Linda and Monica were obsessed with sex. So are most single women.
I am standing in a furniture store at which I have long aspired to shop. My husband and I have stumbled across a bed that we both love at first sight. Neither of us has ever owned a proper bed frame before. It just isn't one of the first things you buy when setting up house.
I was single well into the time I could afford to start buying nice furniture. But I didn't, largely out of superstition. I had a good friend in those years who was a font of pithy insight into the nature and ethos of singleness. Once, when I mentioned that I had been to the house of a single woman who had a living-room full of coordinated, nicely upholstered furniture, she looked at me in horror and said, "So, she's given up?" I immediately dropped the half-formed intent circulating in the acquisition corner of my brain to buy some nice club chairs. Like my friend Rachel, I believed-not devoutly, but I wouldn't have flouted the sentiment either-that if I set up my life too comfortable it would hex the possibility of marriage. A bed, more than any other piece of furniture, would have sent the wrong signal should Mr. Right have come calling: It would have conveyed an image of someone too comfortable alone in this particular realm, and at the same time too sexually independent. Or so the logic went.
The better part of a decade, a happy marriage, and two children later, I think back on my single years and marvel at how much time and mental energy my friends and I spent on the swirling inanities that pass for thought about dating, sex, men, and marriage.
Becoming appropriately mated is, to be sure, now and always the central task of youth, as anyone who has read Jane Austen must be aware. And no one really achieves marriage and family without due consideration, effort, and-as Austen and many other novelists remind us-much apparently frivolous romantic agitation.
But one might argue that no generation in a thousand years-maybe 5,000- has been forced to consider sex itself, not to mention its consequences, so minutely, obsessively, and often unhappily as those of us who came of age in the 1970s. In Jane's universe, sex was channeled by strict and intricate rules of courtship requiring much emotional discipline. A young woman might have been humiliated after an unseemly- even if imperceptible-display of romantic interest in a suitor whose character turned out to be lacking.
In the '70s, a time conditioned by the sexual revolution and ambient feminism, there were no rules. (We didn't even have the political fun of tearing down the old rules.) We were free to do as we wished-though there were, of course, widespread expectations that we would use all of this hard-won freedom to gain the sexual experience the lack of which had been so oppressive to all previous generations of women. So humiliation was more likely to ensue after sleeping with someone who never called back; wasting years in a relationship that didn't become a marriage; becoming pregnant out of wedlock; devoting all of one's energy to a career while expecting family life to fall into place-and winding up alone. Arguably these events lead to a magnitude of emotional devastation far greater than that following any emotional slip that may occur in the realm of chastity. So our romantic agitation was somewhat less frivolous and more angst-ridden.
Because we were without useful roadsigns, constraining rules, and even a correct understanding of human nature (that is, male nature), we were doomed to learn little from our mistakes. And we were forced to spend hours in hollow reasoning with our friends, over strategy, tactics, armaments, relations of actions to consequences, likelihood that one's experience was representative or abberational, etc.
Unbought furniture was, of course, the least of it. Not that most of us would have admitted it, but there were sexual considerations in every decision made, from nail-polish colors and clothes, to whether taking a particular job would send the wrong signal to potential mates, to (in my policy-wonk circles) public postures on social issues. (No one who was present will ever forget the mid-'80s Heritage Foundation gabfest at which an attractive young woman who worked for the Eagle Forum offered her adamant view that "fornication" should be criminally punished, perhaps by prison time. Her boyfriend, an estimable right- wing activist, sank farther into his chair than anyone would have thought possible. Rachel and I were certain she would never get another date. )
And it was never over. When a relationship took a sexual turn-earlier or later, well or badly, with expectations or not-all of that had to be evaluated, too.
Being busy with my more or less settled life, I had, of course, forgotten about all this, as you do a toothache after it has gone away. But the past year, with its never-ending Monica drama, was a harsh reminder. Because, while Monica and Linda may be a quantum leap more vulgar than my friends, really those conversations-the admonitions, the self-mockery, the wallowing in self-inflicted misery-were just a little bit more familiar than one might have wished. What American woman who came of age in the past 30 years hasn't had some version of them?
This is why, among its other great virtues, marriage is just sheer relief. (Not that you want to take things for granted, of course.) I'm not sure precisely at what point one notices just how much extra mental energy is available from the cessation of sexual scheming, but one day you realize that life has become more straightforward. You don't have to go to that tedious party just because you might meet someone. (Though it turns out that the possibility of "meeting someone," with all that implied, was the thing that made so very many social events tolerable.) Of course, sooner or later, other anxieties supplant sex- like how to get your kids into the right preschool.
And, interestingly, only by making the relationship official, in the eyes of society and the law, do we gain true sexual privacy. No one cares what happily married people do (except people who think they're waiting too long for grandchildren).
A cost of freedom (in the sense of no rules) was that everyone had to work things out for herself-which invariably meant talking about it with anyone who might have relevant insight. Which is why, even before Matt Drudge and Kenneth Starr shared it with all the world, Linda Tripp and the rest of Monica's friends knew the sordid details of the affair. Monica's eschewing privacy wasn't irrational; she had nothing to protect and could have used some advice.
And so it was in college and beyond. I have Bryn Mawr classmates who to this day won't attend reunions because they are petrified their husbands might learn about the lesbian relationship or the abortion or the whatever that they discussed frankly with the entire dorm. I have conservative friends who . . . ah, but perhaps we shouldn't go there.
Privacy, of course, is relative. On the spot, my husband and I decided to buy the bed. But then we wavered for a week about what size it should be. Queen-sized is more than big enough for the apartment- dwelling, not-tall people that we are. But what with needing seating for family movies, children visiting for midnight thunderstorms, the occasional long nights with a feverish baby between us, we took the king. Who knew that this is what all the overheated worrying came down to? And now perhaps we will finally enjoy some of that truly desirable, utterly elusive, deeply private thing that beds are made for: sleep.
Ms. Schiffren is a writer who lives in New York. She is the incoming president of the Political Club for Growth.