Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, is a conservative evangelical Christian who believes that sex outside of wedlock is a sacrilege. (Sacrilege: “Desecration, profanation, misuse, or theft of something sacred.” American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.) This latter fact was mentioned neither in Tracy Clark-Flory’s interview with Dr. Regnerus a few months ago, nor in Ross Douthout’s column last Sunday. It should have been.
Mr. Douthout’s Sunday column, Why Monogamy Matters, was not, strictly speaking, a call for a return to what he called “an Arcadia of perfect chastity.” Rather, he seems to envision a sexual culture based on a kind of benign hypocrisy: An ideal of lifelong monogamy, honored in the breach by most, that would, despite its impossible standards, cause young people to slow down, have fewer partners, and thereby “save themselves for somebody.” The alternative, Mr. Douthout implies, is the current “gritty reality of teenage sexuality” – alienation and depression. Or so says the studies he points to by Dr. Regnerus and Dr. Uecker. These studies apparently found that teenage girls who have more than two sexual partners in their lifetime are less happy then girls who have one or two. (Virgins, says Mr. Douthout, were almost as happy, though not quite as happy, as the women who’d had one or two partners.)
Yet it matters that Dr. Regnerus is a conservative, evangelical Christian. Just as “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it” (Upton Sinclair), it would be difficult for Dr. Regnerus to conduct a study and interpret the data impartially when his belief about the sinfulness of non-marital sex depends on him finding exactly the conclusion he found. The issue here isn’t any kind of conscious dishonesty. Take all the data as legitimate, and you still have the problem of interpretation. Specifically, the fact that correlation does not imply causation. (If you’re into Latin, you’d label this particular fallacy as: cum hoc ergo propter hoc.) Consider, by way of example, the midcentury musings on masturbation by Karl Menninger, a prominent psychiatrist in his day:
In America the masturbation taboo has always been, until recently, very explicit…
…The medical profession ascribed to it various diseases, general physical and mental deterioration, and especially “insanity.”
The doctors really believed this theory, and of the official adjudications in cases of mental illness, many were officially based on “masturbation.” I have examined many old state hospital records in which the etiology of case after case is so ascribed.
– Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?, Hawthorne Books, 1973, p. 34
In the first half of the twentieth century, the staff at psychiatric hospitals noticed that young men who were developing serious mental illnesses tended to masturbate a lot. And this reinforced the idea that masturbation was the cause of mental illness, when in fact it was simply a patient’s way of mitigating the horror of untreatable (at the time) psychosis. What Dr. Regnerus is seeing today, I believe, is that some teenagers who struggle with depression tend to have sex a lot. And it’s understandable that a teenager who can find available sexual partners would use the pleasure of sex as a way to mitigate feelings of depression. The alienation and depression is real, but sex isn’t the cause and chastity isn’t the cure.
It is true that teenagers who are struggling with depression are less equipped psychologically to assert their own sexual boundaries and speak up about what they want and don’t want within a sexual encounter. And so sexual experiences are probably a lot less pleasurable for depressed teenagers. But the solution here is to help teenagers assert themselves within the sexual realm, not to push a retrograde, hypocrisy-based sexual ethic.