2. What is the root cause of the problem?
In part two I weave my socioeconomic approach to understanding the cultural dilemma of sexuality with the Biblical explanation of what went wrong between men and women.
I talked about the Creation Ideal in Genesis 1 and 2 earlier. Genesis 3 is the story of humankind’s Fall from grace. Even if you never went to Sunday School, you know the basics: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the serpent, the forbidden fruit. But beyond the Eve and the Apple story, the question posed in Creation is one that every human being has to face: Will we live life according to the flesh, on our own terms, seeking to fulfill our own needs in our own way? Or will we live in faith, in relationship with God?
Until and unless we return to the relationship with God and with each other for which we were intended, the Creation account tells us that we will be subject to the natural world.In Genesis 3 we see the first man and woman as stand-ins for all of us, as they decide that they want to be in charge and independent. In consequence, they have to leave the Garden where everything is provided for them and no choice is necessary, and live instead in a world in which the ground brings forth weeds and thorns.
Here is where the economic analysis comes in. The field of economics is defined as the study of “choices made under conditions of scarcity.” Before the Fall, an economic analysis of life in the Garden makes no sense, because there was no scarcity.
After the Fall, economic analysis of human life becomes possible. People live in a world full of thorns and weeds, and they have to make trade-offs in the face of scarcity. Scarcity means that you don’t have enough, so you have to decide how you are going to use what you have got. And I’m not talking about just money, but also your time, energy, interests, etc.
The need to make these trade-offs is quite pronounced in subsistence economies. Subsistence means that you are just barely getting enough to survive on. Until the Industrial Revolution (dated to about 1800), most people lived at subsistence level (and still do in the less-developed world).
As a result of this poverty and struggle to survive, on the most basic material level, for most of history, the ‘sexual relationships’ that people were having were not really relationships at all, but economic transactions, even within marriage. In the agriculturally-based economies that characterized much of history, everything that you consumed was produced in a household. This required the labor of a lot of people, and children were vitally needed to provide that labor. Children were also a source of security and men needed them as much as women did. Women spent most of their lives pregnant, nursing, or trying to get pregnant.
But women didn’t get to just take care of themselves or the children but had to do a lot of other work. Human beings very quickly discover that there are things that you just can’t do when you are pregnant or nursing. Doing work that is too heavy or strenuous might cause you to lose the pregnancy or your breast milk.
So women become what economists call ‘domestically-specialized’. They do the things that are compatible with child bearing – cooking, spinning, weaving, gardening, caring for the sick and aged. Any tasks left over after women do all they can in the presence of children become the work of men. Thus the tasks that require power outside of the household, become ‘men’s work’ – women were simply too busy in the household to do them.
The sexual division of labor has two consequences: One, on the levels of economics, politics, and even personality, women became powerless relative to men. Two, men become subject to the male-status hierarchy or patriarchy. Patriarchy is usually thought of as the subordination of women to men, but it is actually the rule of a few men over everyone else, male and female. Where a man falls in that hierarchy became extremely important in procuring the resources needed to live, so social status came to play a big part in men’s lives.
Because the critical task of child bearing leaves women powerless relative to men, virtually every society has some kind of marriage contract to protect women in her role of child bearer. The marriage contract provided that a man can’t just use up a woman and then replace her with someone younger, which is his ‘natural’ tendency.
This should give you a hint that marriages in pre-industrial economies were not love matches, but were arranged by fathers to advance their own agendas, with little regard for the feelings of the bride and groom. Men expected children, food (farming is women’s work until the invention of the plow), and sex from the women they married. Women expected protection and men to provide labor for ‘men’s work. They preferred men high in social status because the man’s social status, and therefore ability to bring in resources, depended on it.
But that was it. Marriage was not expected to be about companionship, romantic love, or even about sexual attraction. Further, people had more children than they could care for in even very basic ways, because the purpose of having children is for the children to care for their parents.
It’s not that couples never loved each other or their children. It’s just that feelings were not culturally or economically important, and sometime considered inappropriate.
