Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Which I Sympathize With Bristol Palin, Part 1.

No, really. Hear me out on this.

If you're not familiar with the story, here it is: shortly after Sarah Palin was selected as McCain's running mate, the news broke that her unmarried daughter Bristol was pregnant. This set off a media feeding frenzy, of course; Sarah was the favorite candidate of the social conservatives in the last election, and Bristol's pregnancy became a mocking front-page story.

Well, recently Bristol was interviewed by Greta van Susteren on Fox News (hat tip to And in this interview, Bristol makes a noteworthy comment:
No, I don’t want to get into detail about that. But I think abstinence is like … I don’t know how to put it, like … the main … Everyone should be abstinent, but it’s not realistic at all.
There were a number of other things in that interview that were interesting--like the fact that having and raising a baby is really hard work, and that teens would be better off "wait[ing] ten years" (which would have put Bristol at 28 instead of 18):
I think everyone should just wait ten years. Just because it's so much easier if you're married and if you have a house and a career. It's just so much easier.
Funny thing is that when I look at these comments, I find I agree about 80% with one of them, and I disagree about 65% with the other, and...

...well, they're not the ones you think.


For your consideration I'd like to present you with a trilemma.

What the heck is a trilemma? You ask. Good question, because it's a nasty sounding word. But in my defense, I can honestly say that I didn't invent the term. Here's an example of a trilemma that we face in engineering: if you're trying to hire a bunch of engineers to build something, you may be able to get it fast; you may be able to get it cheap, and you may get them to do a good job; but you rarely if ever get all three. At most, you can only expect two: if you want a good product at a low price, it will take a long time. If you want a good product fast, it will cost a lot of money. And if you want something fast and inexpensive, expect it to be poorly designed and built. Fast, Cheap, Good: pick any two.

(And we engineers sometimes snicker when we think of NASA's philosophy of the 1990's: Faster, Cheaper, Better. Wrong answer. It wound up producing a lot of probes quickly and inexpensively that went off course after the software neglected to convert between miles and kilometers....)

Well, when I think of the way our society handles issues of sex, abstinence, marriage, family, and faith, it seems to me that we Christians are up against a pretty major trilemma here.

Pick Any Two:

1. First, as Christians we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and this includes what it has to say about sexuality. This means that a husband and wife are pretty much free to do what they want with each other, so long as they are acting in love and with due consideration to the other's needs. However, the Bible at various places rules out any sexual act that does not fall within this approved context. Sex between unmarried people is ruled out; sex between same-sex partners is ruled out; sex with a prostitute is condemned; and so forth.

I won't go into the book/chapter/verse at this time (though if pressed on the matter, I will be able to provide them in the comments). Suffice it to say, it's in there, and anyone who's read the Bible has read them.

Now, the Bible doesn't give a really strong closed-form explanation of why sex is to be restricted to within the Marriage relationship, so anyone who attempts to give one is speculating, and their explanations must be accepted as speculation. My own guess--which I concede is just a guess--is that, because sex is the mechanism by which the next generation comes into existence, the sexual mores of a society have a huge impact on the next generation. You talk about who is having sex with whom in a society, and the circumstances under which it is happening--and I can tell you how big the next generation will be, and whether those children are brought into the world in families that can raise them properly and pass on their values. From that, I can pretty well predict whether the society will be stable over time, or whether it is prone to cultural drift and ultimately cultural collapse.

Well, I don't claim that this is the only reason that God gave the rules that He did, or even that this is his primary reason; He may have had totally different reasons for the rules he gave. Still, I suspect that there truly is a natural law regarding the exercise of sexuality in a society. Societies that get it right (or, are at least in compliance with that natural law) survive to future generations; while societies that get it wrong lose the ability to pass on their values and institutions, and thus go into decline.

Nevertheless, while it's not harmful to speculate about why God said what He did, we should never confuse our speculations with His words. The reason we obey God's commands on sexuality are precisely that they are God's commands, and we trust Him.

So, this is the first horn of the trilemma: we need to be abstinent until marriage, and then faithful within marriage.

2. The second point relates to biology. Our bodies were designed to become fully sexually mature, starting sometime during the late teen years.

This point is key: people are entirely capable of falling deeply, passionately in love, well before they reach the age of 20. And this is not necessarily just "puppy love"; these are real, adult-strength emotions. In fact, one of the reasons that the teen years are such a tumultuous time is precisely that the "kids" (who are, biologically, no longer kids) are facing these adult emotions for the first time, full force, without all those years of experience to guide and temper their actions.

And it isn't just their emotions, either. Teen-agers, both male and female, are hard-wired to start competing for mates. In the case of young men, this often involves aggressiveness, risk-taking, and various attention-grabbing stunts. In the case of young women, there is often a strong urge to make oneself as physically attractive as possible, through dress, dieting, make-up, or flirtatious behavior.

And physically, young men and women are reaching their reproductive prime when they hit their late teens and early twenties. This is not merely the age when our bodies hit (note the past tense there) their point of greatest physical attractiveness and athletic prowess: that is also the age when the human body is best able to get pregnant, to handle the pregnancy without complications, to deliver healthy babies, and chase them around when they become toddlers.

