Fanning Real Desire

Panel discussion, American Enterprise Institute Online, June 1, 2000.

The following remarks are excerpted from a recent American Enterprise Institute discussion of Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, a new anthology of “readings on courting and marrying” by authors ranging from Homerto Tolstoy to Miss Manners. Christina Hoff Sommers of AEI moderated.

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: This book is a response to the antiromantic roar against courtship, marriage, and family life in contemporary American society. Our speakers are the book’s editors, Amy and Leon Kass, professors at the University of Chicago; Judith Martin, author most recently of Miss Manners’ Guide to Domestic Tranquility; David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values; and Amy Holmes, a policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.

AMY KASS: The time has come to offer real help to the romantically perplexed, to pursue a revival of courtship–romance that seeks and leads to marriage. Lest you think us quixotic, here are our reasons. First, we recognize marriage’s unique opportunity for erotic fulfillment, deep friendship, lifelong intimacy, and personal growth, as well as its indispensable contributions to children’s well-being.

Second, we believe good marriages depend on good choices, choices likely to be better if they are prepared by a pattern of romance that, from the start, aspires to marriage as its lasting home. Third, despite numerous obstacles to the revival of courtship, including discouraging evidence about the state of romance, we think the time is ripefor a sexual counterrevolution.

More and more people, especially young women, are admitting their personal unhappiness with, and looking for alternatives to, the “hook-up” culture.

For all the talk about family values and the breakup of marriages,little attention is paid to what makes for marital success. The courting customs for entering into marriage have disappeared, with no newcultural forms to replace them, and so the path to the altar has become uncharted territory.

In earlier days, courtship took erotic love of man and woman as its starting point, but mindful of both the perils and promise of sexual desire and erotic aspiration, it sought to discipline love. When courtship worked well, it provided ample opportunity to discover how good a match this was likely to be. It provided practice in being married–a very different kind of practice from that provided by premarital cohabitation, which is characterized by high personal autonomy and low personal commitment, preparing one only for transient and conditional attachment, not lasting marriage.

Numerous circumstances now hinder a revival of romance: Casual andloveless sex, preoccupations with careers, diminished regard for marriage, fear of intimacy and the vulnerabilities of giving your heart,lack of trust in anyone but yourself, the deeply discouraging examples of divorced parents, and the cynical, academic theories that see all human relations in terms of money and power and that redefine sex as a “cultural construction” aimed at control.

In the college class on courtship we currently teach, we’ve heard many dismaying opinions:

* “The thought of living with the same person for 50 years is simply incredible.”

* “We are not supposed to get married until we are 28; so we know from the beginning of all of our sexual relationships that they are supposed to be impermanent.”

* “Though we’re living together, we know we will split when we graduate, but we’ll say, `thanks for the experience.'”

* “Casual sex with lots of men gets the sex thing out of the way so that it is now possible for women as never before to get to know men as friends.”

Listening to such talk among current students, and having watched our former students over 25 years, well beyond their college days, fumble along from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next, becomingjaded and embittered, we might be expected simply to toss in the towel.

Yet beneath the student’s self-protecting cynicism are real longings for friendship, for wholeness, for a life that is serious and deep, and for associations that are trustworthy and lasting–longings that students do not yet realize could be satisfied by marrying well.

The young are mainly just scared; no one has offered them hope or proper guidance. They need a real sex education, one aiming higher than the prevention of pregnancy and disease. By inspiring the imagination with images of beauty and speeches of dignity, it would prepare hearts and minds for romance, leading to lasting marriage.

We want young people to become more thoughtful about what sex means, what love seeks, and what marriage can be like. We want them to learn how to read character and to distinguish the dependable, long-distance runners from the flashy sprinters. We want people to concentrate less on safe sex and more on adventurous love, and especially on the prospects for love-filled, lasting union.

All these purposes are well served by grappling with wise thoughtsof deep thinkers. Instead of Seinfeld or Ally McBeal, we offer Shakespeare’s Orlando and Rosalind, Rousseau’s Sophie and Emile, Jane Austen’s Darcy and Elizabeth, Tolstoy’s Pierre and Natasha.

