she would never think of surrendering her sexual liberty. That heady, impassioned moment when a woman allows herself to give in to her desires — when she chooses to sleep with a man — is as essential to her identity as a modern women as putting on a suit and going out to work. Her sexual freedom is the expression — indeed the embodiment — of her independence. And in expressing it willfully, selfishly, and upon a whim, she can feel fully the sexual equal of a man. Even the most politically conservative young women I know — women who say they oppose abortion and yearn to marry and have families — would never disavow their right to sleep with whomsoever they please.
A friend of mine, a very pretty woman in her early 20s, was at one point dating three men simultaneously, two of whom wanted to marry her. She said she and her friends chuckle at the articles that occasionally appear in the lifestyle sections of newspapers that suggest there is a shortage of marriageable men. How could there be a shortage, when every woman she knew was beating them off? But then she also acknowledged that these articles were usually written by women older than herself, who had been preoccupied with establishing themselves in their careers, who had felt strongly that they were “too young” to get married at her age, only to realize belatedly that very few 35-year-old women have the sexual power over men that they had at 25. And then my friend admitted that when she and her friends were not beating away their suitors they were compulsively discussing, what they were going to do with their lives. If they were too young to get married now, then when? And whom would they marry?
Their uncertainty about what it was, exactly, that they wanted to do pushed them into the quasi-serious but ultimately unsatisfying “relationships” that define (or, rather, in their ambiguity, fail to define) modern single life. These young women “dated” — meaning they went out to dinner with a number of men and got “involved with” — meaning, they slept with a number of others, their “involvements” lasting three, maybe six, maybe eight months before fizzling out. Sometimes, an infatuated couple would audition for marriage by deciding to live together. The exciting day of renting the U-Haul would arrive, and the two would merge the collected belongings of their single lives: his stereo and her sofa, his television and her frilly bedskirt, his coffee table and her potted palm. They made their first exhilarating trips to Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, choosing wineglasses and colourful plates with which to entertain their friends in their new life as Committed Couple. But the game of playing house together when it did not lead to marriage (as it usually doesn't) led them to experience all the disadvantages of monogamy with few of its benefits. Sex lost its initial passion and novelty. They would find themselves engaged in petty arguments over who would tidy up and cook. And at the same time, they lacked the emotional glue that binds people who have, simply through the act of marrying, announced their intention to form a family and stick it out. Instead, they came to occupy the position of the old married couple in their social circle, while their friends continued to live romantic, adventurous, single lives — or so it suddenly appeared to them. And because they had signed a lease on an apartment that neither could afford alone, they'd ensnared themselves. They continued together long past the time they would have had they never moved in with each other in the first place — sometimes as much as a year or two longer. And then they were overwhelmed by the bitter sense of wasted time.
So women find themselves in a bewildering position: They want the benefits of the old sexual deal (marriage and family), but they are unwilling to accept the sexual restraint that brought the old deal into existence. Instead, a young woman thinks that things will somehow simply fall together — that when she chooses to retire from the nightlife and settle down, there will be an ample selection of decent, solicitous men eagerly waiting to marry her. And then she may well grow angry at the behaviour of the men she meets — men who like receiving their benefits from the new sexual deal (that is, sex) without having to pay the old price of commitment
Which way will we have it? To be treated, sexually, exactly the same as men or differently from them? That most women will reply “neither” or “somewhere in between” won't solve the problem. This is especially true for young women trying to navigate their way through to marriage. The rules controlling sexual behaviour used to be most rigorously applied to girls under the age of 21 because adults feared the volatile combination of raging hormones and emotional immaturity. If most girls did not attend debutante balls, they were subject to other elaborate rituals — chaperoned parties and dances, dates with boys scrutinized and approved by their parents, and the rather ruthless, hasty fashion with which they married after that. Almost all the adults in a young woman's life conspired, whether she liked it or not, to protect her from predatory male sexual advances and romantic recklessness. Today, in our eagerness to abandon this constrained existence, we've made it almost impossible for teenagers to avoid having sex before the age of 18. The ideal of sexual freedom is now so zealously adhered to that aside from the sexual instruction high school teenagers receive, many universities no longer maintain separate dormitories and bathrooms for men and women. If young men and women are going to bathe together, eat together, and study together, we can fully expect that they will sleep together. And of course, they do find suitable husbands (or to get their M.R.S., as the joke went). Young women arrive on campus today as much expecting to explore their sexual independence as furthering their knowledge of history and literature.
All of this might be cause for celebration — evidence of our modern sexual enlightenment — if sexual liberation had turned out the way it was supposed to, with men and women sleeping together as often as they wish, serenely and without consequence. But its failure, in fact, is perfectly demonstrated in these academic petri dishes, where sexual egalitarianism has been taken to its natural extreme and feminist reaction against men is at its most vehement and hysterical. On campuses across the country, scores of female students join in the annual “Take Back the Night March” to protest the alleged pervasiveness of male sexual violence. It's now customary at these demonstrations for women to stand before microphones and intimately describe not only egregious acts of male brutality to which they've fallen victim but more often the details of their everyday sexual embarrassments and humiliations: the time a man interpreted a miniskirt and flirtatious manner as a come-on; the regret one felt for having drunken sex with a frat boy. In the telling, these incidents are given the same moral weight as rape. A woman is not expected to accept responsibility for actions on her part that may have misled or confused the man; the man is always at fault for viewing the woman as an object of lust, no matter how provocative her manner or dress. In the new feminist understanding of male sexuality, a man must be punished for merely his hope of having sex with a woman. As for women, a friend of mine likes to joke, they no longer demand the right to free sex but to good sex: A fling that a woman finds pleasurable, no matter how casual, is not considered date rape. But the woman who wakes up the next morning feeling a little tawdry, wondering what it was that possessed her to have sex with him, may decide it wasn't her fault after all; somehow she must have been bullied into it, and thus raped.
