Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, has a column entitled “Blue States Practice the Values that Red States Preach.” I clicked through because it reminded me of a post I had written seven years ago with the ungainly title, “Red States: ‘Families form Adults;’ Blue States: ‘Adults form Families’.” That post was discussing a book by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone’s called Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. Sure enough, Kristof mentioned Cahn and Carbone.
Liberals and conservatives don’t necessarily disagree, in broad terms, about some basic ideas like it’s a bad idea to get pregnant when you’re young and marriage should be entered into with the idea that you’ll stay married. Their approaches to realizing these goals are different, and this may have something to do with the underpinnings of those goals.
[Now is the time for a huge caveat. Any time you say red states this, blue states that or liberals this, conservatives that, you’re going to be engaged in huge generalizations riddled with exceptions. People aren’t monoliths, and we forget that at our peril. When we get in the habit of forgetting it, we end up abstracting and dehumanizing those in the “other” camp. To paraphrase, Paul McCartney & Wings, you’d think people would have had enough of it. That said, here I go again.]
Conservative thinking on marriage and sex seems more often to be tied up with their views on morality and/or religion. Liberal thinking seems more utilitarian. Cahn and Carbone said, “In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.” The expectation in red states is that people will have children early and the parents will grow into their responsibilities. The expectation in blue states is that people will wait to have families until their education and financial situation is more secure. Kristof quotes them when they say:
“Blue family values bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage or the stigmatization of single parents. Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.”
Kristof notes the statistics that seem to show that blue states are doing better in terms of teen pregnancy and durable marriages. Kids in red states are also more likely to have had sex in high school. People in red states tend to get married younger and, probably because of that, divorce more frequently.
It seems to me that liberals are more likely to regard sex as problematic only in relation to negative consequences related to sex (e.g. disease, unplanned pregnancy). If you mitigate the consequences, then sex becomes less problematic. Conservatives are more likely to regard the act of sex itself (out of wedlock) as problematic, independent of the consequences. In fact, the purported liberal goal of “consequence free sex” was a buzz phrase hurled by conservatives to deride liberal values for a period of time. (Maybe it still is and has been for a long time. But I noticed an uptick in the phrase back in 2014 and not so much since then.)
Because the liberal view of sex is more utilitarian, they are more likely to try to mitigate the negative consequences through things like sex education and birth control. There also isn’t much in the way of public opprobrium about sex out of wedlock. That enables teens and young adults in blue states to have sex without getting married and without getting pregnant until they’re ready. That, in turn, results in later pregnancies, fewer unwanted pregnancies, later marriages, and fewer divorces.
Conservatives who view sex out of wedlock as wrong in and of itself, regardless of the consequences, don’t have that flexibility. Humans being what they are, relatively few are going to maintain the discipline necessary to avoid having sex into their late 20s or early 30s. Making it forbidden probably makes it even more appealing and, consequently, more difficult to forego. Sex education and making birth control readily available are non-starters because that sends the message that something other than abstinence is acceptable. Repeatedly telling kids not to have sex is a little like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant — probably makes the undesired behavior more likely. Birth control is used less. Pregnancies happen more often at younger ages. Marriages happen younger and tend to be less successful. Divorces become more prevalent. But, if God has decreed that sex out of wedlock is immoral, what, really, are your options?
My intent wasn’t to make this a “blue states rule, red states drool” kind of post. But, I suppose to a religious conservative, it will probably come off as condescending and one-sided. That said, I don’t know how you get to the desired results without either what I regard as unrealistic standards of discipline and/or getting rid of the idea that out-of-wedlock sex is inherently bad regardless of whether you mitigate the consequences.