The Real Reason Twentysomething Women Are Worried

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Shutterstock.com

Ross Douthat is very concerned about women’s happiness. Sunday, in his New York Times column, Douthat explained (using some rather stale data) that people with daughters might be more socially conservative because they’re worried about how societal acceptance of premarital sex and the trend toward late marriage are conspiring to create a generation of men who can’t commit — and are therefore forcing women to sit idly by as their biological clocks tick ever louder. 

Douthat, despite having the morals and the facial hair of a much older man, is only 34 and maintains friendships with the young and childless. He also reads popular new fiction — including The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Adelle Waldman’s novel about the dating life of a Brooklynite who isn’t a bad guy, but isn’t exactly dream-boyfriend material, either. Nathaniel, like the real men who inspired his character, might eventually want marriage and children, but is in no rush to get there.

According to Douthat, the emotional infancy of twentysomething men — contrasted with the personal and professional focus of women their age — is the result of our collective cultural decision that it isn't taboo to have sex before marriage. Nathaniel, like so many creative-class young men in Brooklyn, is “taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished,” Douthat writes. Nathaniel’s lovers want more commitment, but “he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.”

Now, I’m doubtful that educated twentysomething women are itching to reform and marry every L-train Peter Pan they swipe right on Tinder. But fertility is a legitimate back-of-the-mind anxiety for many young women, and we tend to imagine (explicitly or otherwise) timelines for ourselves as we try to navigate the limitations of biology. Douthat is wrong in assuming that the challenge lies mostly in getting the Nathaniels of the world to grow up and commit. It’s a much bigger question of how women successfully combine family and career. We're well aware that we lose fertility at a certain age, but also that we lose professional power after we have kids. This is a generation of women who were raised on movies portraying the plight of the working mother, came of age in one of the worst economies in recent history, have read dozens of trend stories about the expense and trauma of IVF, yet still hope to have “it all.” They know the tough decisions that await them in their thirties. And so, they figure, better put in the professional work now — get as far as you can before it’s time to procreate. I wasn’t surprised to read a report from the Pew Research Center last week that women in their twenties have nearly closed the wage gap with their male colleagues. The pressure is intense: Do it all now so you can have it all later.

But for Douthat, who seems blissfully unaware of these other factors, all of the pressure boils down to biology. Men want sex, women don’t make them wait for it, and therefore the Nathaniels of the world cavort with no consequences and no commitments while women’s ovaries wither. (Well, sperm goes bad, too, but I digress.) The answer, says Douthat, is a sort of hipster Lysistrata. The modern woman should demand men grow up, and if he won’t, consign herself to a battery-operated sex life. Well, Douthat doesn’t come right out and say it’s women’s responsibility — he writes around it in passive voice: "One obvious solution ... is a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them." This is an age-old argument against women's sexual freedom: that women are society's moral guardians, for whom sex is never just pleasurable but always a calculation. Men are once again off the hook.

This is an epic misread of the timeline stresses that plague educated women in their twenties. Are we supposed to believe that the solution to a biological double-standard is a sexual double-standard? That women who want it all later in life must spend their youth prim and sexless, waiting for men to prove that they've got themselves together both professionally and emotionally? There's one little problem: We like sex. None of us are going back to a world in which we only put out once he's put a (promise/engagement/wedding) ring on it.

Douthat gets women's motivations all wrong. Most of us aren’t scrambling to lock down boyfriends by age 25 — we’re busy building our careers. These days college women tell reporters that they prefer hookups because being coupled up too young interferes with your professional trajectory. Early marriage is good for men, who do better at work and report higher satisfaction if they get hitched in their mid-twenties. That isn't the case for women, who earn more if they marry later and for whom marital status plays a smaller role in determining their happiness. There's a reason many women put  "marriage/first kid" in the early thirties section of their timeline: They know they'll need their twenties to maximize their career prospects and self-exploration because there's a good chance that after they have kids, these things will fall by the wayside.

Twentysomething men are freer than women to screw up both personally and professionally — all studies say they’re going to come out on top eventually. Women do not have this assurance, and so craft these timelines in an attempt to establish a modicum of control in a world where motherhood — even with a supportive partner — remains incompatible with professional fulfillment. Flexible work schedules are elusive, child care is horrifically expensive, and stay-at-home dads are stigmatized: Fixing this stuff would require huge political efforts and a major cultural shifts. Unrealistic? Maybe — but surely no more so than Douthat's proposed sex boycott. Besides, when you’re working this hard to get your career off the ground, it's nice to get laid once in a while.