Do politics really make strange bedfellows?

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Sunday October 5, 2014

June 2014

Dear Ginger:
Here is my latest question for Assisted Loving. I just read a story on the Internet that says liberal older gentlemen have better and more sustained sex lives than their conservative counterparts. Is there any other data that supports this? Is there any psychological basis for this? If one finds oneself older and in the conservative camp (which fortunately I don't, but I know men who do), what do you suggest to reverse their sexual fortunes?

Dear Dave:
Thanks for being a reader. You always ask the most interesting questions! And you make me work really hard to come up with answers, in this case in the realm of political science, of which I claim no expertise, and its overlap with sexology.
The topic of political ideology and sleeping partners has been of interest for a very long time.

"Misery makes strange bedfellows," Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. Several centuries later, the English essayist, Charles Dudley Warner, writing about his progress as a backyard gardener and his fight against encroaching weeds, said, "Politics make strange bedfellows." Analysts have attributed the comment to Warner's political satirization of weeds. In the twentieth century, comedian Groucho Marx paraphrased, "Politics doesn't make strange bedfellows - marriage does." More recently the late political writer Helen Thomas, said, "War makes strange bedfellows."

The story you referenced from the Internet described the Harvard Grant Study, begun in 1938 and running for 75 years, which followed for their lifetime 268 male sophomore students who attended Harvard between 1939 and 1946 in an effort to determine what factors contribute strongly to human flourishing. This has been the longest-running longitudinal study of human development in history.

Critics of the study have noted that not all male students from the sophomore classes were allowed in the study. Among those rejected were two sophomores who later became famous--Leonard Bernstein and Norman Mailer. John F. Kennedy was reportedly in the study but supposedly his data set have been sequestered until 2040. The early research team used rather more bias than would be tolerated in institutional studies today and they rejected students whose body build and other physical attributes did not meet their standards for selection. Despite these flaws the study makes interesting reading even if it does not make for good applied science.

Beginning in 1966, Dr. George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist and world-renowned addiction disorder specialist, was the primary investigator on this study. He reported the most important finding to be “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.”  Alcoholism was the single strongest cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives. Alcoholism was also found to be strongly coupled with neurosis and depression. Together with cigarette smoking, alcoholism proved to be the greatest cause of morbidity and death among this cohort of men.

The study findings on men up through age 55 were initially published by Dr. Vaillant in Adaptation to Life (Harvard University Press) in 1998. Following the men on into their nineties, Dr. Vaillant later published, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (Harvard University Press, 2012), in which he describes a powerful positive correlation between warmth of personal relationships and health and happiness in later years. When his data was challenged, he went back and methodically rechecked the findings, emerging with even more insistence on the focus of warm relationships than he had previously done.

The part of the study report you referenced in the Internet story says, "Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction, but the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s."

The general topic of political ideology and its influence on happiness has been studied by political psychologists at New York University and at the University of Florida. Researchers at both institutions found conservatives (right-wingers) to be happier than liberals (left-wingers), but for different reasons. Napier and Jost at New York University conclude the difference is not because of where people lived or their incomes or their styles of thinking but rather because conservatives are more likely than liberals to rationalize social inequality, which they report has increased significantly worldwide since the 1970's. Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 6, 2008 pp. 565-572.

Barry R. Schlenker and colleagues at the University of Florida, reached the same conclusion about happiness and conservatives, but they account for the finding differently. In their opinion, conservatives felt more a sense of personal control and responsibility, more optimism and self-worth, greater religiosity and moral clarity, and "a generalized belief in fairness," than did liberals, all of which accounted for the happiness gap. Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 46, Issue 2, April 2012, pp. 127-146.

During the 2008 and 2012 national elections, two of the most polarizing campaigns in decades, many news stories aired about marriages with divided political sides. Probably all of us know couples in which one member's conservative ballot effectively canceled out the other member's liberal ballot. Most polar opposite couples reported the key to marital happiness across the political divides was to keep the topic out of the bedroom--or kitchen or TV room.

One famous couple with a twenty year marital history and strikingly opposite political ideologies is Republican strategist Mary Matalin (b. 1953) and Democratic strategist James Carville (b. 1944). They discuss their seemingly conflicted lives in their 2014 book Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home (Blue Rider Press). Answering a question about their prospects for marital happiness going forward, the couple concludes, "We'll check back in another two decades.”

In my search for other studies about political ideologies and later-life sexual happiness, I have not been able to find a single reference to this aspect other than the Harvard study, so this seems to be a field ripe for study. Relative to the finding about political ideology and sex lives, Dr. Vaillant says, “I have consulted urologists about this, they have no idea why it might be so." He does not advance a possible cause from a psychological or psychiatric point of view. If a man with his credentials, experience, and wisdom cannot propose a rationale, I think I won't even try!

I mentioned in the beginning the limitations in this study as far as being able to generalize the findings to other populations. Just because this group of men showed that liberals have longer and more active sexual lives than do similar aged conservative men, this fact cannot be applied to other groups of men in say, Utah, or Tennessee, or California, unless they, too, were Harvard sophomores in 1939-1946.

So, Dave, if you were to ask your older-aged liberal or conservative peers whether they have a better and more sustained sexual life as a result of their political ideology, my guess is you would get answers all over the map. I can imagine some older male conservatives aping Shakespeare--"Being a happy conservative makes for being better bedfellows" and some older male liberals saying, "Even if I get disgruntled sometimes, my sex life is pretty good."

I would be very interested in reader feedback on this topic.


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