For years, conservative Christians have decried the “hookup culture” among young people that they believe is eroding the foundation of our nation. America’s youth, they claim, is having sex more frequently and with more partners. But according to new data, these Christians are wrong.
A sweeping new study conducted by sociologist Martin A. Monto of the University of Portland demonstrates that today’s young people are having no more sex than did their parents and they aren’t having sex with more partners, either. In a paper presented at the American Sociological Association, Monto stated there is “no evidence of substantial changes in sexual behavior that would support the proposition that there is a new or pervasive ‘hookup culture’ among contemporary college students.”
How did so many Christians get this one so wrong? The answer seems to be a little thing called confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their preconceived notions or beliefs.
In response to America’s cultural revolution, conservative Christians in the early 1970’s began to preach about America’s “moral decline” or what Robert Bork famously labeled “slouching towards Gomorrah.” According to this narrative, America was abandoning its moral roots and becoming a more sinful, secular nation. As this narrative penetrated Christian communities, every anecdote of a young person contracting an STD or impregnating their teenage girlfriend fit nicely into the larger story Christians were telling, and coincidently, using to generate fear, raise money and political power.
But there are several problems with the macro-narrative of moral decline. First, those who promulgate this narrative routinely over-exaggerate cultural changes. A good example of this is the idea that “half of all marriages end in divorce,” a line repeated by conservative Christians in the 1990s and early 2000s that has has seen been shown false. Marriage statistics are a tricky thing, and according to the best data, it looks as though divorce rates in the United States are actually decreasing.
Another example of this is the line that “abortion rates are skyrocketing.” Actually, abortion rates held steady in the early 2000s and both the number and rate of abortions have dropped in recent years.
The second problem with the narrative of moral decline is that there is no “moral quotient.” How exactly does one objectively calculate the morality of a society? The answer is, one can’t. The issues one considers to be moral markers and the weight given to each of those markers differ based on one’s political and religious views.
The narrative of moral decline from which the myth of the “hookup culture” has arisen is based on another illusion I call “the myth of the golden era.” It’s the idea that there was or ever has been a moral high point in history. (For most people, the “golden era” seems to not-so-coincidentally coincide the time of their childhood.)
After speaking at a local church recently, an elderly man proceeded to tell me that he believed America’s moral fabric was disintegrating. “I wish we could go back to the 1950’s,” he said. “I lived through that time and that was a really good time.” Of course it was a good time for him, a young white male with a flattop. But I bet there are a few African-Americans who would rather not return to an era when it was legal to discriminate against their entire race. And I’m sure there are a handful of women who are glad they’re no longer living in a decade where domestic abuse was often swept under the rug.
The depravity of humans makes history look less like a moral ski slope and more like a moral game of whack-a-mole. Injustices and evils exist in every era, and about the time we eliminate a few of them, we’re forced to face a whole new set.
Sex among college students isn’t all that different than it has ever been, but this doesn’t mean we live in Shangri-La either. From abortion to unjust war, state-sanctioned torture to abject poverty, we’ve have plenty of problems we must work to resolve. As Christians, we do not merely decry the evils du jour; we also look forward to the day when Christ returns and we can put down our moral mallets because there are no moral moles left to squash.