In the exchange with Nato, MS, and Joyless Moralist in the comments of a recent post, I find myself reminded of why I feel impelled to insist on regarding gender roles as asymmetric, or as a critic might, tendentiously but not unreasonably, put it, on holding a "double standard" vis-a-vis men and women in sexual matters. It is not merely that I think that there is a basis for this double standard in human nature and in ethics (though I do). It is that the prohibition of premarital sex, which I think is correct, seems to me untenable unless combined with this kind of double standard.
The essence of the problem can be shown if we try to apply to sexual morality the Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." At the risk of sounding flippant, but in fact the deduction is strictly logical if we accept symmetry between the genders, this implies: "if you wish a girl would try to seduce you, try to seduce her." Other ethical rules-- don't tell lies, be just and merciful, etc.-- are generally extensions of the Golden Rule: I don't want others to lie to me, or treat me unfairly, or cruelly, so I shouldn't do it to others. But if they are not careful, the churches can formulate their sexual rules in ways that make them seem directly contrary to it.
By the time I was 24, I had long felt a sense of bad faith about the proposition, in which I presumptively believed as a churchgoer and as a member of the family I was born into, that premarital sex was wrong. I don't think I was particularly weak-willed then. When there was a conflict between a principle and a passion, the principle generally won out. As an example of this, I didn't drink alcohol for four years after leaving the Mormon church, for the sole purpose of proving-- not even to anyone in particular, but as if to some abstract "impartial spectator"-- that my motive for leaving the Mormon church was that I believed it to be false, and not just because I wanted to be able to drink. This was in college, and I was constantly in environments where drinking was normal and expected. I didn't have any moral qualms about drinking (in moderation of course) but regarded it as innocent and enjoyable. Yet I abstained for four years, long after it was clear I'd made the point to the satisfaction of any hypothetical observer, postponing the transition to what I had always regarded as a more rational and healthy practice until an opportunity came to break the obsolete taboo in circumstances where social pressure was completely absent. If I had had a firm belief that premarital sex was wrong, I would have acted accordingly.
But the rule seemed arbitrary, senseless, unnatural, opposed to life. I had heard arguments for the proposition from the Mormons but they seemed not only unpersuasive but even insincere. For example, Mormons would wax eloquent about the satisfaction of "saving yourself" for your spouse, of how rewarding it is for one's wedding night to be one's first time. This is, strictly speaking, an appeal to self-interest: you will enjoy your wedding night more if it's your first time. It might be persuasive to women, and in fact, I think this does come near to expressing the heart of the matter when it comes to why women should be virgins at marriage, but for a man it is absurdly feeble. It is not in a man's nature to be convinced by this argument. The relative value it places on things is wrong. But the crucial point is that it is an appeal to self-interest, and that robs it of its moral force.
At best, this argument is an appeal to do something good for an unknown, perhaps non-existent person: one's future spouse. To make it compelling in those terms, one has to insist that the value that one's future spouse will place on one's virginity at marriage is extremely high. For a woman, again, this argument has some force. It is in a man's nature to value virginity highly and to feel intense jealousy of the past sexual partners of a woman he loves. Some men successfully suppress this feeling but it is a factor a woman should take into account ex ante. No doubt there are some women, too, who highly value the virginity of their husbands; but there are others, on the other hand, who value sexual experience. More subtly, I don't think the idea of being valued for his virginity at marriage by a woman can appeal to a man, even one who for whatever reason intends to be a virgin at marriage. Such an attitude belittles him, compromises his masculine independence. A man feels, as I think a woman might not, that a future spouse for whom his virginity would be a deal-breaker is a future spouse he can do without. Anyway, no woman who wants a virgin husband is obliged to marry him. And if he risks narrowing his selection, that is again a non-moral appeal to self-interest.
It seemed to me then, and I suppose I still suspect that it is the case, that many or most Mormons and other religious people were rationalizing a tenet that they actually held dogmatically on the basis of revelation. Also, I suspected (and still suspect) that in some cases it was a sour-grapes story to hide their envy for people who had sexual opportunities they had sacrificed or could never have had. But my principles forbade me-- they still do, though now I might qualify it somewhat-- to accept tenets held dogmatically on the basis of revelation. For once one relinquishes reason and admits the principle of authority, there are a thousand authorities clamoring to be submitted to; and unless one is to accept one's creed by the accident of birth, which as a statistical matter most people do but which can't be justified epistemically, one has no grounds to choose between them. To have accepted the prohibition of premarital sex on the basis of authority would have been the act of the woodcutter who cuts off the branch that he was sitting on; for it was only on the basis of a moral commitment to reason that I could justify having left the Mormon church.
Mormons endorse a degree of role differentiation between the genders that makes many liberal, secular people uncomfortable. Yet when it comes to inculcating sexual scruples in the young, Mormons are, I think, quite free from double standards. If I had to guess, I suspect the same is true of Protestants and most other Christians today, although of course Mormons are especially militant and efficient in their program of indoctrinating the young. Mormons do not treat promiscuous girls as having debased themselves while regarding promiscuous boys with indulgence. They insist on the absolute prohibition of premarital sex and apply it equally to boys and girls. As a result, I largely missed, or at least inadequately appreciated, the reason that the Golden Rule case for free love fails, which is that what a man wants to do will have a very different significance for her than it does for him, whether she knows it or not.
