A few weeks after meeting, James and his girlfriend started having sex—a lot of it. About six months later, they moved in together and conceived a child. When I first interviewed him for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, his girlfriend was still pregnant and he said that they intended to get married, but they were in no rush. He said they wanted to wait until they were more financially stable, but he also later told me that it was more than that: his girlfriend kept texting her ex-boyfriend, and James wondered how committed she was to him.
Their baby was born, the stress in their relationship increased, they stopped having sex because of the stress, and they separated. A relationship that began with lots of sex ended, in part, because of what he described as “jealousies” and “insecurities”—in short, conversations that she would have with an ex-boyfriend, or that he would have with an ex-girlfriend. “We never cheated on each other or anything like that,” he said, “but it’s still in the back of your head. Like, ‘Why do you need to talk to them? You’re mine.’”
Jessica, another young adult interviewed for the Middle America Project, received a call from her fiancé more than three years into their relationship. A tattoo artist, he wanted to know if she would be okay with him piercing a woman’s nipples. Sure, she told him, that’s fine, and added—somewhat sarcastically, but with an edge—that “It really wouldn’t matter, because you’ve already seen them.” He acknowledged that yes, she was actually right—he had slept with her one week after proposing to Jessica. He also revealed that during their relationship, he had also slept with several other women. Stunned, Jessica immediately moved out and broke off their relationship. She had given up a lot to be with this man, leaving a good job in Kansas City to move in with him in Ohio. Now it was suddenly over.
About a year later, Jessica was dating another man, but her expectations for the relationship were low. When asked what advice she would give to people about relationships, she said:
It’s really bad, but don’t really expect anything. Because then you’ll never really be disappointed. But then, at the same time, that completely walls your heart up and you’ll never be vulnerable and let yourself actually fully be in love…. I guess I’m just afraid to get hurt—so I don’t let myself get hurt.
Jessica’s view of sex is matter of fact: “Sex is sex, regardless of who it’s with. You can make it mean something if you want it to mean something, but other than that, if you just want it to be a f*** … it’s not gonna mean anything, and you don’t have to call that person the next day.”
At the same time, she thinks that sex creates an “emotional tie” that never quite goes away. That’s why she was always a little uneasy about how her ex-fiancé kept in touch with his ex-girlfriends.
And despite her low expectations, Jessica wants to believe in lifelong love. In fact, she became emotional when describing how she admires her co-worker’s loving marriage (they waited until marriage to have sex, she said).
Easy access to sex with multiple partners can make for complicated relationships.
My own research with working-class young adults leads me to believe that they have basically made peace with sexual permissiveness—at least outside of marriage—even as they retain some ambivalence about it. They tend to move in quickly with new romantic partners, even as they worry that people rush too quickly into relationships. From survey data, we know that people without a college education have more lifetime sexual partners than those with a college education, and that most of them see no problem with premarital sex.
But there is one problem: easy access to sex with multiple partners can make for complicated relationships. As sexual partners accumulate, so does the potential for distrust. As one man whose ex-girlfriend had cheated on him explained, “It’s gonna take a lot more time for me to ever trust somebody again like that. I let her in quick, and now it’s never gonna happen again.” One divorced man said simply, “Everyone has to watch their ass all the time.” There is the feeling that no one is safe—even in marriage. As another young man claimed, “Nowadays, even though you got a ring on your finger, people tend to look past that.”
So people describe keeping vigilant watch over their partners’ cell phones, policing for messages from exes. They live an all but married lifestyle, yet they say that they are hesitant to make the commitment of marriage. Why? Part of the reason is that they don’t trust their partner, or themselves, to remain in the marriage. In one survey, 42.5 percent of low-income, unmarried respondents cited “worry that the marriage would end in divorce” as a reason they might not be pursuing marriage, and 23.5 percent cited “questions about whether your partner is trustworthy.” As one young man that I interviewed said after learning that his fiancée was cheating on him, “I don’t trust nobody.”
That distrust is at least partly the legacy of the libertarian sexual ethic, which assumes that sexual activity outside of marriage is typically okay so long as people are mutually consenting to the acts. And that distrust is why I have a hard time believing—as Noah Smith does—that sexual permissiveness will somehow evolve into more stable marriages for the working class. (Indeed, having more sexual partners prior to marriage is linked to greater odds of divorce, as Nicholas Wolfinger and W. Bradford Wilcox recently documented.) There is no invisible hand that will transform James and Jessica’s distrust and cynicism, which stems in part from their multiple past sexual relationships, into trust and an enduring marriage. What the working class needs—what we all need—to achieve our shared aspirations for lifelong love and a stable family is social permission to date without immediately having sex.
That’s important because today young people often assume that withholding sex is a sign of distrust. As James said, if you begin a relationship and don’t have sex, “they automatically assume that you’re cheating.” But sliding into sex often translates into sliding into a relationship—and children—without first building trust and discerning for character and compatibility. And that slide often contributes to the erosion of trust in the opposite sex and in lifelong love. We must confront that reality if we’re serious about empowering working young adults to achieve trusting relationships.