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How the GOP is bad for your sex life


Love and Money


by Ken Mondschein



p>By the time he was my age, my father had already married, seen his two sons born, landed a good job with the New York City government, and bought the row house in Brooklyn where my brother and I grew up. Conversely, I have spent the six years since I left graduate school at the age of 23 floating from job to job, apartment to apartment, and relationship to relationship. Being financially secure enough to plan for the future—to buy instead of rent, to marry and raise children, to set aside some money for my retirement—is a pipe dream. Nor can I blame the fact that I decided to live in Manhattan and work in the notoriously unstable publishing industry for my woes: My twenty- and thirty-something friends, even the married ones with normal jobs who live in the 'burbs, are nowhere near financially secure, either. And, according to the statistics, we're not alone.

As heretical as it might be to those who still persist in the Hollywood-and-diamond-ring retailer-endorsed myth in love as a mystical force, the fact is that economics have a very real effect on our personal lives—and for all of the Bush administration's "defense of marriage" legislation and "family values" rhetoric, the erosion of workers' rights and the growing financial disparity between the rich and the rest of us has not only made it more and more difficult for Americans to actually start families, but it has encouraged a culture in which sex has been reduced to a market force and the self has become the ultimate commodity. The so-called "defense of marriage act" is a farce: the threat to marriage is not gays and lesbians choosing to join their lives and raise children together; it is well-paying American jobs being shipped to New Delhi.

In his recent book Perfectly Legal (easily one of the most important works of nonfiction to be published in the last several years), David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer for his tax-reporting for the New York Times, writes that since 1972, real salaries have risen by only a nickel an hour for the average wage-earner. The top one-hundredth of a percent of Americans earns five percent of the wealth, and, as much as the much-vaunted tax relief was supposed to give a break to working families, it is the rich and superrich who can hide their assets in tax shelters, while the rest of us shoulder the burden for them. Meanwhile, tax laws have made it cheaper to fire employees than to contribute to their 401(K)s, and, despite 1999's Vizcaino v. Microsoft decision, companies continue to use legal loopholes to reclassify employees as "independent contractors" responsible for their own health insurance, unemployment insurance, and retirement plans—on top of the student loan and credit card debt that already cripple the middle class. As Paul Krugman remarked in the December 18th issue of The Nation, that old pedophile Horatio Alger is quite dead.

The Wal-Martization of the economy—the insistence of the owner/managerial class that the wage-earning class continually drive up corporate stock prices by producing more profits with less investment—means that what happened to the factory workers of the Rust Belt in the 1970s is now becoming a universal American experience. As research for this article, I posed the question of how economics have adversely affected personal lives on the widely-read discussion sites and Craigslist, and received several dozen responses. One reader, Jen from Indiana, expressed the effect her recent layoff had on her relationship with her boyfriend rather succinctly: "I have less than no money and no job now that my department has been sucked into the corporate hole known as Scholastic, Inc., and I feel bad because I used to be the one who bought things for me and my guy. I feel like total shit because I have to ask him to buy me food once in a while now-and he's not in great financial shape either because he's in school. I just thank God that I don't have to worry about housing or my health insurance right now. . . and I can't even file for fucking unemployment. Fuck Scholastic. Yeah, I'm pissed."

The decline of traditional patterns of family life—first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Baby in a baby carriage—has paralleled the fall of the middle class. While they were dating, our parents and grandparents evaluated each other as potential life-partners and helpmates; I, on the other hand, do not know if I will be living in the same city, let alone dating the same person, in a year. Today, the median age at first marriage is 26.8 for men and 25.1 for women. Almost one third of the U.S. population is single, more than one quarter of U.S. households are people living alone, and as many couples cohabit as are married. If the traditional incentive for a long-term relationship—that is, building a shared life together—is a pipe dream, why not live for transitory pleasures? Like corporations acquiring smaller companies solely in order to bolster their own stock prices, my peers and myself so no reason not to pursue relationships based solely on short-term goals.

