(cross-posted at Feministe)
I’ve gotten used to the fact that national publications perennially print columns bemoaning how young people are screwing up love, sex, and marriage. I’ve even learned to contain my anger when the claim that casual sex causes “emotional wreckage” is now virtually considered a given (no matter how many times we beg to differ).
But this piece by Michael Gerson in WaPo the other day particularly pissed me off. The piece, entitled “Lost in a World Without Courtship,” is a smug and nitpicky pile of Do’s and Don’t’s for twentysomethings (ignoring queer couples, naturally).
First, teenagers shouldn’t get married. Fine, but we also shouldn’t wait until we’re past our primes—at the whopping age of 27. Also, we shouldn’t cohabitate, because we are more likely to–gasp–break up one day. And we shouldn’t have children until we’re married — “Cohabitation is no place for children,” Gerson informs us. (There goes my happy childhood.) The “sweet spot,” Gerson says, is early-to-mid twenties—or else, he seems to be saying, we’re fucked.
Chances are most Feministe readers would just gloss over this headline and continue on their merry way, but there’s a bigger problem here than Gerson: Gerson’s editor. Why does the mainstream media continue to assume older columnists, conservative or not, should be parenting us when it comes to our sex and love lives? I’m all for mentoring, but I have a hard time seeing how a piece outlining the exact six marriage-safe years is helping anyone. It’ll make impressionable young people feel rushed. It’ll depress–or more likely anger–27-year-olds that are happily single or engaged. It’s sanctimonious, judgmental crap.
Plus, why do we still have to prove that there’s more to a relationship than having children and getting married? That there’s a beautiful, happy medium between casual sex and suburban nuclear families? Apparently, vague-ass studies citing unhappiness in “later” marriages can debunk years of feminism and an entire sexual revolution. (And p.s., in my group of friends, getting married at 27 is pretty damn young.)
I’d like to sidestep the tired argument about whether casual sex is damaging to young people, and point out the newer insult here: the image of cohabitation as a dead, empty, unfulfilling space in people’s lives, where we are plagued by a lack of commitment and intimacy. I’d argue that the rise of cohabbing is one of the best relationship developments in recent decades. It allows couples to really enjoy each other without feeling rushed or trapped. It is giving us space for self-development and independence. It’s your own little test-driving bubble. What, pray tell, is so wrong with that?
It’s articles like these, ones which uselessly try pin down the rules of marriage, that really make me wish marriage didn’t exist in the first place. I’m all for having a big party to formally declare your love–in fact, I had my own version of one just a couple months ago. But the meaning of marriage takes on an ominous tone when people like Gerson say stuff like this: “Marriage is the most effective institution to bind two [people] for a long period.” Cohabitation, on the other hand, breeds break-ups.
In other words, if two people grow apart, or if one starts abusing the other, or if their life goals start to converge…it’s better that they stay together? This sloppy logic just does not compute—not in the fifties, and not now. I’m getting that familiar nagging feeling that 50 percent divorce rate statistic isn’t a sign of young people’s failure of commitment. It’s a sign that people do change after 27, and fewer people are willing to put up with a miserable daily existence.
So, just so you know, Gerson et. al…young people could do without the chastising and arbitrary marriage guidelines. And if we don’t feel like tying the knot, or having kids, or settling down—now or ever—please just let us live!