No Solace for the Single?

Recently, I was prompted to consider the issue of what kind of sexual, marital, and familial landscape we’re heading towards by comparisons on Twitter between the political effects of mass singleness, childlessness, and virginity in South Korea as a prelude to what will be the United States in the near future, specifically the “gender gap” but probably other issues as well.

I’ve long found it curious that after a “sexual revolution” in the mid 20th century Western countries experienced a steep rise in promiscuity, divorce, abortion, acceptance of pre-marital sex, and all that good stuff. This all rapidly peaked with the Baby Boomers; contrary to claims that “hookup culture” is making today’s college experience synonymous with a neverending orgy, subsequent generations (Generation X and the Millennials) had about as many sex partners total as the Boomers did, likely somewhat less, with a steep fall in promiscuity taking hold in recent years among Generation Z, concomitant with a decline in sexual activity in general, a rise in virginity, and a continued fall of marriage rates.

South Korea’s Present: Our Future?

Even more curious? This intermediate stage of promiscuity between tradition and sterility was not some inevitable stage of modernization; the entirety of developed East Asia, most prominently Japan and South Korea, seem to be skipping the “sexual revolution” stage and are instead going from traditionalism straight into mass sterility. Out-of-wedlock births are barely higher there now than they were a century ago. The hookup wave seems to have crested in Western countries as well, which means South Korea’s present is likely the United States’s future.

The fertility rate in South Korea? Currently 0.81 per woman, barely a third of replacement level. For comparison the average for developed countries in recent decades has been 1.5 or so. One might have assumed it would stay at that modestly sub-replacement level forever as the demographic transition completed, but in the 2010s across the developed world, even in places that are doing relatively well economically and enjoy relatively affordable family formation, we’ve seen a pronounced dip in birth rates, consistent with what some demographers back in the 1980s predicted would be the “second demographic transition”. If this theory is true, the bad economy helps it along, but even a good economy cannot arrest an ultimately cultural and sociological phenomenon. Yikes.

Personally I can’t help but wonder if skyrocketing virginity, singleness, and childlessness is the final form of modernity, which will cause demographics to plummet to levels scarcely imagined as we get deeper into the 21st century.

Which would be puzzling; after all, most people want to get married and have children, don’t they? One might think so, but as I’ve intimated before on this blog, only a small fraction of couples have any real passion for each other, any love in their eyes. Most people will never experience true love, certainly not with the person they marry; they just marry to fulfill various needs, the most prominent of which by far is social status, to be a respectable person, the kind of person who can find and settle down with a spouse.

Marriage: The dark (?) Theory

What if people in the main only ever marry because society tells them to? What if without that social pressure, which has long been ebbing in modernity, almost nobody would do it? Marriage is a human universal, seen in all cultures, which would seem to cut against this theory, but we should keep in mind the ancestral environment Paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in was very different from today. What if there was something about that life that let love bloom but doesn’t exist anymore?

And here we come to a wild theory: maybe true love has been rare since the transition to agriculture, but to keep the motions going and to replenish the population agricultural societies have the tendency to degenerate into patriarchies, patriarchies that might have had an advantage over their rivals for just that reason. Now we’re at the final stage where, thanks to modernity and possibly to social conditions peculiar to industrialism, patriarchy unwinds itself, and society along with it, in a kind of Nick-Land-esque accelerationist sundering, a sociological Big Rip.

Life finds a Way

Or will it? Ordinarily if people only get married on the rare chance they find true love the population won’t replenish itself; sure, those couples who do form might have many children, but if such couples form 1% of the population (probably close to the mark) they’d need to have 200 children a piece for society to reach replacement level. That’s not going to happen. Certainly not by natural methods, and probably not by artificial ones either; taking care of 200 kids is really expensive.

Realistically, artificial means will account for the vast majority of the children produced in such a society, but in the form of single mothers by choice using sperm donors to start a family on their own. Nowadays if you have no man, there’s no problem; I expect this option to become much more popular in the future in any case, as society adjusts to how marriage and relationships are much worse deals for many women to start a family than the modern options that are still obscure or stigmatized.

In this scenario keeping the birth rate above 1 per woman (half replacement), near current levels, is realistic. So is that our future?

Escaping the Cave

Perhaps not. Consider that the form of “liberation” we’ve seen in the past century has consisted of agreeing with patriarchy that sex is dirty but that rolling in the mud is woman’s rightful place, that fertility and childbearing are diseases but that they should be shut down so woman can become an inferior imitation of man, that femininity is bad but that woman can embrace masculinity instead. Given a society like that, and its attendant cultivation of low-quality people, it’s amazing anybody in this day and age wants to have sex, get married, or birth a child at all!

What we’ve seen, in other words, is not a sexual revolution but rather a sexual devolution borne out of a twisted sense of guilt for the World Wars, the West’s existential crisis of the 20th century. Which neatly explains why East Asia has had such a different experience; I would submit that their sexual transition to modernity is the normal and natural one, while the West’s is the peculiar exception.

Nevertheless, all developed countries share a similar issue of being either patriarchal or sterile, of seeking to eliminate the feminine power if it cannot be controlled for the sake of men. The latter is what the movement cloaking itself in “feminism” has amounted to, hardly an exercise in women’s liberation. No wonder men and women are so unhappy!

I suspect, rather than (as the conservatives tell us, ever wont to claim freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom) some insidious effect of too much freedom or choice, that’s the root issue behind modernity not working for sex, love, romance, relationships, marriages, childbearing, family formation, or the fulfillment of either men or women: modernity offering us the false trilemma between patriarchy, dirtiness, and sterility.

A retvrn to tradition is not the answer: the only way out of modernity is to go through it, and use its ashes as a substrate to build a life better than mankind has ever lived before. Every tension, every failure in a social project offers us the chance to go beyond frontiers hitherto explored, and to craft something new. But what trail shall we blaze? What future shall we construct?

The movement we truly need for a romantic and fertile future to arise is a real sexual revolution, one that embraces the glory of womanhood, the erotic power of femininity, the fair sex’s rightful place as the font of all life, the center about which all else orbits, and above all one that revels in the right of the individual to follow her heart, craft her own life, and shape her own destiny.

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