This historic pattern of relationships based on the need for children began to change a couple hundred years ago with the Industrial Revolution. With the Industrial Revolution, more and more of the things that people needed to survive were being produced outside of the household. As this happened, the birth rate dropped like a rock, as people didn’t need all these children anymore and they had to educate them, which was expensive. For the first time, people could begin to think about forming these life-time relationships on a basis other than material considerations.
By the nineteenth century, the compelling question was, ‘Do you marry for love or money?’ People began to ask, can you base a relationship on romantic attraction rather than economic need? Read Jane Austin. Eventually, economic development allowed this to happen, and marriage gradually came to be based not on the need for children and sexual complementarity, but on sexual attraction and romantic love.
Here is where we meet the first partial answer to the question of ‘what are the root causes of problems with modern sexual relationships?’ Romantic love – that overwhelming feelings of ‘being in love’– alone is a weak base on which to build a life-long commitment, in part because, all other things being equal, that overwhelming feeling only lasts a year or so. Unfortunately, modern culture tells us that we must be ‘in love’ with our mate, and that when that overwhelming feeling fades and sexual attraction fades, we ‘owe it to ourselves’ and to our partner to end the relationship and find someone who loves us properly.
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, sexual relationships took another twist. In the US, by mid-20th century, there was very little or nothing being produced in the household. Children became a huge expense rather than an economic necessity. The birth rate continued to drop. Eventually it became more economical for women to get a job and buy the things they needed rather than produce them themselves at home.
The decline in the economic value of children had far-reaching repercussions. If marriage was a contract to protect women in their child bearing capacity, and children no longer have any economically value, men can no longer be forced to make a legal vow to care for a woman for the rest of her life in exchange for her sexual products. And if marriage is no longer economically valuable there was no longer a need for traditional sexual morality.
Often people thought that traditional sexual morality and the sexual double standard came about because men wanted to be sure that their wives’ children were their own. No doubt concerns about paternity play a part in this. But I think the sexual double standard is due more to the truth of the old adage, “No one buys a cow when he can get the milk for free.” Although the woman’s productive contribution within the marriage would at least equal, and
arguably even exceed, that of her husband, traditional marriage requires an
upfront transfer or commitment of resources from the man to the woman.
But how to get the man to make that commitment? The problem that women faced in the past was that if any one held out for marriage before she gave him her services, all other things being equal, the man’s first impulse would be to go looking for another, more obliging, woman. So in order for societies to survive, in this kind of world all women needed to all agree that no woman would give away her sexual services without marriage. I call this a ‘sexual cartel’. Women who chiseled on the cartel were sanctioned and severely marginalized, and sometimes even executed.
So in the 60s, with children no longer economically important, traditional sexual morality broke down, and the sexual revolution began. In the sixties, public opinion polls showed this huge decline in the number of people who thought that ‘pre-marital sex’ was always wrong, and among the young, behavior followed suit. Men have never had a problem with sex outside of marriage, in large part b/c the traditional sexual double standard always allowed, even expected them, to have it. But in the sixties, large numbers of young women were in a position to consider this for the first time.
With the movement of production out of the household, sexual complementarity was no longer necessary, and in fact committed relationships became very costly. In many ways, we just don’t need each other anymore. Today, we can have a perfectly comfortable life without another person involved. If you are cold, you don’t need children to gather firewood, a man to chop it, or a wife to tend the fire. You just move a little switch on the wall, and you are comfortable again.
In fact, having another person around may add to our domestic burden rather than alleviate it. Women ask themselves if they really want a live-in man who can’t pick up his own socks. Men ask if they really want to give up half their toys to support a wife and children.
In addition, people today have two careers to accommodate. A committed relationship may require relocation, which one of the partners might not be willing or able to undertake. Busy with their work, modern couples may not be able to spend much time together. That research on sex on campus found that college students in relationships felt that they took too much time, time they didn’t have.
Now, in the 21st century, this ability to live completely independent of another person means that the only thing men and women seem to need each other for is sex – and with Internet porn, maybe not even for that. Hook up culture is the result: sex without any relationship at all.