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September 28, 2006


Q Grrl

Feel free to erase this comment if you want to...

but doesn't this directly conflict with the advice you gave "Pete" last spring? Especially your last part about how what we practice at 19 will be what we want to do at later ages.

How does this compare to your quoted quip "Dear God give me countenance, but just not yet"?

Paint me confused (but not accusatory!).

What are the differences in your mind?


Q, I was urging Pete to change his life. The speed at which we surrender our bad habits will vary from person to person. I did not endorse bad behavior, but I did acknowledge it was difficult to give up and might be given up incrementally.


And the quote (continence, not countenance) is from Augustine -- I quoted it to illustrate I understood Pete's dilemma, but not as an endorsement. Augustine himself didn't use it to justify bad behavior.


Why do you think the young woman you describe had that immediate reaction? You mention your reasons for saying what you did but I'm not exactly clear what you're trying to get at with that story.


Vacula, I have no idea. The anecdote is about recognizing the need for a radical change, and her reaction was no doubt part of some larger story from her past that I can only guess at.

This is what happens when you post early in the morning, stream-of-consciousness!


It's never been fully explained to me (at least) how this society perceives people (young men especially) who feel that they really haven't had many "wild oats" to sow in the first place. I've just never been that impulsive, to tell the truth.


Had I been that woman, I probably would have reacted similarly. Thank you for the thoughtful and truthful post.

Toy Soldier

It would appear the world is coming to an end. I suppose I should have converted when I had the chance.

I agree with Hugo.

I think it is very unlikely that having reckless, random sex will exhaust anyone's desire to behave in that fashion. If anything, it will simply reinforce it, especially if the person becomes rather successful at it. Until that person has a external need or internal desire to change, or unless s/he has an unfortunate experience, they will continue to do it. I think this is more true for males than females since even when people find the behavior reckless and even dangerous for the male, no one does much more than pat him on the back and say "You should slow down." If society were to stop ranking masculinity on how many women one could have sex with, I think most males would avoid that behavior.

Of course, one must keep in mind that a lot of males lie about their promiscuity to fit in, so one must wonder just how rampant this behavior actually is.


I went into college planning on four years of promiscuity and ended up getting into a relationship with my now husband about two weeks into college. I like monogamy - I really do - but it took me a while to get over the fact that it doesn't sound interesting, and it's not "cool" by any common definition of the word. In a society where people spend so much time crafting and narrating their lives - blogging, myspace, chat - it's a little hard to give up the interesting narrative, even if it exists only for the benefit of others.


I went into college planning on four years of promiscuity and ended up getting into a relationship with my now husband about two weeks into college.

Hah. Sara, that reminds me of the old saying, popular in 12-Step and church circles:

"Want to hear God laugh?
Tell him your plans."


Wickedness never was happines...maybe that means one way to measure the "wickedness" of an action is to measure the "happiness" it brings. I have heard very very few stories of men sowing their wild oats for years on end with a happy ending.


Brilliant post, Hugo.


Dudely, though I hesitate to create an equation where promiscuity invariably equals wickedness, I'll give an "amen" to your last sentence. And Jendi, thanks.


I know several guys in their mid-30's that are very commiment phobic and "sowing their wild oats" actively. I've found that the ones that are not misogynistic and fairly happy are men that are also able to have long-term and positive, platonic friendships with women.

The "boy's boys" that seem to do this sexual activity thing as part of fraternal bonding (sharing conquest stories, going out en masse with their buddies to bars and clubs and seeing who can get laid that night, etc) don't tend to fare well in this game.

I think people can sow oats happily as long as they have genuine friendships and the ability to connect with folks on a deeper level past the simple "what I want" mentality.

Shawna R. B. Atteberry

Great post Hugo.


I know several guys in their mid-30's that are very commiment phobic

The term "commitment phobic" implies that the men (or women) so termed are suffering from some sort of pathology. It's right out of the inquisition, woe unto those we call heretics!

Turn it around. Supposing I were to term women who refused to engage in casual sex as "sex-o-phobic" or perhaps "frigid". I think you'd be rightly offended by such labelling.

