Ross Douthat (whose name I always read as doubt-that) argues what might be a some-what reasonable position on pre-marital sex:

When social conservatives talk about restoring the link between sex, monogamy and marriage, they often have these kinds of realities in mind. The point isn’t that we should aspire to some Arcadia of perfect chastity. Rather, it’s that a high sexual ideal can shape how quickly and casually people pair off, even when they aren’t living up to its exacting demands. The ultimate goal is a sexual culture that makes it easier for young people to achieve romantic happiness — by encouraging them to wait a little longer, choose more carefully and judge their sex lives against a strong moral standard.

This is what’s at stake, for instance, in debates over abstinence-based sex education. Successful abstinence-based programs (yes, they do exist) don’t necessarily make their teenage participants more likely to save themselves for marriage. But they make them more likely to save themselves for somebody, which in turn increases the odds that their adult sexual lives will be a source of joy rather than sorrow.

It’s also what’s at stake in the ongoing battle over whether the federal government should be subsidizing Planned Parenthood. Obviously, social conservatives don’t like seeing their tax dollars flow to an organization that performs roughly 300,000 abortions every year. But they also see Planned Parenthood’s larger worldview — in which teen sexual activity is taken for granted, and the most important judgment to be made about a sexual encounter is whether it’s clinically “safe” — as the enemy of the kind of sexual idealism they’re trying to restore.

A few points:

1. Abstinence means, ahem, abstaining from sex until marriage. If a person has sex before marriage, than abstinence-only teaching was rejected. If Douthat wanted to spit-hairs and argue that abstinence-based sex ed is what is successful, then we need to clarify what the heck that means. For Douthat, it seems to mean “don’t have sex before marriage unless you think this person is marriage material, then it’s ok.” Confused? Good.

2. Sexual activity is a spectrum. The variables are number of partners total over a life time; the number of active partners at any given moment in time; the definition of the relationships with each partner; and the duration of the relationships. A person might have 10 sexual partners over her life time, 7 of which are casual, short-term, physical relationships, 2 of which are intimate, long-term, monogamous relationships, and one of which is a marriage. Is that person promiscuous? Is she monogamous? Does she sound normal or like an extreme? Which form of sexual education would best benefit her?

3. Monogamy is not marriage. Yes, technically that’s what the word means, but it’s  not how we use it. It’s not how Douthat uses it. Monogamy cannot both lead to marriage and be marriage. He, and the rest of us, use it to mean “a committed, long-term, intimate relationship between two partners.” I’d argue that monogamy is healthy and beneficial, but that marriage is over emphasized. Just as one may have several best friends over the course of life, as interests and identity changes, it is not irrational to have a few monogamous partners over the course of one’s life. Humans crave intimacy, but we aren’t all built to sustain it.