Sex, Love, Marriage and Babies


Philip F. Lawler


"Papa loved Mama, so they got married and had babies." Thus does my earnest four-year-old summarize the mysteries of marital love. For scientific purposes that statement is terribly incomplete. For philosophical purposes, it hits the bull's eye.

Contrast the toddler's wisdom with the attitude toward human sexuality revealed by Hillary Rodham Clinton in her tome on child-rearing. Nowhere in that book does the first lady discuss the challenge of preparing youngsters for marriage, or training them to be successful parents to children of their own. Of course that silence might be understandable, since it is the "village," not just mommy and daddy, who raise children in the First Lady' utopia.

A Plaintive Wish:

Far more curious, however, is the book's silence on the issue of sex education. "It takes a Village" skips quickly over that controversial topic, leaving us with nothing more than Mrs. Clinton's plaintive wish that youngsters should postpone sexual involvement until they reach age 21.

Now why should teenagers wait until they are 21? Why not 18? Why not 35? And even if we could somehow establish a working definition of maturity, why should sexual activity be reserved for those who have crossed that threshold? If the purpose of sex is merely pleasure, are not young people entitled to their share? If the purpose is to from emotional bonds, do not teenagers need that support even more than their elders?

Some sober readers might suggest that teenagers should abstain from sexual activity because they are not ready for the commitment it entails. But that premise is manifestly false. Thousands of young couples -a minority, no doubt, but still a significant number- marry, bear children, and begin building a healthy family life while still in their teen. Moreover, the argument about "commitment" begs the question. Why does sexual intercourse involve any more commitment than, say, exchanging Valentines?

Until the advent of modern contraception, that question yielded a simple answer. What made sex unique was the prospect of procreation. Mindful of that prospect, responsible couples saw sexual intimacy as the sign of a profound commitment -not only to each other, but also to the children they might produce. In marriage, a man and woman promised to love one another; in the marital act they extended that love toward a new generation. Yes, there were childless couples; but they formed the exception to the rule. In our common cultural understanding, romantic love implied the promise of marriage, and marital love implied the promise of children.

Once one link of that chain was broken -once the prospect of begetting children was reduced to the status of one more option on a long menu of "lifestyle choices"- our understanding of marriage was destined for a radical change. In his book "Virtually Normal," New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan points out one striking aspect of that change. Making his case for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, he argues: "the heterosexuality of marriage is intrinsic only if it is understood to be intrinsically procreative; but that definition has long been abandoned by Western society." If Mr. Sullivan's premise is correct, then his logic is inexorable. If the act of sexual intercourse is robbed of its distinctive quality -its fecundity- then there is not rational explanation for a public policy that restricts that franchise to heterosexuals.

Our society has already suffered profound damage because of an attitude that treats sexuality as a means of casual recreation detached from all responsibility. The sexual revolution -facilitated by the birth-control pill- has brought in its wake epidemics of teen pregnancy, venereal disease, abortion, divorce, child abuse, and illegitimacy. All of these social complaints are symptoms of the same disease.

Parenthood, on the other hand, entails enormous responsibilities. Young mothers and fathers routinely sacrifice their own pleasures to ensure the security of their children. Parents look beyond their own welfare, and take an interest in the sort of world their children -and perhaps even their grandchildren- will inhabit. Noticing the abundant demographic date that show married couples are more successful than their single neighbors (healthier, wealthier, more likely to vote, to save money, and to contribute to charities, etc.), Mr. Sullivan reasons that homosexuals will also become better citizens when they are allowed the option of legal marriage. But it is not the possession of a marriage license that transforms impulsive young men and women into mature and responsible adults; it is the presence of children in the household.

Laws Will Fall Into Line:

Since 1996 is an election year, presidential candidates are trumpeting "family values," and Christian activists are circulating petitions to bar legal recognition of homosexual unions. But this problem will no admit a simple political solution. If our conception of marriage has really undergone a radical change, eventually the laws will fall into line with the new understanding; if the framework of "traditional marriage" has been gutted, eventually the building must collapse.

Fortunately, the logical and metaphysical links between love and marriage, sec and babies are still unbroken -if not in best-selling books, at least in thousands of happy American homes. Eventually our intellectual elite may recover the wisdom of that four-year-old sage. In the long run, it is difficult to ignore one salient truth about the human reproductive system: that it is, after all, designed so that humans will reproduce.