It's typical of how too many people can not tolerate other people's choices. Men (and women) have a right to say "no" to commitment. Any attempt to pressure people into "committing" ought to be seen in the same way as pressuring people to engage in sex: as a form of rape.


Gotta concur in part, dissent in part.

we do a great disservice to both young men and women when we encourage and indulge the reckless sowing of wild oats.

This part I agree with, insofar as "life scripts" do a disservice to people by shoehorning them into roles they may not want. Saying that you have to be sexually promiscuous in your 20s isn't any better than saying you have to be married with children in your 40s.

But you go on to promote "monogamy and responsibility" (which are *not* by any means the same thing) as a life script - that we all, as our ultimate goal, want to be married with children. Sure, some folks vary it slightly - maybe they're married but childfree, maybe they're in a long-term relationship but not married, maybe they're polyfidelitous - but the overall goal is the same, abandonment of "wild oats" in favor of stability. And that's just another life script when we assume that's what is most rewarding for everyone.

I'm not saying this out of ill will, but my reaction to your anecdote was that it was a very narcissistic thing to do - it's not her problem, and making her adopt the role of your moral guardian wasn't fair to her. Suss out what you do want, find a path from point A to point B, and don't make it someone else's responsibility to get you there.


Normally, I'm a lurker who comes by, says 'huh - interesting,' and grabs a few ideas to think on for a while. But something in today's post grabbed me, and hasn't let my brain go. In discussing your post-30 wild oats days, you said that you'd told a woman you were with that you'd have to stop because you wanted to be a father. Describing her response, you said "[t]he gal took a step back as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up, and she stared into the distance. She shuddered once, and then looked back at me with a firm gaze ..."

I know that this post (and this blog) are about your life and your thoughts, but I was expecting more exploration of her reaction - that's a pretty evocative description, and the lack of any further discussion seems very abrupt and dismissive.

I know that my response to this is heavily influenced by my own experiences (female friends feeling that they don't have a 'right' to be a parent because they don't fit into the monogamous model, feeling that my parents' marriage was threatened by my father's possibly infidellity, etc.). I freely admit that her reaction intrigued me, and so there's a bit of pure curiosity that's driving my interest.

However, I really was (and am) surprised that you wouldn't at least explore her reaction a bit more, or acknowledge that you weren't exploring it. You recognize that she had a powerful response, but don't seem to recognize her as a person here, just as someone/something that had an effect on you. It struck me as uncharacteristically dismissive, and I think that's what's been nagging at me.

I wasn't expecting your discussion to center so exclusively on the male perspective, since you started out talking about the effect of the wild oats theory on women. I know that you can't explore *every* aspect of a theory, but this exclusion felt wrong to me, because it evokes so many narratives where women are simply acted upon, and their responses ignored. That's definitely not the norm here, which is what makes it so striking in this instance.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

It's typical of how too many people can not tolerate other people's choices.

Well, if it were my boy friend who had claimed I was his one and only, then cheated on me, and then tried to excuse the cheating after he was caught by saying he wasn't ready to be faithful because he had too many "wild oats to sow," you're darn right I wouldn't tolerate his choice.


Alice, I am very reluctant to project in a situation where I don't know anything, really, about the woman involved. Her reaction to my mentioning fatherhood and responsibility was visceral, which suggests (obviously) that she had some very strong, likely negative association with irresponsible father figures. But can I know that? No.

It's dangerous to ascribe intent or meaning to a woman's actions when you don't know anything about her. (Ask Jessica Valenti about this!) I'm not being obtuse, just cautious.


But I suppose I could explore it more regardless, and will do so in a future post...

L. Cougar

"Her reaction to my mentioning fatherhood and responsibility was visceral, which suggests (obviously) that she had some very strong, likely negative association with irresponsible father figures."

Hm, that wasn't obvious to me at all. I would've guessed she was reflecting on her own behaviour and hopes for the future.

Kevin T. Keith

There are some good points in your post and the comments, but my first reaction is that you may be taking the "wild oats" thing too literally.

