A recent CDC study found that the number of 15 to 24 year olds who reported being virgins in 2008 had increased slightly since 2002. In his latest column, Ross Douthat sees in that trend a reason for optimism — not because he thinks we’ll ever really see an end to premarital sex, but because it might indicate a subtle but important shift in the way society thinks about premarital sex:
When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind [i.e., a “significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression”]. The point isn’t that we should aspire to some Arcadia of perfect chastity. Rather, it’s that a high sexual ideal can shape how quickly and casually people pair off, even when they aren’t living up to its exacting demands. The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.
This is what’s at stake, for instance, in debates over abstinence-based sex education. Successful abstinence-based programs (yes, they do exist) don’t necessarily make their teenage participants more likely to save themselves for marriage. But they make them more likely to save themselves for somebody, which in turn increases the odds that their adult sexual lives will be a source of joy rather than sorrow.
As Douthat points out, no society has ever perfectly attained the ideal — but acknowledging that an ideal exists, and striving for it, apparently brings us a sight closer to real happiness than the alternative.
Read the whole thing here.