Ross Douthat has a theory, to which I reply: Oh, dear.
Before we get to that, there’s a great scene in the show, “The West Wing,” in which the president asks his staff if anyone knows the meaning of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
Douthat notes that the rise of easily available of porn was seen by conservatives as inevitably teaching that sexual practices are under our control, and can, should we so desire, respond, fluidly, from moment to moment according to the whims of those involved in those sexual practices. This horrifying future in which sex was constrained primarily if not solely by consent was then forecast to cause massive social chaos, including increased rates of rape, sexual hedonism (which, of course, is worse then rape to Douthat because now TWO people are choosing to have sex, maybe more!), and abortion.
But the inevitable rising tide of fluid sexuality did not drown the United States. Instead, with a more heavily consent-based sexual culture came married adults, unmarried adults, and adolescents that all had a bit less sex, while random violence, sexual violence, and abortion all appear to have declined. Because of the difficulty in quantifying changes in underreporting of crime over time, the certainty with which we can say things like, “intrafamily violence is down” or “sexual violence is down” isn’t what we’d like. But those declines certainly appear to be real.
Douthat notes the decline in adult and adolescent sexual intercourse (and some other sexual behaviors) reported in an Atlantic article that’s getting a lot of attention, including here on FtB from the always wonderful Siggy. But then Douthat kinda goes off the rails, although we should note that he was given a push by the Atlantic author of the piece, Kate Julian. As Siggy notes, after relating known facts about declines in certain behaviors, Julian engages in quite a lot of fact-free speculation about the causation of that decline. Douthat than does Julian a half-dozen worse.
Douthat has decided that the rise of the internet, with easier access to porn than Ed Meese ever daydreamed, is the root cause of this shift in sexual behavior. Further, he notes that feminist predictions about (often feminist) consent-based education on sexuality were just as wrong as conservative predictions, because feminists predicted that greater respect for consent in relationships would produce better relationships, including better sex. Douthat justifies his superiority to both sides with the same evidence. If people are having less sex, he assumes, then the feminist predictions of better relationships and even sometimes-better sex must be wrong!
Of course, better sex doesn’t automatically mean more sex, and if women were in the past tolerating sex they didn’t want more often than they do so now, that would be one cause of a reduction in sexual frequency that is simultaneously consistent with an increase in average sexual quality and the expected outcomes of increasing respect for the importance of consent. But hey, that’s not nearly enough obvious wrong for Douthat.
So what other wrong can Douthat cram into this column? Well, it turns out that he believes that increased masturbation is sexually anesthetizing young people – especially young men – and that this is an outcome to be regretted. Notably, he comes to this conclusion in part because, ignoring the complexities of comparing rates of reported rape over time to determine the actual rates of rape within a society, he has great confidence that men are raping less. So of course Douthat mourns this sexual somnolence that has overcome young people, and especially young men. Wait, what? Yes, dear reader, he doesn’t specifically mourn the tragic loss of so many rapes that might have been committed if only we’d stuck by the values of yesteryear, he simply mourns the changes that, in his mind, cause a reduction in rape.
Seriously, what the fuck is with this guy?
In any case, Douthat yearns for a different sexual culture, a culture in which conservatives won the culture war, which he is convinced would have reduced rape without reducing sexual activity among adults. Apparently he doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that if conservatives had won the culture war, even if rates of sexual behavior among married adults had stayed the same, rates of sexual behavior overall would have fallen as a result of conservatives’ queenly crushing of sexual activity among unmarried adults. The median, then, would still have fallen.
But Douthat appears to be immune to evidence. In fact, the entire logical edifice of his piece is built on the known fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc. Even worse, the idea that because something comes before something else that that earlier something must have caused the later something is not even applicable here. The rise of internet porn is a phenomenon which begins in the late 90s, after the downward trend in sexual activity first begins to manifest. While text-based sites who served as forerunners of literotica.com might have been available in the earliest days of the world wide web, and photos might have been exchanged frequently in the late 90s, video required modems more advanced than dial-up, and weren’t widely available until the late 90s and weren’t widely adopted until the early 00s. Douthat’s argument thus actually rests on the even more ludicrous notion that pre hoc (or at best simultaneous hoc) therefores us some miraculous propter hoc.
