Laws making sex outside of marriage illegal improve the bargaining position of women who want to get married, or stay married, or to maintain a strong bargaining position within marriage. Hence it is rational for women to support such laws.
That strikes me as very clever. Clever in a useful way. It's the mirror image of a cynical comment that was common when I was in college in the early 1980s: "Marriage is nothing but legalized prostitution." When clever people say admittedly shallow things like this, we are forced to think.
It seems to me that both claims are plainly false. Any man or woman who entered marriage in the belief that it was legalized prostitution would soon be far more bitter about their experience than anyone who entered marriage as a starry-eyed idealist expecting to float along on a cloud of romantic bliss. Likewise, while I'm sure that the notion that marriage would be stronger if men didn't have access to prostitution is part of the justification that some anti-prostitution activists make to themselves and others, I don't think it would make an iota of difference to the strength of marriage or marriages if it could be made illegal.
But what about pornography? That's the primary point of two authors Helen Smith calls our attention to. Michael Malcolm and George Naufal merely use the old progressive argument against prostitution as a way to frame a new progressive argument against pornography.
Traditionally, one of the reasons to enter into a marriage was sexual gratification. But as options for sexual gratification outside of marriage have grown, the need for a marriage to serve this function is diminishing. The NIH reports that the fraction of 20 year-olds who have engaged in premarital sex grew by about 50% between the late 1950s and the late 1990s. Besides premarital sex, another option is consumption of pornography, which has become widely more accessible since the proliferation of the Internet.
The degree to which these extra-marital options for sexual gratification substitute for marriage is an open question. Friedman (2000), among others, has suggested that one of the reasons that prostitution is so socially abhorrent is that it competes with women who seek a stable marriage. While there is a small literature on the relationship between prostitution and marriage, there is almost no empirical work on the substitutability between pornography and marriage. This paper attempts to fill the gap.
Okay, this is delusional from the get-go. Traditionally, one of the reasons to enter into marriage is love. To reduce that to "sexual gratification" is to unconsciously apply a very cynical utilitarian psychology. Notice also that Malcolm and Naufal themselves seem to suspect that the the links are tenuous in the case of prostitution and marriage weakness. They are, nevertheless, willing to plunge forward into researching links between pornography and marriage weakness. And we should further notice the implicit assumption that in doing so they are advancing the interests of women!
This speaks well to the dual purpose of our paper: extra-marital sexual opportunities can reduce marital formation and stability, and this is an important point for policymakers and for society at large since marital formation is generally regarded in a positive light.
Helen Smith, whose blog I found out about the argument from, pretty much nails it,
So, marriage is all about what bargaining power women have and finding ways to get men married off to benefit society, women and children–and maybe get better “trading partners”? Seriously? There is no mention of the benefits to men directly, only how their participation will benefit others. So all men are to be sacrificed to the cause without thought to their rights, needs or desires? It’s no wonder they have turned to porn. Prostitution was made illegal — is porn next?But notice something really important about this argument that Helen Smith fails to note. That is that while this argument is being made in the supposed interests of women, it is actually being made by men!
Progressivism from its 19th century efforts to prohibit alcohol to its current efforts to prohibit pornography, fraternities, manspreading, mansplaining and, ultimately, any expression of male sexuality has always presented itself as a movement driven by the interests of women. Indeed, women have always played a significant role in progressivism. But men somehow always seem to end up holding the reins of the progressive movement; not men in general but certain men and we might say a certain kind of elite male who has an interest in controlling the male sexuality, meaning to control other men. These are elite men who want to do this controlling. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these men tended to be clergymen. Today they tend to be the credentialed elite who dominate, universities, media and the management of government bureaucracies.
They, as I will note below, frame their arguments in utilitarian terms. They say, we should do this for the good of society and they identify the good of society with what women want. As I've said over and over again on this blog, there is a common assumption of the moral superiority of women when it comes to matters of sex. If you weren't paying attention, you might think that it is women in general who are pushing this sort of thinking when it is a small group of elite men and women that is mostly dominated by men at work.
An angry man, young or hold, might read Helen Smith's argument and think, "Nasty women want me to stop using porn because they want to control my sexuality." But that's not her point. She thinks that if men don't get any benefit out of marriage they will reject it in favour of other alternatives. Pornography is only one of these. A wealthy or good-looking man could just as easily pursue serial monogamy or casual sexual partners as an alternative. Or he could enter a monastery or become a Catholic priest. Or he could become a heavy drinker. But her point is not that some alternative is pulling men away from marriage but that marriage is no longer attracting them.
There is a subsidiary point that progressives, vile little puritans as they always are, will, rather than face the fact that they poisoned marriage in the first place, now begin to ban prostitution, pornography, monastic life and alcohol so as to eliminate even the solace that a man might find there. And that's probably true but the problems start with sexuality in marriage and not alternatives to it. (I remind you that the elite men who succeeded in prohibiting alcohol sales mostly continued to drink themselves; it matters a whole lot that Malcolm and Naufel don't seem to believe their own arguments.)
Let's take this back to virtue for this blog is always about virtue. The argument that Malcolm and Naufal is ultimately a utilitarian one. It's a pretty soft utilitarian argument as all they are willing to say about the utility of marriage is that "marital formation is generally regarded in a positive light". They don't really believe what they are saying but they are saying it anyway! The mealy mouthed argument they make anyway takes a utilitarian form we might paraphrase as, "Lot's of people think that marriage formation will make for the greater good of society therefore policy makers should restrict or prohibit extra-marital sexual gratification for men if it can be proven that this extra-marital gratification makes them less likely to marry." What we need is to replace that argument, an argument even its proponents aren't committed to, with a virtue ethics argument.
To do this, we don't need to sell anyone on marriage. The vast majority of young men and women still want to get married. What we need to change is the way we tell them to conduct themselves sexually.
I've done a lot of posts on this blog under the heading of "The advice they give". In these posts I look at advice about sexuality and about sexuality in marriage. I think, and you can judge this against your own experience as this post is already too long, that there are certain commonalities in this advice.
- Men are generally advised to constrain their sexual desires and focus on the woman. We are told that if we are courteous, supportive, loving and respectful towards women, we can hope to be sexually gratified so long as our desires line up with what the woman wants to do anyway.
- Women are told that they should always ensure that what they really want should always have priority over doing things merely to please men.
- Neither approach is working. Women, it turns out, are not much attracted to sensitive, caring guys who suppress their own wants to focus on women's needs. Women who choose to make their own desires a priority, on the other hand, get confused because they soon realize they don't have a clue what they really want or that what they really want doesn't fit very well with the way they want to see themselves or with the way they want others to see them.
Okay, do I have an answer to my own challenge? Do I have a virtue ethics argument for marriage? Not yet but I'm working on it. I've even thought of going back to school to work on it.
I'm sure I'll have more to say on this in the future.