The cadre that does choose to have children, meanwhile, is growing older and older. The average American women giving birth to her first child is now 25.1 years old, an all-time high which is explained not only by lower teen birth rates (which conservatives credit to abstinence-education programs, liberals credit to the late-90s economic upswing fostering a renewed sense of hope in the future, and those who actually spend any time around teenagers credit to the fact that oral sex is the preferred birth control method), but also that more and more women have been waiting until their late 30s and early 40s to have children. Even after having a child, the two-income family is no longer a statement of female liberation, but a necessity. The middle class is stuck running to stand still, facing inevitable and irresolvable conflicts between work, children, and personal time.

The result is a stressed-out, overweight population rushing to and fro in their SUVs, subsisting on fast food and junk culture, with crumbling marriages, nonexistent sex lives, hardening arteries, and children who, on average, spend 800 less hours a year with their parents. As a married man from San Francisco Bay area responded to my survey, "I'm 38, and I've been married for seven years. My wife was my high school sweetheart twenty-two years back, now she's forty and we have a two-year-old daughter. I work three jobs (accounting by day and teaching at night), and my wife, who is a psychiatrist, also works three jobs. Our marriage is on the brink of doom-we've been reduced to cohabitation, pooled financing, and parenting. We have no time or energy for intimacy or relationship enhancement or development. Either we give up all the creature comforts that we have grown so fond and dependent on-or we continue down the path we're treading and end up in divorce court."

Of course, from medieval peasants keeping a village's fields together through marriage alliances, to Jane Austen's characters introducing suitors along with their incomes, to Victorian courtships prolonged until the young man could support a wife and family and the "charity girls" of the New York slums, the interrelation between love and money is as old as history. The economic boom of the 1940s and 1950s fostered the postwar cult of domesticity: Early marriage, working fathers and stay-at-home mothers, and a new car in the garage every year were taken for granted. All of that changed when the Baby Boomers-the first generation to have their culture marketed to them through television, instead of imparted through their elders-came of age at a moment when three factors converged: The post-GI Bill universalizing of white-collar upward mobility, which required putting off marriage and childbirth until after years of education and entrance-level low-paying jobs; the uniquely American sense of I-want-it-now entitlement; and the birth-control pill, which removed the final argument against premarital sex that years of Kinsey and Freud and Margaret Mead had been unable to destroy.

What is shocking is how both the economic and romantic landscape has been transformed in the years since the Sexual Revolution. The "urban tribes" that Ethan Watters has so mythologized came about not because of some strange countercultural zeitgeist brewed up at Burning Man, but because our modern way of living and working has simultaneously alienated us from our families, neighborhoods, and other traditional means of support, atomized us into marketing niches, and Wal-Martized us into production units instead of employees. What we are likely to consume according to our age and gender has been scientifically calculated; our financial futures have not. And, as NYU sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in his 1998 The Corrosion of Character, the practice of treating people like pieces of fruit—eating the pulp and throwing away the peel (to paraphrase Willy Loman)—has led to a general decline in long-term thinking and commitment.

Faced with the pressures of free-market romance, the pressure to remain youthful and attractive, to keep up with sexual styles and fashions, has become overwhelming. Meanwhile, a large market of perpetual singles has meant that marketed hedonism, from Deep Throat to "erotic play parties" such as New York City's One Leg Up and CAKE, has become a profitable business. Nowhere is this more evident than in Internet personals, the drive-thrus of dating, which allow for a maximum payoff with a minimum of invested time. In the race to consume new experiences, people, and identities, we can now take the express checkout line.

If Congress and the Bush administration were serious about restoring "family values," they would do more than opiate the masses with slogans taken from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; they would take steps to enable the middle class to perpetuate itself and its values. By eliminating the tax loopholes that enable billions of dollars to slip out of the public coffers, we could afford national health care, parental leave, childcare, and public education. By ensuring workers' rights, a living wage, and unemployment insurance, we could take the insecurity out of starting a family. The values of real social conservatism would, in fact, seem to be identical to those of social democracy.


Anyone wanting to be the mother of our children may e-mail


Posted February 22, 2004 12:33 AM






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