The XX Factor

Ross Douthat Has a Theory About Daughters. Uh Oh.

My daddy used to be a Democrat. Then he read Adelle Waldman’s novel.

When I saw the headline and byline combination in the New York Times on Sunday—“The Daughter Theory” by Ross Douthat—I almost didn’t click because I knew it would enrage me. And lo! There was the paper’s token conservative, making the argument that parents with daughters are more likely to be Republicans because sexual freedom might lead dad’s precious little girl to date a (fictional!) jerk like the one in Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes:

But as a father of girls and a parent whose adult social set still overlaps with the unmarried, I do have a sense of where a daughter-inspired conservatism might come from, whatever political form it takes.

It comes from thinking about their future happiness, and about a young man named Nathaniel P.

Where to start with this mess? How about with the fact that Douthat’s entire op-ed—the notion that parents are more likely to be Republicans if they have girls—is based on a new study that takes data from the General Social Survey from 1994. 1994. That was just two years after George “Rubbers” H.W. Bush, a stalwart supporter of Planned Parenthood, was in office. When it comes to reproductive freedom, Republicans of the early to mid-1990s were practically liberated compared with the Republicans of 2013.

More ridiculous is the use of Waldman’s novel to prove a point about women and sexual freedom. Yes, the protagonist of her book—the eponymous Nathaniel P., who is a cad of literary Brooklyn—is somewhat callous to the women he dates, and some of their feelings get hurt. But it’s a total misread of Waldman to say, as Douthat does, that Nathaniel provokes “immense misery” because he is “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 choices — marriage, kids — than do men.”

Would the, and let me repeat here, fictional, thirtysomething female characters in Nathaniel P. have been better off if they had been married as virgins in their teens or early 20s? Considering the divorce rates in real life for couples who marry under the age of 25 (about 60 percent), I doubt these not-real women would have been happier. Women, in general, are not so fragile that one bad relationship with a kind of selfish but not horrible dude (in Douthat’s words, Nate is “not a toxic bachelor or an obnoxious pick-up artist”) is going to destroy them forever. Furthermore, women can believe in, want, and desire sexual freedom and also not date selfish, preening men like Nathaniel. Douthat takes a pretty insulting view of men here, to assume that all they want to do is mislead women who desire relationships into thinking they are serious when they’re not. (And do I even have to say that not all women want relationships? I guess since it’s not obvious to Douthat, I do.) No fake trend column about the sexual relations of educated young people would be complete without a reference to Girls, which Douthat makes. But again: The men of Girls are not representative of all men. Just like Nathaniel P., Girls revolves around a FICTIONAL, college-educated subset of creative Brooklynites. And guess what? Getting married later has been great for those kinds of women anyway!

To Douthat, guys like Nathaniel P. are “one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity.” And because parents just want their daughters to be happy, they will then, he supposes, vote for the candidates who might somehow prevent their daughters and granddaughters from sleeping around.

Just like Douthat, I have a daughter. I assume that one day she will have some bad relationships, and some fun relationships, and some great relationships, and she’ll learn from those experiences, even if her feelings get hurt. Actually, I don’t just assume that. I want that for her. And if, in the course of all these relationships, she meets a dreaded Nathaniel P.-type (lord knows her mother did), I believe she will have the strength to deal with rejection, because adult people should have that kind of strength regardless of their gender. I’m not looking (or voting) to protect my daughter from life’s disappointments. I’m just preparing her for them.