Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, has a theory about daughters: They have a way of making parents more socially conservative.
This is a common trope among men, and even President Obama has shown his reactionary side when discussing the dating habits of Malia and Sasha (the hilarious punch line involves a drone strike). But Douthat is relying on more than the intuition of a Papa Bear, citing a Pew study that came out last month showing that parents with daughters are 14 percent less likely to vote for Democrats and 11 percent more likely to vote for Republicans.
“Things are more complicated than you thought, liberals!" Douthat crows. "You can love your daughters, want the best for them, and find yourself drawn to conservative ideas!"
First of all, as Jessica Grose at Slate notes, the data from this study came from a 1994 survey. Needless to say, America's views on sex have probably changed somewhat in the past two decades. Plus, as Grose writes, “When it comes to reproductive freedom, Republicans of the early to mid-1990s were practically liberated compared with the Republicans of 2013.”
But more problematically, Douthat's argument harks back to the idea that men instantly turn conservative on sexual matters as soon as they see their own daughters venturing out into the dating scene, replete with boys whose rapacious motives fathers know all too well. Even if well intentioned, Douthat betrays some rather outdated notions of women and their relationship to sex, though he does his best to square his views by citing Girls and a popular novel that the kids are reading these days.
Douthat focuses on Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., and specifically the character Nate, a typical Brooklyn literary type who won’t commit to marriage and isn’t the most reliable boyfriend in the world. For all his flaws, Nate is capable of causing the women in his life much misery by "taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage, but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choice — marriage, kids — than do men," Douthat writes.
This is but one problem of extrapolating societal lessons from a single work of fiction. Douthat ends up presuming that women get into relationships with Nate types because they want certain things — marriage, children. They would never, ever engage with the Nates of this world for a purely casual affair the way their male counterparts do.
Worse, Douthat argues that men like Nate are “one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity.”
Clearly, Douthat has never been on an OkCupid date with a freelance writer from Clinton Hill. He seems to think that the pain of never receiving as much as a text after a one-drink date is so soul-crushing that all our lovely daughters must be protected from it. Trust me, we can handle it.
Also, saying that conservative views and values appeal to people who want what is best for women obviously does not mean that women believe those views and values are best for themselves. In fact, the implications of such an argument are pretty patronizing, and all the more reason for young women to politely decline joining Douthat and his cohort, no matter how gallant and loving they think themselves to be.
However, what is most frustrating about Douthat’s “Daughter Theory” is that it places the blame on women for these men who aren't willing to put a ring on it. He writes, “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,” arguing that women should consider not having sex with these unworthy men until they shape up and commit.
Suggesting that a keep-your-legs-closed strategy is the answer to all women's problems isn’t helpful. It's so retrograde that no amount of Girls repackaging can save it (but nice try). It's also really unfair, according to the author herself. Waldman tells The New Republic, “Women are often told that whether a relationship succeeds or fails is their fault, whether it’s not by holding out or by holding out for too long.”
Have a little faith in your daughters, Mr. Douthat. They can fend for themselves.