Douthat is wrong on many levels, and it’s obscene that he laments the idea that if a reduction in reported rape coincides with a reduction in reported sexual intercourse, we should bemoan the common cause of each. But it’s particularly weird in all this that too much commentary on Douthat’s wrongness fails to articulate that he’s making up brand new fallacies more fallacious than the old.
In fact, as valuable as some of the commentary on Douthat may be, some important issues are being obscured. The first is that the original Atlantic article is almost as bad as the Douthat column it inspired. Read this:
With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.
Except “non-consensual sex” isn’t sex. Depending on the exact nature of the behaviors involved, it’s sexual assault or rape. These assaults are sexualized. That doesn’t mean that they are sex. Want more?
From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex.
Missing sex? Are you kidding me? While living with kids will teach anyone quite quickly that you can’t always get what you want, the whole idea of missing sex is straight out of the horrifying incel encyclopedia that justifies violence against both specific women and society generally. And Julian also naively buys into Douthat’s simultaneous hoc fallacy:
From 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent. Easy access to porn is part of the story, of course; in 2014, 43 percent of men said they’d watched porn in the past week.
Despite some perfunctory disclaimers, the author simply can’t stop framing all this in negative terms. For instance, after introducing the metaphor of a sexual recession, Julian tells us
The recession metaphor is imperfect, of course. Most people need jobs; that’s not the case with relationships and sex. I talked with plenty of people who were single and celibate by choice. Even so, I was amazed by how many 20-somethings were deeply unhappy with the sex-and-dating landscape; over and over, people asked me whether things had always been this hard.
But of course there’s no attempt to answer whether sex and dating had always been this hard. With the rising acceptance (still far from perfect or even good enough) of asexuality and indefinite singledom, you may very well get a decline in mean sex acts per person per year without anyone in a stable relationship actually having any less sex. Likewise, if women are more likely to respect the importance of their own willingness to have sex, their own desire, and if men are willing to respect women’s consent more often, then heterosexual sex may decline for a period unless and until women begin to initiate a number of sexual offers that equals or exceeds the number they now feel empowered to decline. On top of all this, family-enforced marriage is dramatically down. We simply don’t see people getting indefinitely coupled as early or as universally as in the past. Whether it is called arranged marriage or not, there had been a norm that pushed for indefinite coupling almost as early as dating became socially acceptable for one’s age. With a reduction in such automatized marriages, fewer people have a default sex partner than in ages past. While the change since the 1980s is not as large on this point, it is nonetheless true that age at first marriage has also increased – another factor which could account for some of the decline. Is there any examination of these potential causes? In a word, no.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s a decided effort to trace causes, but almost desperately the author avoids examining the effects of consent education – just the topic that Douthat finds so interesting. Even the times that Julian does focus on whether desire has changed, the focus is on how society is compelling or coercing changes in desire:
“It’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion,” said a man who was a couple of years out of college, thinking back on his high-school years. He added: “There’s immense pressure” from parents and other authority figures “to focus on the self, at the expense of relationships”—pressure, quite a few 20-somethings told me, that extends right on through college.
Likewise, none of the examination of masturbation and porn portrays this as a neutral or positive development. If people desire masturbation more than in the past – or even if they simply feel less inhibited from engaging in masturbation because of a decline in misinformation and moralizing – then an increase in masturbation is to be expected in a healthy culture. At one point Julian quotes a professor quoting a college student saying,
We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.
But is this true? And if it is true, is it different from the past? And if it is different from the past, is it desirably or undesirably different? We frequently assert that teen pregnancy is bad because kids aren’t emotionally prepared or generally skilled enough to properly parent. To prove this we cite the fact that despite a long human history of teenage pregnancy and parenting, the kids of teen parents are hugely disadvantaged and even society at large suffers from the increased poverty and decreased education of the children of average teen parents. To put it another way, pushing kids into long term romantic relationships and parenting, all else held equal, might make them better at relationships and parenting at age 19 than they would otherwise be, but that would be because they would have to spend time on those romantic relationships and that parenting that might otherwise be spent on relationships with their parents or on high school or on college or on the job. And such anecdotes still don’t tell us if those kids we thrust into romantic relationships and parenting will be any better at those things at age 35 than the kids we encourage to succeed in academics or in work from 15-19.
