I think I mentioned a week or two ago that I have a backlog of things I’ve wanted to post about, but haven’t had time for. This is one of them: at First Things, Mary Eberstadt analyzes an attack on marriage which was published in The Atlantic a few months ago. That piece is here, though you don’t have to read it to understand Eberstadt. And I think I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never been much impressed with Sandra Tsing Loh’s work. It can be amusing, but it doesn’t seem very deep—it tends to be typical of a certain kind of sophisticated urban woman: quick, glib, light, and stuffed with references to pop culture and trendy brand names (or what I take to be such, as I don’t recognize most of them). In other words, I don’t know how representative Sandra Tsing Loh is. But here’s how Eberstadt summarizes her case:
It amounts to two charges made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of today’s marriages—that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people—are a sexual desert.
One could say a lot about this (and perhaps some of you will), and that’s one reason I haven’t mentioned it yet—I could easily go on at length, and the state of contemporary marriage is really too big a subject for a blog post. But I’ll limit myself to a brief observation on each of these two charges.
First: many married women really did get a bad deal when it became expected that they would get jobs. The situation is partly their fault, or the fault of the feminists who thought that, simply because they decreed that it ought to be so, men would assume exactly 50% of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. That was one of many illusions fostered by superficial notions about the difference between the sexes. Men in general—yes, there are many exceptions, but most men—were never going to do those jobs, especially not the way women wanted them done. (I know, there are many reasons why wives and mothers have gone into the work force, and feminism is probably not even the most important one. But feminism did insist upon the desirability of it, and attempt to lay down rules.)
But it’s also true that many men are completely unfair about this, because they expect their wives not only to do the traditionally feminine work at home, but also to hold down an outside job. I mean, they don’t just accept it if she wants to do it, or if the family really needs the money, but consider her obliged to contribute financially as well as in every other way. So they both come home from work, but he expects to watch TV while she cooks dinner, cleans up afterward, does laundry, etc. I’m sure we’ve all seen marriages where this is the case. It’s obviously unfair, and one can hardly blame women in that situation for resenting it. (This whole matter is full of examples of unintended and not especially good consequences, but I’ll leave those for another time.)
Second, about that “sexual desert”: I’ve suspected for some time that the current sexual climate might actually be producing a decline of interest in sex, at least among married people, at least with each other. The reason, in a word: boredom. There are a number of things in our culture which contribute to the possibility of sexual boredom in marriage. Birth control makes sex seem without risks and physical consequences. Often, after one or two children, one or the other in a couple gets himself/herself sterilized. This makes it possible at least in principle to have a lot more sexual activity. But it is a simple and obvious fact of human nature that people get bored even with pleasures when they are readily available.
At the same time, popular culture, from the merely provocative to the pornographic, leaves everyone with the impression that everyone else is living a life of unbounded sensual pleasure, and bombards us with provocative imagery. Much of this, I assume, has a greater impact on men than on women, but it must affect women, too. Perhaps for them it isn’t the direct sexual provocation so much as the broader idea of romance, but the overall effect is surely similar: other people have a much more exciting sexual-romantic life than you do; they have something which you also have a right to expect. And if you don’t have it, and you’re married, well, obviously your spouse must be the problem.
Moreover, although contraception holds out the promise of unlimited inconsequential sex, the psychological and emotional complications remain. He’s delighted by the idea that there’s no reason why she can’t be available to him all the time. She’s not so sure she likes that; among other things, she doesn’t want to be taken for granted. And her drive is probably lower anyway, maybe even more so if she’s artificially infertile (NFP couples can tell you a lot about the effect of fertility on the female sex drive). And besides, she’s so tired and stressed out (see the first item above). And so on. Real sex is messy and complicated on every level; it requires at least a minimum of dealing with another person, and some sort of accommodation to his or her wishes, not to mention imperfections. It doesn’t always, or even often, work out as perfectly as it does in the movies.
So why wouldn’t a couple eventually draw away from each other, each to a different sort of place that seems to hold the promise of the excitement to which they feel entitled?
Given all the difficulties surrounding sex, and the fact that pornography—the real stuff, not just titillation but movies of actual people actually doing it—is available at the click of a mouse, it not only makes sense but seems almost inevitable that for at least a considerable number of men, and maybe some women, pornography would tend to replace real sex.
Our culture has separated sex from love, marriage, and child-bearing, and is working on separating those last three from each other. Why not go a little further, and separate sexual pleasure from any kind of personal interaction at all? After all, if the whole point is your own pleasure, another person may just distract you and get in your way.
I have some fragments of a science fiction novel set in a future in which married couples never make love with each other, but enter, holding hands, into separate worlds of virtual erotic reality, each just exactly the way he or she wants it. It doesn’t seem all that implausible, really.