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Wall Street Journal

 

Between 'Jersey Shore' and Rick Santorum

March 23, 2012

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Recently, I happened to turn on an episode of "Jersey Shore." It was the one where Deena’s sister goes out with Mike’s brother and does something so sexually audacious—I’m a little vague on the details—that Mike can’t stop talking about it. Then Deena gives Mike a piece of her mind for spreading rumors about her sister, and then Mike tells Deena that, hold on a minute, he thinks her sister is the bomb for whatever unmentionable thing she did.

I should add that I had just finished reading an article about the "Republican War on Women." It was focused on Rick Santorum, his seven children, his one wife, his unconventional beliefs about contraception, his zealous opposition to abortion, and his sweater vest, which seems to sum up his lifestyle and convictions.

How do you explain a country that makes an unabashed Catholic social conservative a leading presidential candidate while devouring a reality show about the smuttiest bumping and grinding ever to hit prime time?

Hypocrisy is the easy answer, but there is a better way to think about it. The two phenomena are the yin and yang of the continuing fallout of the sexual revolution, a revolution that has transformed life for everyone, but especially women. "Jersey Shore" is the extreme manifestation of the if-it-feels-good-do-it, nothing sacred, girls-like-it-as-much-as-boys, post-’60s America. Women and men drink, have sex and go to bars, where they pick up partners for threesomes, drink and have sex—until the next day, when they do it all over again.

Rick Santorum watches all of this in disgust—figuratively speaking—from the other end of the permissiveness spectrum. He is the spokesman for the distaste that many Americans feel about our Jersey Shorified culture.

Until the sexual revolution, there was immense social pressure on women to wait until marriage to have sexual intercourse. Men were given a pass; if they could find willing women, no one would ruin their reputation by branding them "slut" or "whore." The contemporary sensibility finds this double standard repugnant, but for most of history there was a good reason for it: Women were the ones who got pregnant. A society with any hope of enduring had to limit the number of children born to single women; without an official provider, mother and child could easily become destitute. Since men seem to prefer providing for their own children rather than those who had the same cleft chin as the guy in the next village, it made sense to discourage women from having sex before marriage.

But along comes the pill, and the logic against premarital sex disappears. Women no longer had to worry—well, not too much—about getting pregnant. Then the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion as a backup plan. For the optimists who made up the vanguard of the sexual revolution, the new arrangement seemed very promising, almost foolproof.

And it has worked well for many women, particularly in the professional class. They have premarital sex and use contraception fairly reliably. Aside from a small (but growing) population of Murphy Browns, they have children only after they marry. The sexual revolution has given them the ability to delay marriage until they are old enough to choose their husbands wisely, which helps to explain why their divorce rates have been declining.

The revolution has not been all sweetness and light for the upper and middle class, of course. On college campuses, the hookup scene often doesn’t look very different from "Jersey Shore." Many women feel that the social pressure to avoid premarital sex has been replaced with pressure to just do it. Others complain about the disappearance of the gentlemanly arts. Still, if you look at what social scientists would call the most significant social indicators, you’d have to conclude that they have adapted to the sexual revolution with aplomb.

For lower-income women, however, the revolution has been a near disaster. By 1970, unmarried teenagers, the vast majority of them low income, began to get pregnant in droves. After climbing for decades, teen pregnancy rates finally began to decline by 1991, in part because of more contraceptive use and in part because teens were having less sex.

But don’t think that the optimists were being proven right. For one thing, even though teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. continue to decline, they are still higher than in any other industrialized country. For another, low-income girls have simply put off single motherhood for a few years. Today a record 41% of children are born to single mothers; most of those mothers are low-income women in their early and mid-20s. Since single motherhood tends to depress education rates and wages, poor mothers are at greater risk of staying that way and reducing their children’s life chances. Lower middle- and working-class children face, if not downward mobility, then little hope of rising. It isn’t going too far to say that the sexual revolution has helped to increase poverty and inequality.

The optimist’s answer to all of this has always been—and remains—"more education and more access to contraception." But the problem for lower-income women isn’t so much a lack of birth control or knowledge of it; they just have a tepid interest in family planning. In surveys, a very small percentage of single mothers cite lack of access to birth control as a factor in their pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, low-income women saw a 50% rise in unintended pregnancy between 1994 and 2006; among higher income women, the number fell by 29%.

It’s hard to believe that birth control was becoming less available during those years. About half of all abortions are repeat abortions. Fifty-four percent of women having abortions were using contraception the month they became pregnant; unreliable contraceptive use explains much of that number. The prevalence of "multi-partner fertility"—women having successive children by different men and men successive children by different women—has added to the disorder of many American neighborhoods. "Unintended" pregnancies, repeat abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, multi-partner fertility, single motherhood, not to mention feckless men: It sounds like a dystopia predicted by a hellfire opponent of the sexual revolution.

For a long time, these problems were mostly prevalent in minority neighborhoods in poor urban areas. But as Charles Murray has argued in these pages, they have spread from the poor into the white working class. Which brings us back to "Jersey Shore" and Rick Santorum. "Jersey Shore" is a window into the cultural decline of the working class, epitomized by the recent news that 24-year-old Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi is pregnant by her boyfriend.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know how that will turn out? Meanwhile, Mr. Santorum, the "guy from a little steel town," speaks to those who fear the disorder and unhappiness overtaking their own families.

For those of us who are thriving and wouldn’t want to return to the era before the birth control pill, even if it were possible, it’s unfortunate that the only options presented by the present political and cultural moment seem to be preacherly rectitude, on the one hand, and moral chaos, on the other.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304724404577299424128682402.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

 

 
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