Quite naturally, some young women have stepped forward to protest this chilling view of sex; like the writers Katie Roiphe and Kate Fillion, Karen Lehrman, and Rene Denfield. They compare the new feminists to prudish Victorians who regard women as frail flowers, helpless in the clutches of amorous men. “We're not victims!” they declare. And so they're not — at least not of what they think. For it's one thing to insist that women are perfectly capable of saying yes or no to sex and that they should be held just as responsible for their actions as men (bravo). Its another to pretend, as these women do, that women face no innate disadvantages in a world of sexual licence. At least the radical feminists, in their crazed way, understand that female sexual freedom flourishes only if male sexual freedom is severely curbed. If women are going to have the “right” to dress and behave as they please, the “right” to be “sluts,” then we shall have to crack down on the inevitable male reaction. For men have not, over the past two decades, suddenly become more beastly, savage creatures as the hysterics would have us believe. Rather, they are responding to our behaviour in a wholly predictable way. The woman who puts on a short skirt, teases her hair, gets tipsy, and with every gesture signals her sexual availability, should not be surprised at the end of the evening that the man does, in fact, expect sex. Nor should she be surprised when, after lustily falling into bed with a man before she's even certain of his last name, he seems startled that she expects more of him than a one-night stand. What should surprise her is that there is no longer any social disapproval of their behaviour. The feminists who prowl college campuses detecting harassment in a football player's wink may be unwilling to acknowledge female sexual responsibility, as their critics say; but they are also reacting to the consequences of a liberty that did not work out for women as its apostles hoped.
Still, to question whether the sexual revolution actually improved women's lives or harmed them seems a pointlessly old-fashioned exercise, such as debating whether starving or feeding is best for treating colds. In reconsidering all the ways in which women's lives and attitudes have changed in a generation, very few critics would be willing to say that women's sexual liberation has been an altogether bad thing. And how could they? As a female friend and I walked from the movie theatre one evening after watching Emma, I wondered if we — or any women like us — would seriously be willing to don the late-20th-century equivalent of a corset and restrain our sex lives in order to promote marriage and monogamy. It would seem absurd to tell women — who are working as corporate executives, flying fighter planes, seeking graduate degrees — that they should have to wait for marriage to have sex; it would be akin to treating them like those young Second World War GI's, who were seen as old enough to die for their country but not to take a sip of whisky. And it would seem especially absurd to abstain if a woman is not even planning to get married until she is in her late 20s or early 30s. She may well wonder, “Why bother?”
But there is good reason to bother. If women do, by and large, wish to reunite sex with love, to regain male commitment, and to restore trust and civility between men and women — the most appealing aspects of traditional morality — then we are going to have to be prepared to put up with some of its restrictions, too. Instead of embracing the “slut within us” as Naomi Wolf advises in her book Promiscuities, we should reject her, just as we should reject men who use women and escape social — if not legal! — consequences for their sexual behaviour.
Of course, we may wish to continue to do as we do now and pretend that sexual differences do not exist, that women are every bit as sexually free and nonchalant as men. But if we do wish to carry on with this pretense, then we should not express astonishment or resentment when men behave more badly than they used to or show less inclination to stay with us, or that sex generally feels more meaningless. After all, when something becomes widely and cheaply available, its value usually goes down, too. Acknowledging sexual difference, however, does not require us to accept the hostile, invidious feminist view either — that men are innately violent and lustful while women are always blameless. It does not require us to see ourselves as victims, as weaker than, or inferior to, men. The new understanding of sexual differences might simply be found in the old understanding if we were willing to restore it and polish it up a bit.
That understanding recognized the unique and often mysterious traits we instinctively think of as being masculine and feminine, traits that have persisted despite all the ideological sandblasting of the past three decades. They are too subtle and elusive to be inscribed in law. They confound both poets and social scientists. But they are differences that complement each other — that ignite passion and sexual attraction, give love its depth and emotional sustenance, and ultimately form women into mothers and wives and men into fathers and husbands. By denying these differences, we prolong the period when we are sexually vulnerable; we waste the opportunity of our most passionate and youthful years to find lasting love and everything that goes with it: home, children, stability, and the pleasure of sex as an expression of profound, romantic, and monogamous love. We have traded all this away for an illusion of sexual power and, in doing so, have abandoned the customs that used to protect and civilize both sexes, that constrained men and women but also obliged them to live up to their best natures. We might now be more free. But we enjoy less happiness, less fulfillment, less dignity, and, of all things, less romance.
Crittenden, Danielle. “The Sex Trap: Why Women Should Never Say Yes Before Marriage,” National Post, (Canada) 8 January, 1999.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Danielle Crittenden is the author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman.
Copyright © 1999 National Post