Zeitgeist

First-Night Privileges

January 14, 2009

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First-Night Privileges

. . . That’s when she told me a story
About free milk and a cow.
She said, ‘No hug-ee, no kiss-ee,
Until I get a wedding vow.’

—“Keep Your Hands to Yourself,”
The Georgia Satellites, 1986

Laura Gallier, who runs a Texas-based abstinence education program, was dumbfounded by the news that bidding in the online auction of a California woman’s virginity had reached $3.7 million.

“When I communicate to young people that their virginity is valuable, that’s not exactly what I have in mind,” said Gallier, author of Choosing to Wait.

Yet if 22-year-old Natalie Dylan has proven nothing else, she has demonstrated that virginity— though not exactly innocence—has market value.

The San Diego college student says the purpose of her enterprise is to raise money for graduate school. She is seeking a master’s degree in women’s studies, but she’s stumbled onto a Ph.D.-worthy discovery in economics. She has also vindicated an ancient common-sense understanding of human nature: When it comes to sex, women represent the supply side of the equation and men are the demand.

This was what your rustic great-grandmother meant when she warned your grandmother, “He ain’t gonna buy the cow, if he’s gettin’ the milk for free.”

The modern young woman inevitably reacts to repetition of this old saying with loud objections at being metaphorically likened to livestock. Being modern, she also rejects the underlying wisdom of the adage: That her companionship can be understood as a commodity and that its value is not fixed, but rather subject to market fluctuation.

What great-grandma meant, of course, was that women who engage in pre-marital sex thereby lessen the incentives for men to seek marriage. And one reason her modern great-granddaughter is so infuriated by that adage is that the price-signals have become so confused in a market now flooded with free milk.

The best available research indicates that nowadays the average American girl first engages in sexual intercourse a few months before her 17th birthday. According to the Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage for women is 25.3 years.

Simple arithmetic, then, suggests that the typical American woman now is sexually active for more than eight years before her wedding. Research also indicates, however, that this typical woman is not particularly promiscuous during those eight years, since the median reported number of lifetime sexual partners for women was less than four. (Although more than 30 percent reported having at least seven sex partners, of which about 11 percent reported at least 15 partners.)

How rare is a 22-year-old virgin nowadays? The CDC found that less than 9 percent of women 20-24 reported zero lifetime sexual partners, and less than 3 percent of women over 25 are still virgins. Do the math, then, and the inescapable conclusion is that the symbolic innocence of a white wedding is now nearly always a cynical expression of hypocrisy.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

—William Butler Yeats,
“The Second Coming,” 1920

Ceremonies of innocence were more honestly symbolic a half-century ago. In 1959, the median female age at first marriage was 20.2 years, which means that nearly half were wed while still teenagers. The girl who was “saving herself for marriage” usually didn’t have to save herself too long.

If we may return to the rustic adage that so offends the modern woman, guys were faced with a shortage of free milk in 1959, since most cows were off the market before they were 21. And the question of how and why this situation changed may require another old metaphor: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? That is to say, did a declining interest in marriage lead to the increased availability of premarital sex, or vice-versa?

The evidence clearly points toward vice-versa. Long after the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, most American women continued to marry at relatively young ages. When the median female age at first marriage reached 22.1 years in 1979, it was the highest age ever recorded by the Census Bureau.

Despite all those “Swinging Sixties” tales about “free love” and hippies, the reality is that most young people continued to connect love, sex, and marriage in rather traditional ways even after “The Age of Aquarius” gave way to “Saturday Night Fever.”

Pop music of the era shows that the “one and only” ideal of lifelong romantic exclusivity persisted well past the Woodstock epoch and into the disco age. In 1971, when the protagonist of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” gazes on the object of his desire, he dreams that “soon we’ll be married and raise a family.” It was in 1976 that Heatwave recorded “Always and Forever,” still a standard at wedding receptions, as is Lionel Richie’s 1981 ballad, “Endless Love.”

If even in the “Get Down Tonight” atmosphere of the Seventies, the typical bride wed her one and only when she was still a mere 22—the median age at first marriage didn’t reach 23 until 1984—it is very difficult to argue that a decline of the marital objective caused the rise of premarital sex.

Prior to the mid-’80s, then, “premarital sex” generally retained its original meaning—young lovers who intended to marry one another but who simply couldn’t wait for the wedding night. This original sense of premarital sex can be perceived in the 1968 study that found that 20 percent of brides were already pregnant when they walked down the aisle.

Even if the bride of the Sixties and Seventies was less likely than her mother to literally “save herself for marriage,” she typically saved herself for a pledge of love and at least the implied promise of wedding bells. One is reminded of the now-famous 1938 mug shot of 23-year-old Frank Sinatra when he was arrested in Lodi, N.J., on the charge of “seduction,” defined as the crime of enticing a woman to have intercourse with a false promise of marriage. That New Jersey law has long since been repealed, the law having reflected a cultural sensibility now nearly faded from memory.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long . . .
We could be married
And then we’d be happy.

—“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,”
The Beach Boys, 1966

What flourishes today is not pre-marital sex, but rather non-marital sex or, if we wish to be bluntly accurate, anti-marital sex, since the widespread availability of the commodity with no strings attached tends to obviate the rationale of marriage. When so many women are willing even to become mothers without benefit of clergy—37 percent of U.S. births are to unmarried women—why on earth would any man marry?

No promise of marriage is sought by Miss Dylan in the online auction of her virginity. Indeed, she is quite explicit that she is offering only a one-night stand with a virgin (volunteering to undergo a gynecological exam to certify truth in advertising) and has no interest in any relationship, certainly not marriage. That stipulation seems unnecessary, as it is difficult to imagine the man who would wish to marry such a woman, and she has expressed surprise that the bidding has gone so high.

Miss Dylan’s ultimate customer will be very rich, and very much a cynic as Oscar Wilde defined the term: “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Cynics have become quite numerous of late. The cynic can well imagine the envy Miss Dylan’s auction must inspire in so many of her peers, who as teenagers parted with the same surprisingly valuable commodity for no more than the price of a few wine coolers.

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