I recently attended a meeting that many would consider anachronistic: Standards Night, an annual gathering for Mormon youth and their parents encouraging chaste and porn-free living. Some call this ritual and others like it nothing more than a chance to shame and stigmatize normal adolescent behavior. Admittedly, the baby (teaching moral standards) has sometimes been immersed in bathwater (messaging that leaves kids guilt-ridden and hopeless about measuring up). Many a memoir or critically acclaimed novel covers this coming-of-age territory well.
But this Standards Night—as I imagine similar gatherings play out, in Evangelical or Catholic circles—acknowledged the likelihood that some youth had already fallen short in the pornography and sexual-activity arenas. The messaging included a heavy dose of forgiveness terminology, which emphasized yet another anachronism, repentance, assuring those who’d messed up that they could try again. And again. And again.
Most important, the meeting emphasized the long-term gratification linked with delaying sex until marriage—and here the research offers a counterintuitive comeback to the assumption that high moral standards wreak havoc on the psyches of young men and women in traditional religious cultures. Extensive, rigorous, and long-term academic studies that control for demographic and socioeconomic factors continue to associate church-going youth with academic achievement, high self-esteem, optimism, ability to reason morally, strong family bonds, and low levels of risky behavior such as crime, substance abuse, and premarital sex.
Avoiding premarital sex not only confers present benefits—such as bypassing sexting, revenge porn, teen pregnancy, abortion, and STDs, which are now at record high levels—it also creates a buffer against future divorce. Those who refrain from sexual activity before marriage are statistically more likely to create stable, committed marriages, marriages that research correlates with better mental and physical health, increased financial stability, and (here’s another counterintuitive fact) greater sexual satisfaction. This kind of gratification really is long-term, and covers just about every aspect of life.
Abiding by moral rules, especially when they are explained meaningfully and mercifully, gives teenagers swimming in a sea of relativism and nihilism what David Brooks calls a “moral vocabulary.” Sympathy for multiple generations of family breakdown wrought by moral anarchy isn’t enough. People need norms, writes Brooks, “basic codes and rules woven into daily life” that offer an alternative to the “plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refuse[s] to assert that one way of behaving [is] better than another.”
Few teenagers, however, are getting the encouragement they need to swim against the zeitgeist. Instead, well-meaning role models hand out condoms while messaging that no bodily urge need be denied. No wonder the recent Singles in America survey shows that millennials are okay with sleeping with someone before a first date, but get turned off if their partner’s phone is cracked.
Yet short-term sexual gratification isn’t all that gratifying, a conclusion that Donna Freitas, a fellow with the University of Notre Dame, reached in ten years of researching college students’ attitudes about the hookup culture. Recently, at an Ivy League version of Standards Night, she told a Princeton audience gathered for the Love and Fidelity Network conference that young people are deeply disappointed and harmed by emotionally disengaged sexual encounters. “One student said it’s like a competition to see who can care the least,” Freitas explained, “and another told me that ‘whoever cares the least wins.’”
Kids like these grow up, I heard one radio minister say, as if driving in a blinding snowstorm with no lines on the road. Those with enough wherewithal sometimes draw their own lines. I remember a creative writing class in which a fraternity student’s autobiographical sketch described the self-loathing he experienced after running into girls on campus he had seduced. He chose celibacy, he wrote, not because of religious convictions, but because his conscience drove him to it. But as Tom Wolfe, whose Charlotte Simmons character emblematized the moral wasteland of campus sexual mores, observes, “Eventually everybody needs reinforcement by some kind of authority.”
Unfortunately, many young men craving lines are drawing them in the wrong places. For instance, white nationalism sites often require a strict code of conduct that bans porn, promiscuity, and tattoos, and promotes a self-disciplined work and fitness ethic. But people of color need not apply. Has it come to this? Where youth in and out of college have nowhere better to turn for voices of restraint? Ironically, the educated elite, with their long-term marriages and two-parent households, exemplify “the secret sauce of economic well-being that nobody on the left wants to admit to using.”
Even when kids turn to religion, it may get harder for them to find church-going friends, if Christians retreat into their own enclaves—an idea gaining traction as the Benedict Option, thanks to Rod Dreher. To his credit, Dreher insists that Benedict Option enclaves must remain hospitable to refugees from the sexual revolution and others craving rules and moral paradigms. These sojourners do exist. My friend’s son, during medical school orientation meetings, ran into a young woman who, on discovering he was LDS, asked him please to invite her to any and all church social activities. She wasn’t interested in the religion, she said, but she liked hanging out with Mormons and their no-alcohol, wholesome ethos. Even Naomi Wolfe once expressed a similar sense of “tradition envy.” Visiting an Orthodox Jewish wife in an Israeli settlement, Wolfe compared the shrouded sanctity of the Orthodox marital bedroom to the atmosphere in back home, in which, due to pornography, “our husbands see naked women all day.” Wolfe wrote of her friend: “She must feel, I thought, so hot.”
For the record, Mormon youth leaders don’t harp on sex and porn and the rules all that often. Most of the time, we’re talking about the weightier matters of the law, trying to get kids to be nice and follow Jesus, or taking them camping, refereeing the activities they come up with, and trying to get them off their %#&@ phones. My culture isn’t perfect, we readily admit, and a lot of good, moral people exist outside of it. But every once in a while, we do, with some trepidation, lay down the rules. Somebody’s got to do it.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer in Salt Lake City and co-author of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project 2014 Report.