Buying into the scripts of premarital sex, cohabitation

In all of the macabre media gossip about Charlie Sheen’s public meltdown and firing, there was one observation rarely voiced aloud: “Two and a Half Men” was a very bad show with hideous values, and it deserves to be off the air. 

Its view of women and sexuality — epitomized by the loathsome “Charlie,” played by Sheen — was shaped more by porn than anything resembling real life. His was a fantasy world where a beer is always in hand, women are to be used and discarded, and the cell phone has the telephone numbers of hookers on the speed dial. 

And yet, the really fearsome fact about “America’s No. 1 comedy” is that it functions not so much as a mirror to society as a teaching tool. 

I found myself thinking about all of this while reading a new book that should be in the library of every school counselor, every pastor and youth leader and anyone concerned about the values, practices and cultural assumptions of young Americans. It is called “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying.” It was not produced by a reli-gious publisher, but by Oxford University Press. Its authors, Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, are social researchers, not moral theologians. 

The book analyzes what is actually happening among Americans between the ages of 18 and 23. It finds that the “hookup” culture is more myth than reality. The “good” news? College students are less sexually active than their non-college attending peers, and more than twice as likely to be virgins. But what the authors call the “script” of the hookup culture creates an expectation that sexual activity is the norm. This is created by the media and corporate marketing. It is abetted by parents who don’t state their expectations, and by students afraid to speak up when their lives don’t fit the “script.”  

These social scripts are fed not just by television shows, but by pornography and magazines like Cosmo and Glamour. “To be blunt,” the authors wrote, “women’s magazines sell sex.” While young men watch porn at almost frightening rates, one young woman said that “everyone wants to be Carrie Bradshaw,” the protagonist of “Sex and the City.” The reality, the authors argue, is that when it comes to sex, there is a double standard, and that double standard only goes away when women start acting like men. Such sexual behavior, however, comes at a high emotional price. 

The book concludes with 10 myths that seem to govern presumptions about sexuality among the young. One is that exclusivity is a fiction, a point the authors illustrate with a statistical anecdote: When young people are asked how long half of all marriages last, they guess five years, maybe 10: “But the answer, which never occurs to them, is a lifetime.” 

Other myths are that porn doesn’t affect relationships, that boys must always be boys, and, finally, that “moving in together is definitely a step toward marriage.” Cohabitation is a win-win for men, the authors point out: stable access to sex, but no commitments. For women, this arrangement is much more unstable, weakening marriage if it does occur, and often leading simply to another breakup. 

One wishes Archbishop John Sentamu of York, England, had read this book before he flippantly justified the cohabitation of the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Many couples, he inelegantly explained, “want to test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow.” 

One of the scripts at work today is that the Church is old-fashioned and out of touch when it asserts its values. The real tragedy for many is that by the time that many young people discover that this is just another modern myth, a great deal of damage has been done. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.