The Corner

Culture

It Turns Out that Sexual Liberation Isn’t All that Liberating

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Over at The Atlantic, Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone have penned a fascinating piece exploring the roots of American unhappiness and tying it our nation’s sex recession — a rather marked decrease in sexual activity by young adults. As Wilcox and Stone note:

The share of young adults having sex at least once a week has fallen from 59 percent in 1972 to 49 percent in 2018. This decline is far steeper among men: down from 58 percent of young men having sex at least weekly in 2010 to just 43 percent in 2018. And the share of young adults reporting no sex in the past year has risen as well, now at 22 percent for young men and 14 percent for young women in 2018.

While Wilcox and Stone are focused on the frequency of sex as a key indicator of happiness (indeed, they argue that changes in sexual frequency can account for about one-third of the decline in happiness since 2012 and almost 100 percent of the decline in happiness since 2014), I want to pull out two other important facts from their piece. First, here they are discussing the link between marriage and happiness:

Controlling for basic demographics and other social characteristics, married young adults are about 75 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married, according to our analysis of the GSS, a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. As it turns out, the share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2018.

And second, here they are describing the role of religious practice:

Young adults who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not religious at all, according to our analysis of the GSS. (People with very infrequent religious attendance are even less happy than never-attenders; in terms of happiness, a little religion is worse than none.) What’s happening to religious attendance among young adults today? The share of young adults who attend religious services more than monthly has fallen from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018, even as the share who never attend has risen rapidly.

Why is this so interesting? For generations, key elements of our cultural and academic elite have been arguing essentially the opposite — that liberation from religion and liberation from marriage were prerequisites to true human flourishing. If you asked an early era sexual revolutionary for his prediction for a culture with profoundly less religious practice, less marriage, and many fewer moral restraints on sexual practice, I sincerely doubt that he’d respond that he believed that culture would be less happy, with people having less sex. That’s certainly not the dominant message of Hollywood, which for years has portrayed religion as mainly negative and marriage as all too often dreary, contentious, and sexless.

Ask yourself, how many happy, sexually vibrant religious married couples have you seen on popular television shows or movies — even in this era of fragmented, targeted entertainment? Compare that with the number of times you’ve seen rebellion from religion glorified and religious leaders mocked and despised. And while marriage fares better on the big and small screens, single people are generally portrayed as so sexually active that they behave unlike virtually anyone you’ve ever known. The collective message that’s been delivered is something like this — singleness is exciting, religion is oppressive, and marriage is where you settle down (sometimes for good, sometimes for ill).

In reality, singleness is often stressful and lonely, religion provides community and purpose, and married people enjoy the excitement of more sex and the joys of unified child-rearing. Moreover, it’s fascinating (as Charles Murray explored in his book Coming Apart) — the very cultural elites who’ve so often denigrated the traditional life tend not to practice the libertinism that they often preach or at least accept. America’s upscale blue havens feature an intense concentration of Leave it to Beaver intact families.

I’m not a person who believes that good art must always endorse good values, but it would be nice if the dominant tone of our pop culture wasn’t an outright lie. And that goes double for the world of higher education, which at least has aspirations for the pursuit of truth. Faith and family aren’t guarantors of human flourishing (nothing is), but our nation certainly feels their absence, and our culture aches at their loss.

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