Ugh. There is a LOT to say about David Gelernter’s article “Instant Sex: And the sad demise of romantic love” in this week’s Weekly Standard. But most of it is really just too obvious. Gelernter’s tired sad old point is that premarital sex, because it limits the “huge power of blocked passion,” limits one’s ability to fall in love. (Of course, this only applies to women, who, we are told, must be virgins to fall in love. For men, on the other hand, as he points out in possibly the most repellant sentence I’ve read this year, “Experience suggests ... that a few casual, premature sexual encounters at the whorehouse level, with persons you couldn’t possibly love and never count on meeting again, can’t do much damage to your capacity for romantic love.” See you in Amsterdam, Dave!)
But what’s particularly awful about this article is that it doesn’t attempt to base itself even on the dubious science studies and anecdotal evidence that people like Wendy Shalit and Laura Sessions Stepp use. Instead, Gelernter relies on Great Authors – Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and James Joyce. And here is where he runs into some real difficulties. Perhaps Gelernter never got that far in Ulysses, but can he have forgotten that Joyce is the great celebrator of the (decidedly nonmarital) female orgasm? Austen, fine, no premarital sex in Austen. But Austen is scarcely about romantic passion of the flowery Harlequin variety Gelernter seems attached to – her novels are about the transactional, rational, social bonds of marriage. When “the heightened state of consciousness” that Gelernter is frothing on about occurs in Austen's novels, it’s generally portrayed as a dangerous and antisocial force, as with Marianne's love for the unstable Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. The dichotomy Gelernter is creating would be entirely alien in Austen’s world – not to mention that a world in which an unmarried woman past the age of 25 is a social leper is (good Lord, one hopes) not one to which even Gelernter would consign us.
Finally, Shakespeare. Even if we skip over the fact that Shakespeare was writing in, ahem, the 16th and 17th centuries, a time when most women lived their short lives as essentially chattel to be bought and sold (again, I very much hope that Gelernter isn’t dreaming up some happy paradise of dowry payments, forced virginity testing, 25 percent death rates for pregnancies, etc.), Gelernter is getting it all wrong. He writes that Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It represent a chaste passion leading into marriage, untempered by social pressures to “hook up” (in the lexicon that Sessions Stepp has made so awkward and unsexy that perhaps she may finally succeed in ending the practice as well): “... peer pressure used to support the girl who said no ... not the young man and his burning blood. ... None of her girlfriends, boyfriends, or elders were telling Rosalind, ‘Go ahead; everybody does it.’ Nor could Orlando have told her, ‘If you don’t, Celia will.’ And no officious busybodies were handing out birth-control pills to young women in the Forest of Arden.”
Well, no they weren’t – because the pill wasn’t invented yet. However, condoms made from animal intestines were, and you can be sure they were widely used in a time when STDs like syphilis generally meant death. As for peer pressure and pressure from men, it’s hard to know how to begin to answer that, given that easily the majority of poetry written during the Renaissance had the goal of persuading women to sleep with you without getting married ("gather ye rosebuds while ye may," and so forth). The tactics were just as transparent and occasionally nasty as they are now, if not more so – sleep with me and I’ll write you a poem, sleep with me or you’ll get old before your time, etc. And the sex was just as premarital -- that was the whole point of it; married sex was slightly less fun when the idea of choosing your spouse was a fantasy played out on the stage, but rarely in real life.
To recap: the old days were simply worse than the new ones (and if Gelernter disagrees with that, I’ve got a 16th-century dentist I’d like to introduce him to). And literature makes a very poor expert witness, especially when you're twisting it to shore up already absurd arguments.
Update: My colleague Brad Plumer points out that Lydia and Wickham never quite make it to Gretna Green in Pride and Prejudice, so there is
premarital sex in Austen. But, of course, that episode in Pride and
Prejudice is about the dangers of young passion as opposed to tempered,
socially acceptable courtship -- not about how premarital sex ruins
what would otherwise be a happy idyll of chaste romance. Lydia and
Wickham are destined to bad ends no matter when she loses her virginity.