Ross Douthat is the author of a book arguing that marriage-promotion — even among the very poor and the very young — should be a major goal of national social policy. He has an aversion to birth control and abortion. He has even written about his own efforts to stay sexually chaste. So it is surprising that Douthat now writes, "Our meritocrats could stand to leaven their careerism with a little more romantic excess."
What's responsible for Douthat's change of heart? Like me, he is currently reading Cristina Nehring's A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, which uses the lives of literary greats to argue that foolish love — passion, sex, and even obsession — fuels genius and productivity. Nehring believes that today's college-educated professionals have sanitized love through feminism and "companionate marriages," focusing too much on child-rearing and real estate acquisition, and not enough on sex. This line of argument offers Douthat an opportunity to engage in one of his favorite pastimes: attacking the culture of affluent liberals. "The same overclass that was once most invested in erotic experimentation ended up building the sturdiest walls against the passions it unleashed," he clucks.
But make no mistake — the likely appeal of Nehring's work, for Douthat, lies in its negative assessment of feminism as an anti-romantic killjoy. This is a major flaw in Nehring's book; she treats feminism, as an ideology, as if it ceased to exist in the 1980s during the internecine wars over the acceptability of pornography and heterosexual relationships. In fact, feminism is a dynamic movement that has continued to evolve over the last two decades. Many feminists call themselves "sex-positive." Some sex workers identify as feminist and even strive to create feminism-friendly pornography. Some feminists are anti-marriage altogether. Others advocate open relationships because they are inherently skeptical of sexual monogamy.
Yet Douthat buys, hook, line, and sinker, into Nehring's reductive analysis of feminism as anti-sex. One possible solution to dull marriages, he suggests, is less equity between marriage partners. He's not talking about the kind of sexual power-play that Nehring adores. Rather, he suggests that highly educated men are "ideal soulmates" for less-educated women, who could benefit from the economic stability such men offer as husbands and fathers. The problem is that many highly educated men want to marry women who share their intellectual interests. And what single moms need — more than a rich husband who may or may not make them and their kids happy — are social supports such as decent jobs, health care, child care, and schools.
Those topics aren't sexy, though. I get that.
Photo by Susan Etheridge for The New York Times
cross-posted at TAPPED