Politics & Policy

Smart Sex

Finding love; keeping love; making love work.

A book about love and marriage from an economist? It must be about balancing the checkbook!

Think again. Jennifer Roback Morse, who taught economics at Yale and George Mason University, is author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World, which is much more fundamental than joint bank accounts.

National Review Online Editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to Morse about some of those basics, getting a taste for some of the advice Morse provides in Smart Sex.

Kathryn Jean Lopez:You’ve written a book called Smart Sex. That suggests there must be “Dumb Sex.” Is there anything to “Dumb Sex” that I might not expect?

Jennifer Roback Morse: I don’t think you’d be surprised to learn that many forms of recreational sex often turn out to be quite foolish, and incidentally, not much fun. Every mature person realizes the potential dangers and disappointments of hooking up, shacking up and just plain messing around. The real surprise is to learn how systematic these disappointments are, and to learn the underlying problem that makes these disappointments so common.

The key is to see that the organic reality of human sexuality is social: The sexual nature of our bodies is literally geared to build up the family. Sexuality has two natural purposes that are written on our bodies. The first purpose is procreation: our sexual activity brings about new life. The second purpose is to build up the relationship between the man and the woman, what some writers call “spousal unity.” This means that sex builds the bonds between the couple.

Lopez: How does “spousal unity” work?

Morse: Both men and women have a tendency to attach to their sex partners. We can even now identify the physiological pathways by which sex bonds us to each other. During sex, women secrete a hormone called oxytocin. This is the same hormone that we experience when we are nursing our babies. Some experts refer to oxytocin as the attachment hormone, because this hormone causes us to both relax and connect with the person we are with. In the aftermath of sex, we relax and commit to our sex partners. While we are nursing, we relax and connect with our babies.

In both these situations, oxytocin, the bonding hormone, has survival value. Connecting with our babies helps us to take pleasure in being with them and caring for them, even at times when it wouldn’t ordinarily be very pleasant, (like in the middle of the night.) Connecting with our sex partners increases the chances that we will stay together long enough to raise the baby to adulthood.

For men, the pathways to bonding are a little different. We have all heard, ad naseum, actually, the argument that men and women have distinct mating strategies. Men seek to impregnate as many women as possible, and invest as little as possible in each child, while women seek to nurture each child to full maturity. We are less familiar with the obvious point that men must compete for women.

Women prefer men who will be faithful providers for them and their children. Women’s strategy compels men to be more faithful, less philandering than they would otherwise like to be. The man’s strategy places him at war with himself. The evolutionary payoff for men to settle down with particular women is the assurance that the children he invests in are indeed his own. At least one psychologist argues that jealousy helps men to connect with their sexual partners. Possessiveness helps the man settle down.

A man doesn’t feel jealous or possessive toward every woman he sees, or even toward every woman he finds attractive. He feels jealous over women he has had sex with. This feeling of jealousy is in some ways a nuisance for the woman. She might feel that the man is trying to control her activity, or even her thoughts and feelings. And make no mistake about it: men do sometimes go over the line and become obsessively jealous, even dangerously jealous. But, one thing is for sure. A woman knows that she matters to a guy who gets jealous.

Possessiveness is the dark side of male attachment. The bright side of the very same tendency to attach is loyalty. Men are capable of heroic loyalty, to their wives and children, to their teams, companies and countries. Our culture indulges in so much male-bashing that we sometimes overlook this salutary fact about the male half of our species.

All this makes perfect biological sense. This is Mother Nature’s way of making sure we stick together long enough to have fun, make a baby, and then work together long enough to raise the baby to adulthood.

This tendency to attach to each other means that in a very real sense, causal sex isn’t even possible. There is a reason guys come unhinged when they find out their “friend with benefits” has another friend. There is a reason girls sit by the phone, wondering whether the guy they hooked up with the previous night will ever call them again. The basic desire to connect with our sex partners is built into our physiology.

