During a conversation on the Pound Cake Speech a little while back, quadmoniker and I asserted that that speech (and those like it) overlook the way economic realities shape the values that inform the decisions that people make. In other words, those normative middle-class values that Cosby is so famous for trumpeting don’t easily translate into the lives of the poor.
This is especially so on the issue of issue of teenage pregancy. We got a lot of grief from people who thought we were playing the class card, but we weren’t just pulling that argument from the ether. Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker piece last week, Red Sex, Blue Sex, backed us up. Talbot cites a study that outlined a stark difference in attitudes toward sexual behavior and teen pregnancy in states that typically vote Republican in national elections versus those that go Democratic. The study found that people in red states have children earlier and get married younger, and the states with the highest divorce rates all traditionally go Republican.
Some of these differences in sexual behavior come down to class and education. [The researchers] all see a new and distinct “middle-class morality” taking shape among economically and socially advantaged families who are not social conservatives. In Regnerus’s survey, the teen-agers who espouse this new morality are tolerant of premarital sex (and of contraception and abortion) but are themselves cautious about pursuing it. Regnerus writes, “They are interested in remaining free from the burden of teenage pregnancy and the sorrows and embarrassments of sexually transmitted diseases. They perceive a bright future for themselves, one with college, advanced degrees, a career, and a family. Simply put, too much seems at stake. Sexual intercourse is not worth the risks.” These are the kids who tend to score high on measures of “strategic orientation”—how analytical, methodical, and fact-seeking they are when making decisions. Because these teen-agers see abstinence as unrealistic, they are not opposed in principle to sex before marriage—just careful about it.
Accordingly, they might delay intercourse in favor of oral sex, not because they cherish the idea of remaining “technical virgins” but because they assess it as a safer option. “Solidly middle- or upper-middle-class adolescents have considerable socioeconomic and educational expectations, courtesy of their parents and their communities’ lifestyles,” Regnerus writes. “They are happy with their direction, generally not rebellious, tend to get along with their parents, and have few moral qualms about expressing their nascent sexuality.” They might have loved Ellen Page in “Juno,” but in real life they’d see having a baby at the wrong time as a tragic derailment of their life plans. For this group, Regnerus says, unprotected sex has become “a moral issue like smoking or driving a car without a seatbelt. It’s not just unwise anymore; it’s wrong.”
The Cosby arguments assume that marriage will stabilize poor families, but as Talbot suggests, strong marriages require a good deal of social resources. As we noted in shouting out Katherine Boo’s excellent 2003 piece, “The Marriage Cure,” it’s the social context that allows for stable marriages, not the other way around.