Recently, there has been a fair bit of discussion in the media about sexual promiscuity and depression. I think it started with the recent results of a CDC study that showed that young people (teenagers and 20-something year old adults) are having less sex. Shocking, isn't it, since mass media shows a very different picture? I have more to say about this in a later post that I'll put online shortly.
That report led to last week's piece in The New York Times by conservative op-editorial columnist Ross Douthat, who argued that this was ‘good news' because it might mean that young people will be happier. That is, that by being monogamous, people will be happier. He based this argument on a book, written by sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, called "Premarital Sex in America." He claimed, "Their research, which looks at sexual behavior among contemporary young adults, finds a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness - and between promiscuity and depression."
Douthat takes this one step further and says the correlation is much stronger for women, and that women's emotional well-being is tightly linked to sexual stability. "Among the young people Regnerus and Uecker studied, the happiest women were those with a current sexual partner and only one or two partners in their lifetime. Virgins were almost as happy, though not quite, and then a young woman's likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished."
I do not doubt that some people who are in monogamous relationships are really happy - I have a few close friends who I think fall into this camp. But I also do not doubt that some of those who are cheating on their spouse, or who are single but playing the field, are also very happy. This said, it seems that people with large numbers of sexual partners feel compelled to lie when asked for fear of being called something unsavory. (Yes, that's right, not just women! Both women and men are viewed negatively when they have large numbers of sex partners according to Marks and Fraley, 2005.) So, as you may have guessed, I do not agree that people who have not established monogamous sexual relationships are by default suffering from unhappiness, which is what seems to be implied by Douthat.
I was a bit relieved when I came across an article by reporter Tracy Clark-Flory who framed the Douthat issue (monogamy = happiness) in the reverse - does promiscuity cause depression? She smartly points out first of all that correlation is not causation. It is simply not the case that being monogamous causes you to be happier, or that sexual promiscuity causes you to be unhappy or depressed.
Clark-Flory then talks about a communication she had with an economist, Andrew Oswald, who in 2004 published a paper that revealed that the best number of sexual partners one should have if they want to maximize their happiness is one. (As an aside - he and his co-author found that the people that have the most sex are married people, which seems counterintuitive based on the way media highlights unmarried life as being one with lots of casual sex, and married life as being rather stale and boring.)
What is ultimately my biggest concern is that the message has become lost within all of this discussion. Clark-Flory's interview with Oswald is very revealing of this problem. He stated, "There is no compelling reason to think that larger numbers of sexual partners are truly 'causing' less happiness." Clark-Flory chimes in, that it's more likely that the reverse is true. Then Oswald states, "I find Ms. Right; she makes me happy; I then don't need to look for any other sexual partners. Until I find Ms. Right, it is quite rational to have plenty of sexual partners, and as a bonus it's fun along the way... Until the U.S. National Science Foundation allows us to randomly assign sexual partners to people in lab experiments, and if that happens I certainly have some undergraduate students who would happily sign up to that experimental roster, we are going to have to be super cautious before reading too much causality into the (interesting) correlations that we see in data."
In other words, there has been no experimental proof. The idea that monogamy automatically leads to, or causes, happiness is simply not supported. Likewise, it seems the opposite is true. There is no solid proof that sexual promiscuity leads to unhappiness. There very well could be a relationship - but to say that one causes the other has not been proven. There could exist other factors, confounding variables, that influence this relationship. For example, perhaps those who form monogamous relationships are simply happier to begin with? Maybe those who favour sexual promiscuity are insecure and reluctant to form a committed relationship, and that do to their insecurities they are unhappy? There is no clear conclusion that can be reached.
This complexity is clearly evident in the column by Clark-Flory. She includes part of an interview with one of the authors (Regnerus) of the book Douthat relied upon. She states that Regnerus wishes that people would read his book instead of relying on media sound bites, and that he wouldn't have described the scenario in terms of joy and sorrow. He notes that the book spends several pages "going over the reasons for [the association], and considering the possibility of reverse causation." Clark-Flory writes that, "For example, Regnerus and his co-author note, "Even in high school, girls who become romantically involved (with or without sex) are more likely to become depressed over time ... than are girls who don't, according to one study." Ultimately, while they conclude "that there is definitely evidence for 'selectivity,' that is, things that would predict both depression and more numerous partners, the story that Douthat describes is not untrue" -- but, you know, it's also not necessarily true."
So, then, what's the bottom line? It's simply wrong to assume that sexual promiscuity causes unhappiness. The question is certainly an interesting one, but we must remember that it's a complex issue that cannot be accurately reduced to a media soundbite.
Marks, M. J., & Fraley, R. C. (2005). The sexual double standard: Fact or fiction? Sex Roles, 52 (3/4), 175-186.
Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004). Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study. Scandanivian Journal of Economics, 106(3), 393-415.
Regnerus, M. & Uecker, J. (2010). Premartial sex in America: How young Americans meet, mate, and think about marriage. Oxford University Press.
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