Why Did Sexual Norms Change?


Douthat recently argued that Roe changed “the obligations associated with pregnancy” and legitimized “male irresponsibility where sex and its consequences are concerned.” Naomi Cahn and June Carbone see things differently:

We think the big story of the past 40 years is the disappearance of the shotgun marriage. The shotgun marriage used to hide nonmarital pregnancies. It has disappeared not because of abortion, but because it didn’t work. The shotgun marriage kept couples together only when women had no ability to leave. The sexual brinkmanship of the 1950s (as teens discovered the car and lovers’ lanes) increased the number of brides pregnant at the altar to highs last seen in the 18th century and fueled the divorce revolution of the 1970s.

Douthat is right that a young woman with a promising future preferred the security of the pill and abortion to early marriage to a man who happened to get her pregnant. He refers to a perceptive study by economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen that observed that once women took charge of their own reproductive futures, men no longer had to “volunteer” to marry the women they had impregnated. The economists, however, were referring to the combined effect of abortion and the pill; a more recent study by economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found that, between the two, contraception was a key development in the norm shift that began with college graduates. Douthat leaves that part out.

And that’s a huge lacuna. Reliably separating sex from reproduction in advance seems to me the core transition here – and acceptance of it logically collapses the argument against a unique homosexual iniquity (see my 2003 review, We Are All Sodomists Now.) It’s Griswold, not Roe, that is at the core of the case for gay equality, because it is about a right to non-procreative sex, i.e. sodomy.

But it’s more than a little interesting that Ross has to go back to the days of shotgun marriages to restore the moral order he believes was and is better for humankind’s happiness. Why? Because heterosexuals’ unique need for shot-gun marriages after an accidental pregnancy is now the final, desperate argument of those fighting marriage equality.

(Painting: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin, 1852.)