This raises the question of what Julian sees as a positive model. One example she clearly portrays positively is done so through the words of a student speaking during a course at Northwestern University titled, Marriage 101:
the session was mostly consumed by a rapturous conversation about the students’ experiences with something called the “mentor couple” assignment …
“To see a relationship where two people are utterly content and committed,” one woman said, with real conviction, “it’s kind of an aha moment for me.” Another student spoke disbelievingly of her couple’s pre-smartphone courtship. “I couldn’t necessarily relate to it,” she said. “They met, they got each other’s email addresses, they emailed one another, they went on a first date, they knew that they were going to be together. They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page. I was just like, Damn, is that what it’s supposed to be like?”
No. No that’s not what it’s supposed to be like. Relationship without communication because there’s no need for communication because it’s the perfect relationship is an old, tired myth. To the extent that you don’t have to spend large amounts of time defining things it is because you’ve thought seriously enough about what you want that you know how to express it succinctly and you’re lucky enough to share a common language for those things: it doesn’t negate the need for communication, and if you expect things to be perfect without defining your expectations the relationship is indeed doomed to fail. You may not do the work of defining your expectations in collaboration with your life partner, but if so, it’s because you’ve done that work before you met your life partner.
Of course the author does, eventually, get around to talking about sexual consent and its possible effects on sexual behavior rates with someone:
Herbenick had asked whether we might be seeing, among other things, a retreat from coercive or otherwise unwanted sex. Just a few decades ago, after all, marital rape was still legal in many states. As she pushed her daughter’s stroller, she elaborated on the idea that some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”
But even here, Julian isn’t portraying this as a different-but-healthy response to the same situations that were common before the start of the phenomenon she has named the sexual recession. No, she directly connects anecdotes about widespread unwanted sex that is nonetheless tolerated even today:
she was deeply concerned by all the vulvar fissures she and her colleagues were seeing in their student patients. These women weren’t reporting rape, but the condition of their genitals showed that they were enduring intercourse that was, literally, undesired.
to that internet porn again:
Painful sex is not new, but there’s reason to think that porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. Studies show that, in the absence of high-quality sex education, teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex—anal sex and other acts women can find painful are ubiquitous in mainstream porn.
…In my interviews with young women, I heard too many iterations to count of “he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn,” choking being one widely cited example.
Don’t get me wrong, a rise in choking during sex may indeed be caused by choking portrayed in porn. (And need I say that choking your partner without prior consent and a whole host of education and preparation is unethical as all hell?) However, Julian doesn’t even establish that there is a rise in choking. Moreover, the money quote here is this one:
“I’ve noticed that they tend to go for choking without prior discussion,” she said. Anna … told me she’d been choked so many times that at first, she figured it was normal. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to ask,” she said.
And here we (nearly) falsify the Douthat hypothesis that an over-emphasis on consent is killing sex lives. Likewise, we see the deep, deep failings of a piece like Julian’s that never once references the research on how consent education changes sexual behavior relative to other forms of intervention (or non-intervention), and particularly relative to abstinence only education. Are the non-consensual chokers the people who have had the most consent-based education? Are they the people who have had the most abstinence-only education? Neither?
For all of this speculation about causes – the most interesting to both Julian and Douthat being ones that post-dated or coincided with measured changes in certain sexual behaviors – there seems a determined disinterest in visiting the scientific literature detailing what we know about societies most specific and direct efforts to influence that behavior. Julian exhibits more willingness than Douthat to engage with the literature in minimal ways, but absolutely fails on a fundamental level to engage with the topic (or elaborate on her evidence for) something that appears to be a premise of her piece: current patterns in sexual behaviors are bad relative to past patterns. Douthat appears willing to explain his thinking on why it’s so terrible that adults have sex a few times less per year than they once did, but is even more unwilling to examine actual data than the anecdote-obsessed Julian.
Together, they have created a whirlwind of fail.