Lopez: So, what is the common thread among the different forms of “dumb sex” that creates such disappointment?

Morse: I think the key is that everyone wants to matter, especially to their sex partners. We have created a world in which we treat sex as a private recreational activity, with no moral or social significance. But when sex is a recreational activity, my partner becomes a consumer good. And we all know what we do with consumer goods that cease to satisfy: We get rid of them. In this world of consumer sex, it is socially acceptable to use other people. But no one really wants to be used. I think that is the ultimate source of our disappointments with the modern consumer-sex approach.

Lopez: How do I find love in a “hook-up world”?

Morse: Expecting to find love by hooking-up is not very intelligent. It is like expecting to get rich by “investing” in lottery tickets. Why do something so dumb, when there are much more reliable methods of achieving the same objective?

I think people instinctively know that the odds are against a hook-up turning into the romance of a lifetime. But our hook-up culture undermines us in a variety of ways.

The hook-up mentality that treats people as objects is hard to overcome. We enter into our married lives with someone we hope and believe is very special and views us as special. But often, we’ve been practicing having sex as if it didn’t matter. Sex is a toy and the other person is an object. It takes some time, and I think, some deliberate thought, to overcome the habits we create in that environment.

Lopez: Why does my marriage matter to the rest of the world?

Morse: You can look at it from the positive point of view, or the negative. The positive view is that marriage is the most basic unit of social cooperation. Two people come together for a life-long project of mutual love and support. In the process, they build up the next generation. It is in their interest to take care of their children and of each other. It is certainly more in their interest than in anybody else’s.

From the negative point of view, look at what happens when a marriage breaks down, or fails to form. Other people must pick up the slack. Single mothers need the help of their blood relatives, usually their parents, to take care of their kids. Unmarried parents often need the assistance of the state in various ways. The higher risk of social pathologies associated with unmarried parenthood is now too well-documented to ignore. And those social pathologies almost always involve taxpayer expenditures at some point in the child’s life. Whether it is the poorer physical health, mental health, or school completion rates, the taxpayer ends up paying money, just to help the child “break even” with the level of well-being that is routinely experienced by the children of married parents. The substitutes for marriage are not very successful.

The frosting on the cake is that family courts are responsible for some of the most egregious violations of personal privacy in this country. We would never accept government directives telling us what language to speak at home, whether we can change jobs or move, how much money we can or must spend on our children. The family courts end up involved in all these extremely private decisions, and more. Courts even adjudicate who gets to see the children on Thanksgiving and Christmas. When parental cooperation breaks down, the state steps in. It is not a pretty sight. And yet people accept these outrageous invasions of privacy, as if it were no big deal.

Lopez: Your book makes a successful approach to marriage sound very…conservative. Is that too easy a way to put it?

Morse: I’m not sure what you mean by “conservative” in this context. Is it “conservative” to want marriage to last? I actually think that most people want life-long married love. If you ask divorced people, “gee, was that fun? Would you like to do that again?” I doubt you’d have many takers. I’m convinced after talking with hundreds of people in live audiences and through talk radio, that most people would like to get married and stay married. They just often don’t know what to do. Even those who have been divorced, think it was the best they could do under the circumstances. But most would have preferred to have faced better circumstances, such as figuring out how to work together better or making a better choice of partner in the first place.

I think that giving people the tools just has to be constructive, and that’s why I wrote this book, and the accompanying booklet, “101 Tips for a Happier Marriage: You can improve your marriage even if your spouse doesn’t change a bit.”

I actually consider my marriage-support work to be a very libertarian effort: Every individual can do his or her part to reduce the demands for government services, and build up a functioning society. I’m not that hopeful about government plans to support or strengthen marriage. I think we’d be way ahead if the state would, “First, do no harm.” If they would quit doing harm, we’d be way ahead. But the focus of this book, is on what each person can do for himself.

