Much has now been made of Ross Douthat’s Sunday offering, “The Daughter Theory.” The argument is pretty humble, so I’m a little surprised by the reaction. In short, Douthat points out that there is some evidence that raising daughters causes parents to tend toward voting Republican, and suggests that this is because (contrary to ‘young liberal’ opinions about which American party serves the interests of women) parents are attracted to Republican support of more traditional sexual mores for girls.
This is something of a potshot at Republicans as far as I can tell, though I know it wasn’t intended that way. “People who have little girls are so terrified of the harms of promiscuous sex for women that they sign up for entire political programs that deliver literally next to nothing in terms of actually reducing promiscuity” seems to be a long-winded way of saying “apparently when people who raise little girls get really, really dopey, they support the political party Ross Douthat supports.” Masses of people agreeing to vote for officials who want to go to war, continue using the death penalty, and tend to oppose programs that would support the poor all so those officials will do little more than pay lip service to the virtue of female chastity surely isn’t the ideal arrangement for a democracy. It’s more or less an admission of the sheer theatrics of American electoral politics, which, there you have it: honesty in journalism.
This is even more puzzling as Douthat isn’t beating the usual conservative drum of teen pregnancy, about which one can at least imagine some kind of policy solution, as it seems to have policy-related roots. The moral crisis he puts forward comes in the form of a novel, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.“, which concerns the toxicity of a seemingly sensitive young male writer who does a disservice to the women in his life by refusing to commit to them. The world in which young men and women drift through alienation and loneliness at cocktail parties and small get-togethers in converted lofts isn’t the world of teen pregnancy, it’s the world of upper and middle class ennui. I am not sure how anyone imagines Republican policy would police these people into a more serious moral treatment of sex, given that sex-for-entertainment-goes-awry-among-the-upper-classes is a story as old as Les Liaisons dangereuses.
Of course, what’s likely going on here, and Douthat does suggest this, is a shift in overall values that produces in parents of daughters an affinity for Republican ideology. So it’s not necessarily that parents think Republicans will be able to do anything in particular about the travails of youth promiscuity, but rather that they feel affinity with Republican outrage over the problem, and that same outrage sort of ambiently permeates a great deal of Republican marketing of their positions.
And that it’s marketing we’re dealing with that’s a take-home point, I think. That parents would vote Republican due to a kind of broad rhetorical appeal rather than any real policy plans demonstrates the lack of any serious link between the kind of social conservatism Douthat is proposing here and the fiscal/foreign policy we get out of the Republicans. Is it remotely necessary that somebody who prefers low hemlines and high necklines should also prefer, say, free market capitalism and the use of the death penalty? No; in fact, it’s pretty easy even operating within Douthat’s own Catholic frame to imagine the opposite situation, in which someone who views sex as sacrosanct for its role in marriage and the production of life should be equally opposed to the termination of human life in capital punishment and war. (The Vatican considers the death penalty an affront to human dignity, by the way, and frequently calls for its abolition.)
Some forms of progressive ideology do feature programmatic approaches to politics and society that militate against more traditional moral considerations of sex. But not all do, and the sheer variety of available orientations toward sex independent of one’s orientation toward foreign policy, economic policy, etc. suggests that American political categories aren’t wholly natural ones. Republicans, in other words, are basically lucky that they get to traffic in the fear of parents who raise daughters, but it’s disingenuous to suggest their ideology is coherently or necessarily supportive of the principles that usually underpin an interest in the serious moral treatment of sex. Folks on the Christian left would be quite happy to see the Republican monopoly on the seriousness of sex and marriage decoupled from the rest of their (far, far more actionable and materially realized) interests for that reason.
But the objection to Douthat hasn’t really been along the lines of questioning the real relationship between a serious moral approach to sex and the wider ideology of the Republican party. Instead, it’s been the same old, same old: Ross Douthat is a patriarchal sexist who has a poor opinion of women.
Sigh. If I had a nickel for every time a man supporting a more conservative take on sex was accused of misogyny, I’d be rich enough to buy some billboard space in Brooklyn begging lefties to stop making that argument. The reality is that plenty of women are right there with Douthat, hoping for and advocating a more traditional approach to sex. Not even playing with you here: in this 2006 Pew Forum poll, 36% of men and 35% of women thought that sex between unmarried adults was morally wrong, while 23% of men found it morally acceptable compared to 20% of women. Women are just as diverse in their opinions as men, and it does not require misogyny, deep-seated, internalized or otherwise to prefer a conservative approach to sex. Lefties who immediately launch into accusations of sexism when male writers express these sorts of opinions (absent any other truly damning rhetoric) are often tasked with the uncomfortable work of explaining the women who hold those same positions. Thus we slip into the ‘internalized misogyny’ explanation, which reads more or less like brainwashing, which is essentially the old, played out ‘women are weak-minded and need help, the poor dears’ garbage we’ve tried to shed.
If Douthat has some negative opinion of women, this column alone isn’t evidence of that. It’s evidence only of the too-facile alliance between conservatism in matters like sex and conservatism in matters of economic policy, criminal justice, the use of military action, etc. The baby could easily have other bath water here, and be just as clean.
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