We invite people to ponder why Adam and Eve, when their eyes were open, covered their nakedness; whether modesty helps transform lust into love; what Socrates means when he says that love is of immortality; what Kierkegaard means when he says absolute faith in marriage is the only attribute that makes a man lovable; why Miss Manners claims the real skill in courtship is to be able to play just slightly more slowly than one’s partner; why C.S. Lewis thinks Eros cannot deliver what it promises, without the promises of marriage. And what Robert Frost means in suggesting to his daughter and her groom that “Two suchas you with such a master speed / Cannot be parted nor be swept away/ From one another once you are agreed / That life is only life forevermore / Together wing to wing and oar to oar.”

One final observation: All the profound students of the relations between men and women have noticed that power in these matters belongs largely to women. Men make advances, women offer resistance, plus the promise of yielding should the man prove worthy. This a woman doesnot because she is sexually repressed but because it is marriage sheis after.

The question is whether most women can rediscover that a fulfilling marriage and motherhood are essential to their happiness. If so, they might again be willing as a group to exercise more sexual restraint and to eschew cohabitation, compelling men to court them and to demonstrate that they are worthy of their affectionate embrace.

DAVID BLANKENHORN: The English writer Malcolm Muggeridge said in the 1960s, “We’re entering into a hothouse period in sexual relationships where the primary idea will be the celebration of desire as such.” But, he added, this can’t last. Once you strip away the sense of larger meaning, desire becomes twisted and weak, and ultimately dies.

And now along come these two college professors who say to us, “Gee, you say you want it all? I wish you did want it all. I wish you knew what ‘it all’ really looked like. You want desire? Let me tell you about desire.”

Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I suspect the hothouse period is waning.

AMY HOLMES: I look at the cover and read, “Courtship and Marriage,” and I can only think: “I’ve heard they’re nice things” (Laughter)

The Kasses have produced an important book, particularly for young women, many of whom find ourselves trapped in an era of sexual nihilism without commitment, of marriage without permanence.

We’re steeped in information on intercourse and reproduction and contraception and plays like The Vagina Monologues, all of which seek to destroy the mystery and awe of sex and the female body. But we know little about the relationship of sex, courtship, and marriage to life, family, and community. The Kasses’ book has a passage that speaks to this: “Shameless times, if there are any, are periods of destruction. So are times without any kind of awe. But in such times, shame and awe are present by their very absence as need and want in human hearts.”

JUDITH MARTIN: I don’t agree that people have forsaken romance. They may have twisted it into odd shapes, but this is a time when professional people will spend a year or two working on a wedding. It’s all wrapped in this yearning for a package of romance with white tulle and lace.

I’m never quite for going backwards. So, what can society do? One thing is to have patterns people can follow without having to improvise all the time, which is a disaster.

Take people who write their own wedding vows. I told my children, after we went to a wedding like that, “When you marry, you’ll have all kinds of thoughts about romance, marriage, and each other. Just remember one thing: Nobody wants to hear them.” (Laughter)

We have made some advances, and I think we should keep those. But we desperately need standardized patterns people can follow, even that they can rebel against. You can’t rebel against something unless it’s there.

LEON KASS: Neither Amy nor I want to turn back the clock. The situation of women in the world is different than it was. We are trying to encourage people to trust the deep longings they have for real intimacy, for being taken seriously by another human being.

QUESTION: Does the universal acceptance of contraception hinder people from reaching this understanding of marriage?

AMY KASS: The separation of sex and love is certainly made possible with the help of contraception, and I think it’s the source of many of our problems. That’s not to say I would like life without contraception to come back.

LEON KASS: Whatever the practical merits of contraception, and I don’t disagree with Amy about this, one should understand that its institution is an assertion of the will against the promptings of nature and the heart. Children are now a choice rather than a gift, which produces a different attitude toward the other sex, toward what new life is.

QUESTION: In our culture we have the idea that the love between the man and the woman is sufficient, but in fact there’s only one unconditional lover: God. Can you bring back respect for marriage without that aspect?

LEON KASS: I’m not sure it can be done simply on a secular basis. On the other hand, this society is pluralistic. People worship in different ways. Many people are unaffiliated, and one can’t simply abandon them.

AMY KASS: In the book we present both possibilities, and we don’t decide, precisely because so many people we know come from a completely secular background. They would be even less interested in marriage if you said it had any connection with religion. The argument has to be made from both sides.