Sex and the Culture Divide

In Red Sex, Blue Sex, New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot explores the differences in teen pregnancy and attitudes toward sex in “blue” and “red” states. What’s fascinating about the article is that it highlights a real schism between those who claim to care the most about “family values” (the latter) and those who achieve the best outcomes for families (the former).

Among the stats and anecdotes recounted, Talbot highlights the following:

In 2004, the states with the highest divorce rates were Nevada, Arkansas, Wyoming, Idaho, and West Virginia (all red states in the 2004 election); those with the lowest were Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, Minnesota, and New Jersey. The highest teen-pregnancy rates were in Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas (all red); the lowest were in North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Maine (blue except for North Dakota). “The ‘blue states’ of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have lower teen birthrates, higher use of abortion, and lower percentages of teen births within marriage,” [family-law scholars] Cahn and Carbone observe.

The tempting takeaway is to say, “These people are nuts, and that’s why I don’t live in Oklahoma.” But Talbot is careful to temper holier-than-thou-ism against the holier-than-thous by pointing out that the issue is muddled by poverty and lack of resources. On the whole, though, the article offers a damning indictment of the abstinence-only industry.

In closing, she offers a heartening case for liberal values offering an edifice for healthy kids and marriages:

Evangelicals are very good at articulating their sexual ideals, but they have little practical advice for their young followers. Social liberals, meanwhile, are not very good at articulating values on marriage and teen sexuality—indeed, they may feel that it’s unseemly or judgmental to do so. But in fact the new middle-class morality is squarely pro-family. Maybe these choices weren’t originally about values—maybe they were about maximizing education and careers—yet the result is a more stable family system. Not only do couples who marry later stay married longer; children born to older couples fare better on a variety of measures, including educational attainment, regardless of their parents’ economic circumstances. The new middle-class culture of intensive parenting has ridiculous aspects, but it’s pretty successful at turning out productive, emotionally resilient young adults. And its intensity may be one reason that teen-agers from close families see child-rearing as a project for which they’re not yet ready. For too long, the conventional wisdom has been that social conservatives are the upholders of family values, whereas liberals are the proponents of a polymorphous selfishness. This isn’t true, and, every once in a while, liberals might point that out.

Why, it almost makes a social liberal want to say, “Amen!”