Lopez: Why do you bring abortion into a book that is a bit of a self-help book? Don’t you guarantee turning people off?

Morse: I don’t think so. This is not a book that slams abortion, as much as it is a book that celebrates the true meaning of sexuality. I bring up abortion politics and rhetoric because a very destructive and false view of human sexuality is behind the drive for unlimited sexual activity as an entitlement. Only the widespread availability of abortion without cost makes that view of sexuality even remotely plausible.

But the plain fact is that many women have experienced abortion for themselves, and they know that there are negative consequences to it. So I bring up the subject to illustrate how deeply implicated the “pro-choice” view of the world is in the creation of the consumer-sex world we all inhabit. And I also hope to show post-abortive women that they are not the only ones in the world who have ever experienced any pain or regrets, and that confronting those feelings will in the end, be constructive and helpful to them.

Lopez: What is your biggest beef with the women’s movement, vis-à-vis how it has hurt marriage?

Morse: That is a tough question, because the women’s movement is so deeply culpable. However, if I had to name one issue, it would be the truly perverse view of equality that so much of the women’s movement embraced. Like much of the modern Left, the women’s movement insisted on “sameness” as their definition of equality. The fact is that the human species is a gendered species. We come in two sexes, male and female, that can never be made fully equal. This is one of the most basic biological facts of our species. You’d think our modern scientific age could accept this.

Yet in its desire for equality, or maximizing the reach of government, the Left has put every individual at war with their own sexuality, our own nature as male and female beings. This causes unbelievable heartache in married life, especially around child-rearing.

Social scientists have repeatedly observed that couples committed to gender equality find the arrival of their first child to be very disruptive and upsetting. Why should that be? Because parenthood is not a gender-neutral activity. Men and women behave, feel and desire differently, where children are concerned. Heck, even the babies react differently to their mothers than to their fathers. When the babies arrive, all that gender-based hormonal stuff comes roaring out of our bodies. We feel cheated, angry and confused. Couples who can’t let go of a radical gender equality ideology are headed for trouble.

The Left hates sex. Do not be deluded by the fact that the Left is hyper-active about sexual activity. Far too many on the Left are profoundly uncomfortable by any evidence of sex differences between men and women. They won’t be happy until we all believe that gender is an irrelevant category, for marriage, child-rearing, and even sex itself. Of course, we will make ourselves miserable trying to achieve this wrong-headed ideal.

Lopez: Who is your book for? You talk about self-giving and lots of good keys to successful marriage. But why would a single person with no immediate marriage prospects read it?

Morse: It’s for everyone who is married and wants to stay married, and for everyone who aspires to life-long married love.

I am very mindful of the single person with no immediate marriage prospects. There are a number of ways a person could land in that category. Perhaps they have been burned in relationships before, and are on the verge of giving up. Maybe they are in a cohabiting relationship that is going nowhere. Maybe they have spent so much time pursuing career objectives that marriage seems beyond them. Maybe they have been married, and are now supporting children whom they are not allowed to see.

For all these people, Smart Sex offers some answers. I offer clarity about how they might have ended up in their unwanted situation. I have often looked out into my audiences and seen the “light bulbs” go on, when they realized that I had identified some key to their current unhappiness. I think many people appreciate understanding, even if they are culpable in some way.

Lopez: What’s the most important practical advice from “Smart Sex?”

Morse: Love is worth the effort. Love is not a feeling: love is a decision to will and to do the good of the other person. And in the end, it is the greatest adventure of all.

Lopez: So what counts as Smart Sex?

Lopez: I take my motto from Sherlock Holmes, who once told Watson, “after you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” After eliminating all the forms of dumb sex, hooking up, cohabiting, divorce, and remarriage, what is left? Life-long married love. Although it seems improbable to the modern mind, the truth is that married couples have more and better sex, and have a far better track record at dodging the dumb sex that has caused so much misery.

Married sex is smart sex.


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