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Adelle Waldman: What Ross Douthat Doesn't Know About Sex and the Single Girl

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“I don’t think there’s any correlation at all between being critical of Nate and Nate’s behavior, and being likely to vote Republican,” Adelle Waldman told me flatly Monday afternoon. It was a day after New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat had used the story of “Nate,” the protagonist of Waldman’s 2013 debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., to argue that young women would be better off if they were less generous with premarital sex, and that they—and, by extension, their fathers—are leaning rightward as they come to realize this.

In the novel (which I reviewed and which I recommend), Nate is a bit of a careless, clueless cad. And he is this way in part because he can be: 20-ish and 30-ish Brooklyn single men, smiled upon by numbers and biology, are able to move through their romantic lives in a bubble of self-involvement and still manage to find sexual partners. “One obvious solution to the Nathaniel P. problem is a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them,” Douthat argues. “Once you’ve flirted with that insight, you’ve tiptoed a little closer to something that might be described as social conservatism.”

Waldman said she was “flattered” that Douthat cited her novel, and was also not a little thrilled “that people would talk about it as if it has bearing on reality. I didn’t want to write about some strictly literary universe.” But she didn’t join him in his conclusion. “Women are often told that whether a relationship succeeds or fails is their fault—that they did something wrong, whether it’s by not holding out or holding out for too long or just their general behavior,” she explained. “That does more harm to women’s well-being.”

To be sure, Douthat gets Nate. (In fact, as a 2002 graduate of Harvard, Douthat was certainly the classmate of people who bear extremely close resemblances to Nate.) Douthat’s description of Nate “taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished” is pretty on-the-money.

And I don’t think Douthat was wrong to detect in Waldman, who elsewhere has called herself a “zealous moralist,” a strain of “moral traditionalism.” The reader of Waldman’s novel is not likely to sympathize with Nate. Though stipulating that she believes “feminism is a net positive for women in almost every way,” Waldman allowed that the way we live now is slightly more complicated. “As a culture, post-sexual revolution, we’ve adopted a mentality that makes casual sex the norm, like it’s the cool way to be,” she observed. “We’ve all adopted the attitude of a Philip Roth character, of Portnoy or something. I don’t know if that’s great for men or women—not because women need to be protected.”

I can imagine Douthat nodding along, so it is crucial to see where he and she part ways. For Douthat, in his biological essentialism, this libertine culture is the end of the conversation: It is bad, especially for women, and the solution is for women to be more selective about sex and sexual partners. For Waldman, a believer in human autonomy and the ability of individuals to make good choices, it’s the beginning. For one thing, it is unfair to place primary responsibility on women to fix this problem. And for another, it is less of a problem than Douthat makes it out to be. “It’s important to keep in mind that the Brooklynites in my book or that he brings up in his column do tend to get married and have stable marriages in spite of this chaotic sexual environment,” she said. “I think that’s because people really aren’t that simple: That men are capable of living in the world where women will sleep with them and also choosing to commit to a particular woman. I think that’s probably a better model for relationships.”

In my reading, Douthat makes the classic, noble conservative mistake of assuming that rigid social conventions must do the work that we cannot trust young adults to do themselves. Waldman’s opinion (and mine) is that granting young men and women the social freedom to make their own way will result, most of the time and more times than not, in liberated decision-making that leaves everyone better off.

While hesitating to be too much of a spoiler, Waldman explained, “The person Nate winds up with in the book is one that he slept with on the first date. And that was deliberate, because it doesn’t ring true to my experience or to people I know that relationships are better when you wait to have sex.” She added, in a line that should only sound gooey if you have never been through it, “I think that what really makes relationships work depends on the two people and what they bring to it at that moment in time.”