So by the time I was 24, I found myself increasingly unable to believe the proposition that premarital sex was wrong (except to some extent, and in most cases, by means of some makeshift arguments of a highly romantic character which, in retrospect, I find incomprehensible). Of course, not believing in it, I could have abided by it anyway, and might well have done so. I had two strong reasons to do so. The first was my family, with whom a premarital sexual relationship might cause a rift. The second was Christianity. I was a churchgoer, though not baptized into any particular denomination (other than Mormonism). The commonly-heard arguments that Jesus didn't really say much about sex and that the early Christians' acceptance of traditional sexual taboos might have reflected mere culture and the state of technology (no contraceptives) seemed like less of a travesty to me then that they do now, but still, I didn't believe them. It seemed to me that if I were to have an unmarried sexual relationship it would my churchgoing and avowal of Christianity would be marred by an element of hypocrisy. I valued Christianity more than sexual freedom. If it had just been a question of denying myself certain pleasures which were possibly innocent, that would have been easy-- like my four years' abstinence from alcohol, with my comically inadequate motive.
But the difference from alcohol was this: in abstaining from sex, I was hurting not only myself but others, or so it seemed at the time. Some girls were disappointed, two at least were perplexed, saddened, and humiliated by my refusal. The sexual scruples I adhered to without believing in seemed not merely to sacrifice pleasures but to make me heartless and cruel towards those to him I felt tenderness and wanted to satisfy.
Now suppose, for the sake of argument, we accept the double standard. We accept that a man may, if anything, distinguish himself by conquests, liaisons, and intrigues, but that a woman who succumbs is a "fallen" woman, a "lost" woman, a slut, that she debases herself, and makes any man who marries her a fool. In that case the Golden Rule case for free love vanishes like smoke. The symmetry of "I'd like her to seduce me, so I should seduce her" becomes invalid. Instead, the question is: "Would I like to be ruined, lost, fallen, disgraced, degraded? If not, I shouldn't ruin and disgrace her." Just because a woman is willing doesn't change anything. She may be misguided or weak enough to be ready to ruin herself, but one still ought not to be her accomplice in self-destruction, just as one should not give a drink to a drunkard or a pistol to a suicide. The prohibition of premarital sex becomes, on these assumptions, quite rational.
Of course all that is rather harsh, perhaps even un-Christian, recalling that Jesus forgave the woman taken in adultery. Better to say that an unchaste woman can and ought to be forgiven, but that the loss is real; that it is a woman's nature-- a woman's nature, please note; it is important not to make this gender-neutral, which signals to a man to look for the same thing in his own nature, and he will not find it and will therefore disbelieve your whole argument-- for sexual desire to lead to fulfillment only in marriage and childrearing; that a young woman may not know this about herself (how could she, except by hearsay, not having lived through it?) and that she may mistakenly believe that a casual, "free love" relationship will give her satisfaction, but that despite her consent you will still (or at least, that you are very likely to) wound her in the end by taking advantage of her error; and that a young woman who pretends to desire only free love may even know already that marriage and childrearing are what she wants, but feel compelled to hide this from a man for fear of scaring him away, or even-- sadder still-- admire a man so much that she would not presume to ask for them, though she is fully within her rights to demand these things in return for offering herself to him. To this it must be added that there are women who are really willing to engage in no-strings-attached sex, and whom a man, by using her, will not wrong any more than a thief wrongs another thief when they collaborate in a crime. And we should be careful in judging such women or generalizing about them; they are individuals, they often have virtues, they vary in their interests and tastes, and so on... and yet a certain shallowness, a certain emptiness, a certain cruelty is inescapably attached to the path they have chosen. The simple fact of the imbalance in the desire for commitment between men and women gives those women who are willing to do without it a large selection and therefore a high degree of power. And power corrupts. At the same time, sexual desire detached from its natural goal of marriage and family becomes a function of mere whim, caprice, fancy. If a man is not a candidate for husband, what is he? He may be a "toy boy," a source of momentary delight for some trivial reason, a good workout or a good joke or a good party, soon put down. Emotions will come into play, yet without justice or logic to them, since the shared plans that could give them logic is absent. Why, after all, should a current lover's yearning for her count more than the yearning of the next man, whom she hasn't tried yet? If we do not want to revive the scornful condemnation that the words "fallen woman" carry, let us remember the phrase's connotation of danger. A man might become obsessed with such a woman, might be driven to suicide for her sake, he might waste years of his life in pursuit of such women, generally in vain but disappointing even when occasionally successful. Most importantly-- and here the Golden Rule comes in again-- he will waste energies on them which could be put to a thousand better uses. Better, for one's own safety and that of others, to stay out of that rat race. Look for the signs of such women, and walk away.
I don't mean to say that the double standard is the only reason to avoid premarital sex. From a higher point of view, the greatest happiness comes from union with God, and this is available to all of us, even to all of us all the time, but only inasmuch as we are pure in heart. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." A sexual indiscretion darkens our eyes to the glorious innocent pleasures with which God surrounds us: a sunrise, the song of a bird, the branches of trees swaying against the sky, a blade of grass, the smile of a friend, the sunlight of an October day. The purer one's heart is, the more one rejoices in all these simple things, the more one sees God in them. A sexual affair, the suspense that leads up to it, the memories it leaves behind, what toil and tedium they all are, how they burden the mind, heart, soul, how they obscure better things, so much better things! However, this argument would be opaque to most people most of the time. The double standard argument is stronger, more elemental. It is based on attitudes, norms, judgments, values that bubble up naturally generation after generation, for they are rooted in instinct. Teenagers coin slang that expresses it more aptly than any learned explanation could. A Christian should try to soften its hard edges, should comfort those whom it teaches men to scorn; but it is legitimate, it is fundamental, it has wisdom in it, it must be given its due. To be too enlightened to acknowledge it is to cut oneself off from the gritty realism that is needed to exorcise the Golden Rule case for free love.