In comparison to the late-teen or early-twenties mother, women who put off their pregnancies until later face a host of problems. Consider my wife's history (shared with her permission):
  • We married in 2000, when Tonya was not quite 33. We wanted at least two (and preferably more) children, so we did the math, and decided we needed not to wait long before trying.
  • First pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at 34, after 7 months of trying. Pillowfight Fairy came along when Tonya was 35.
  • Second pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at 36, after 8 months of trying. Adrenaline Junkie came along when Tonya was 37.
  • Third pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at 38, miscarried shortly thereafter.
  • Fourth pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant a few months later, and the Happy Boy was born when Tonya was 39.
  • Fifth pregnancy: we're not so sure about this one. At age 40, Tonya started having all the pregnancy symptoms. But after a few weeks, it stopped, and Tonya's body took several months to get back into a normal routine. Tonya is convinced it was an early-term miscarriage.
  • Sixth pregnancy: Tonya got pregnant at age 41. The baby has the Trisomy-13 chromosomal abnormality, which is much more likely with older mothers than with younger.
So from six pregnancies, we've gotten three healthy kids, one unhealthy, and two miscarriages. And, Tonya is now having to chase around a very active two-year-old boy while she's six months pregnant. She is absolutely beat when I come home from work.

Now, we wouldn't change the way we've done things; after all, we got married when we did because that's when we were both ready for it. Still, we would hardly describe the above sequence as ideal. And sometimes I wish that we'd been ready for each other sooner, so we could have enjoyed being married while we were both still in our twenties, and so that our pregnancies would have been healthier.

I look at all the stuff I've mentioned here, and I have to conclude that there is a natural law at work here, as well: God designed us to become sexually mature in our late teens and early twenties. The reason that our young men and women have such a hard time remaining celibate, is that they were designed to pair up and start making families at that age. That's what their bodies were designed to do, and that's what their hormones are trying to get them to do, and that's the time of their lives that they are physically best capable of doing it. Sure, they can wait and start families later, but it's not optimal, from a biological standpoint.

So that's the second horn of the trilemma: Humans were designed to find mates, make love, and start raising families--in the late teens and early twenties.

3. The third horn of the trilemma involves social attitudes on age and marriage.

My parents were married at ages 23 and 22, and this was normal--even a touch late--for their generation. My in-laws were born a few years earlier, and when they married at 22 and 20, that was definitely considered late. Of course, my in-laws were married in the 1950s, and that decade was a bit of an outlier in our country's history; even back in the colonial days, it was rare that our average marriage age got down to what we had in the 1950's. But viewed historically, there's nothing really out of the ordinary with the ages at marriage of either set of parents.

But for a couple living today, to get married at 23 and 22--let alone 22 and 20--would be considered downright irresponsible. That is widely seen as too young. Why, they're right out of college! They're barely out of high school! They haven't established their careers, they haven't established their own life paths, they haven't figured out who they are yet. It would be so much better for them to wait to get married until they have the life experience necessary to handle the challenges of marriage responsibly, right?

And it needs to be said, there's a good deal of truth in this argument. The fact is, marriages between people in their late twenties and early thirties tend to be much more successful (measured in terms of lower divorce rates) than marriages between late-teens or early-twenties types.

This fact has worked its way into Christian pre-marital counseling. Tonya and I took a class at our old church entitled "Finding the Love of Your Life", developed by Dr. Neil Clark Warren (founder of This class was all about finding a good marriage partner (or, rather, identifying and rejecting those that wouldn't be good marriage partners) and about preparing oneself for marriage. They brought out the statistics I mentioned above; marriages that were started when the bride and groom are in their late twenties or early thirties, tend to be much more successful than those that start when they're younger.

And there are plenty of reasons why this would be the case. Younger people tend to have more financial struggles, they still have issues with immaturity that haven't been worked out yet; they often have unrealistic expectations about themselves and their mates, that haven't been worn down yet by age and experience; they tend to be at earlier (and less stable) phases in their careers; and so forth. Certainly, I've known several people who got married young; and they had more trouble making it work than those who got married later.

So here's the third horn of the trilemma: marriages--at least in our society--work best when the people get married when they're good and mature. That means, say... no earlier than 25. 28 is better. 30 or later is best.


To sum up the trilemma:
  1. God expects us to abstain from sex, outside of marriage.
  2. We are physically designed to reach full reproductive maturity in our late teens/early twenties.
  3. In our culture, marriage is increasingly put off until age 28.
Pick any two.

Our secular society has recognized the fact of item 2, and has recognized the wisdom of item 3. And because of that, it has by and large rejected item 1. After all, if:
  • people were designed to become sexually active in their late teen years
  • if their late teens and early twenties are the time when they are most attractive to the opposite sex, and most attracted to the opposite sex,
  • if that's when they reach their physical maturity,
  • if marriage works best when they get to age 28
  • if young marriages end in disaster at an alarmingly high rate
  • if people aren't deemed mature enough to handle the demands of mature relationships until they've had several years of experience they can bring to the marriage
then it follows that sex before marriage is a good thing. It follows that there's something unnatural, even cruel, about our prohibition against sex before marriage. And I think I'm on solid ground when I state that there are many people in this country--including in places of authority, like schools--who think this way.