I think the idea behind that meme is not that there is literally some finite quantity of "wildness" that is expended until it's gone. Rather, it just calls attention to the fact that youthful behavior tends to be more indulgent, less focused on the long-term, and, implicitly, that this is to some degree natural or unavoidable. It's understandable, on this view, that people would want to spend their young adulthood enjoying themselves in a carefree way, satisfying some of the interests and desires that had been growing in them from youth but had never previously had an outlet. They would then take a more serious attitude, and aim at more distant horizons, after they've done that. (Note, too, that on this reading, women would be expected to have "wild oats" as well; that this is a male phenomenon is testimony to the repression imposed on women, especially in sexual matters, not evidence that only men want to indulge themselves.) On this understanding of "wild oats", it's not some sort of mythical quantity or drive that has never been experimentally observed - it's just a natural desire to plunge in and explore one's new freedom after childhood restraints are finally lifted, one that gradually fades as the novelty wears off.

Whether or not the "wild oats" phenomenon is a good thing, and whether or not it can justify the refusal to commit to serious relationships in one's younger years, I think it can be explained in ways that appeal to fairly reasonable common-sense psychology, without requiring some sort of dubious biological quantity. And that makes it non-dismissable, even if we decide it is not supportable.


Of course, you can't actually sow wild oats, that's what makes them "wild". (By this point in the post and comments, the word "sow" has ceased to have any meaning for me at all...) Oats that are "sown" are, by definition, not wild.

It seems to me that this is important -- sowing domesticates plants, and one should only sow when one is ready to harvest what one has sown, which is to say, when one has settled into domesticated living. The "oats" one sows before that are not wild in themselves, but in that they will bear harvests outside of the domestic sphere, which is to say, harvests that become someone else's burden to reap. All this farming lingo is really getting to me, so let me put it in plainspeak: any pregnancies that result from the "wild oats" phase aren't a young man's problem, they're the *woman's* problem. This used to be enshrined in law -- it's why some children were "bastards". This kind of legal structure authorized, for example, relationships between masters and their slaves, because any offspring would be illegitimate (and doubly delegitimated by inheriting their mothers' blackness) and thus barred from displacing the "pure" white wife's children from their rightful inheritance.

This is why women don't "have oats" -- I suppose we could say (following the farming metaphors) that they go through a "fallow fields" period, but that implies an expectancy of pregnancy, and pregnancy is subject to all those social controls -- hence the shaming of women who allow themselves to be "plowed" by men "sowing wild oats".


As usual, I've got mixed feelings. I strongly dislike any "he just can't help it because he's a man/he's young/both of the above" excuse, so "wild oats" has never held much water with me, and I liked your analysis of the problems with the mindset.

On the other hand, I do wonder what you're proposing as an alternative; would you suggest that teenagers and young adults approach every relationship with an eye toward long-term monogamous committment? If so, I can't agree; while I don't condone behavior that is actively dangerous or inconsiderate of others' feelings, I do think there's some validity in the idea that it's best to try new things and get some experience (I don't necessarily mean sexually-- dating experience, relationship experience, meeting-new-people experience, etc) before "settling down." And while the guy in your initial anecdote handled the situation badly and should not have cheated, I find it difficult to be too harsh on a nineteen-year-old who decides he's not ready for a long-term exclusive relationship. As someone who's been there, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that the alternative-- staying in the relationship as is, growing more and more resentful each day at the opportunities you're missing and the fun you'll never get to have, feeling trapped and stifled and projecting that frustration onto your partner-- is not at all preferable.

I won't say that young people shouldn't commit-- after all, I did it and was very happy with it for a while, and if anyone had tried to tell me it was a bad idea I would have seriously bristled-- but I will say that I think talking up monogamous committment as an ideal for teenagers and young adults has the potential to do nearly as much harm as encouraging them to participate in "random hookups" does. There are ways to enjoy one's freedom, to pursue variety and excitement, to explore new experiences and people, without being reckless or cruel; if we're going to promote anything as a universal ideal of healthy behavior for youth, it should be that.

(Also, Sara, I found your comment about giving up the "interesting narrative" extremely insightful. That's something I've struggled with as well, although I think I ended up coming to a different conclusion than you did, and that line summed it up perfectly.)

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