But, if you wish to have a society that obeys God's commands, and where marriage is put off until age 28, you're going to have to figure out how to put a cork in it from the time our young men and women become sexually mature, for a full decade. And they have to do it while their hormones are raging, while their bodies are screaming at them to pair up (the way they were designed to!), in a culture that has pretty well rejected the first tenet of the trilemma and is encouraging them to explore their feelings (and their bodies). In short, you have to suppress number 2. Bristol Palin just described this option as "not realistic at all"; and I think we should at least consider that there may be some truth in what she says.

So the third option: if you wish to have a society that obeys God's commands, and simultaneously recognizes that we have a strong sex drive and a desire to find a mate, beginning in the late teens, then we have to dispense with the late-marriage paradigm, and figure out how to make the earlier marriages socially acceptable again. And, among other things, this will require that we figure out how to make them work.


I have further thoughts on this, which I'll need to expand upon sometime in the future when it's not so late.

("Sometime in the future when it's not so late." Now there's a fun paradox....)

But one last comment to head off some of the remarks I know I'm going to get: I recognize that you will occasionally find people out there who have the strength of character (and the strength of will) to abstain all the way until age 28 or later. I am by no means saying they don't exist. And to those who do, more power to you. I'm not sure, however, that these people form anything like a majority, even of the children of Christian families. And I suspect that if we continue expecting our children all to be like this, we're going to be sorely disappointed. We need to confront the trilemma head-on, because I fear that we Christians are the ones fighting Natural Law here.

More thoughts to come....


HamstersEverywhere said...

Further support for your theory that the best option available is probably to reject late marriage may be found in 1 Cor 7: "it is better to marry than to burn with passion."

Of course, if you read the whole chapter, you find that Paul (and thus the Bible) actually favors celibacy over marriage, but seems to regard celibacy as a gift given to some but not to all. By extension, the ability to wait a long time for marriage without causing/suffering some harm is not given to all. Even without actual sex outside of marriage, that "burn[ing] with passion" that Paul mentions can have undesirable effects, especially in the long term.

Does any of that click at all? I'm kind of rambling here; I don't have much data to compare with my vague ideas.

silvermine said...

See, I think we're better off keeping #1 and tossing #3. I don't think marriage works best when people marry later.

Real grownups who are not selfish grow together. They choose a life path that allows them to grow in the marriage, not get divorced. I think far too many people never grow up into responsible adults, and society right now actively engages in infantilizing teenagers and people in their early 20s.

But then, I was engaged when I was 17. Is he perfect? Of course not. No one is. But I adore him, and want to be with him. People these days seem to be looking for the perfect person and get divorced when their mate turns out to be real, not fantasy.

I wish I had kids younger -- I was 26 when I had my first, but I suppose it was good to get a "career" going. On the other hand, working and raising kids at the same time is a very hard path, and I don't like it. (I now work part-time, with a significant amount of flextime telecommuting! That way I am home most days with my kids and we can homeschool).

So yeah. We were engaged when I was 17 and he was 20. That was 15 years ago. :)

And I'm not even really Christian. (My parents are Catholic, but I'm pretty much agnostic. But I do appreciate and agree with most the common morals of the world's religions.) I think promiscuous behavior destroys people. And I think people give up on relationships far too easily.

(The closest thing I can say is I'm Taoist, I suppose. It's about being good because it's right to be good. Not because you're expecting reward, but because the path of life without regrets is the best way to be.)

And yes, I'm completely rambling. Hopefully i make some sort of sense.

Crimson Wife said...

I have to disagree with the third horn of your trilemma. I studied psychology in college and the problem with the statistic you cite about marriages being more likely to fail when the couple is younger is that it conflates two issues: age and other demographic factors such as education and income. So long as the bride is >20 and the groom is >22, there is no difference in divorce rates once income and education are controlled for. With the exception of the very youngest couples, age isn't the risk factor- it's being less educated and/or less affluent.

FWIW, I was a month shy of 22 and my DH had just turned 23 when we got married. We recently celebrated our 10th anniversary, and the biggest risk for divorce is in the first decade of marriage.

Theocentrica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Theocentrica said...

What about the young people who are mature, who understand marriage as a vocation, and not merely as a free ticket to sexual pleasure? Especially this new generation of homeschoolers? I think there are more serious, level-headed young men and women than most people realize, many of whom may have the same amount of maturity as the average 30-year-old. I agree that marriages between young (or older or any) people who are only interested in exploring their bodies won't last, but if they are truly entering into the union to please God, they will endure. ^_^

Here are two links a friend sent me, a while back- food for thought.

Roger Z said...

Tim- wow. I am Catholic, I am a fairly firm believer in natural law, but wow is this a good exposition of the modern dilemma. Good job. Another great, thought-filled post. And, in respect of it, don't let anyone under 28 look at my most recent post. :)

Anna said...

I agree with Crimson Wife and Silvermine. I'm doing the three kids and a pregnancy thing, too, so I'm not so verbose.