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One historian says America's "divorce culture" makes us "nasty, hateful, miserable and mean."

Published February 14, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

valentine's Day, according to divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, occasions almost as many divorce proceedings as wedding ceremonies. While the U.S. divorce rate has dipped slightly since the go-go '80s, an estimated 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce, the highest rate in the Western world. An estimated 1 million children per year, according to social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, experience a divorce in their family.

Whitehead is perhaps best known for her article "Dan Quayle Was Right," which appeared in 1993 in the Atlantic magazine. Whitehead argued that the decline of the two-parent household irrevocably harms children and "dramatically undermines" American society. In her recently published book, "The Divorce Culture" (Knopf), she examines the reasons behind the post-World War II divorce explosion and the effects it has on children.

In honor of Valentine's Day, Salon spoke with Whitehead about the messy downside of love.

Divorce rates are high all over the Western world. What makes divorce a "culture" in the United States?

It's become a common family event. Nearly half of all kids will experience at least one divorce in their family before they reach age 18. It governs child rearing and parenthood in a way that it never has in the past. Kids grow up now with their time split between households, or in some cases with an entirely absent parent.

Usually the father.

Divorce has changed the cultural definition of fatherhood. On the one hand we have this ideal of an involved, emotionally expressive hands-on father -- a Bill Cosby dad, for example. At the same time, there is a trend towards "paper" fatherhood. That is, put your name on a birth certificate, put your signature on a child-support check, send a Hallmark card on your child's birthday. That's a pretty minimal definition of responsible fatherhood, and I think it has a lot to do with this phenomenon called divorce.

The Clinton administration and governors like William Weld of Massachusetts have pushed strict legislation to punish "deadbeat dads." In some situations aren't "paper" fathers who send the weekly check better than nothing?

There is an important distinction between public policy measures to require support for the child and the cultural definition of what is a good father. I certainly support public policy efforts to get dads to be involved with, or at least responsible for, their kids.

In "Dan Quayle Was Right," you criticized the feminist, go-it-alone model symbolized by Murphy Brown. How much has feminism contributed to the "divorce culture"?

I think feminism has influenced the divorce culture, but not nearly as much as conservatives say. Some have said "If it weren't for feminism, the family would be fine." I reject that. Feminists didn't cause the divorce revolution. I think feminism has been caught in an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, feminists want to be supportive of women in their careers, and on the other, they want to be advocates for children. It's tough to be able to do both.

In your book you write that Americans have shifted from seeing divorce as a last resort to being an entitlement. How has that happened?

In the late '50s, there were two important cultural shifts: sustained economic expansion and the growth of the middle class. That allowed people -- especially the younger members of that generation -- to define happiness not just in economic terms but in psychological and individualistic terms. People started to believe that relationships should yield rewards, not just mere material well-being, but emotional well-being, too.

Scholars called this the "psychological revolution," and it really changed the way people thought about marriage. People were more inclined to see marriage as a realm that had to meet certain standards of individual satisfaction and emotional fulfillment in order to be judged "happy."

In terms of marriage and divorce, that "psychological revolution" seems to have impacted women more than men.

It's true that women file for divorce more often than men. But women and men have always had different definitions of emotional satisfaction. Women tend to have higher standards. They want emotional intimacy. Some men are content with just sexual intimacy.

Interestingly, women tend to take responsibility for the divorce culture, and that is not my intention at all. I am very struck, for example, that in many of the entertainment magazines we glamorize men dumping their first wives for a trophy wife and starting new families and ditching the old families! I've read several articles recently describing how wonderful it is that men can have children into their 70's and women really can't, and isn't that great.

Given that between one-third and one-half of marriages end up in divorce, depending on which state you live in, can the institution of marriage be saved?

I don't accept the idea that marriage itself is the problem. I don't advocate people staying in a bankrupt marriage simply for the sake of the children. The good thing about divorce is that people can leave violent marriages. But I do believe that we don't spend enough time learning how to rehabilitate marriages. It's worth the struggle. Some people struggle and decide that it just isn't going to work, but the struggle makes for more thoughtful divorce.

What I propose in my book is modest: that we be more careful when we get into marriage. That we think about the purpose of marriage. And that we anticipate the bad times.

You write that one purpose is that it provides children's most basic form of "social insurance."

That's a statement representing children's interest in a marriage, because children are voiceless and disenfranchised. Parents need to realize that they represent the economic and emotional security of their kids. In the past, children had been the main curb for divorce. Historically, couples with kids had a lower divorce rate than those without kids. In recent years that gap has narrowed substantially.

There are still disputes as to just how damaging divorce is to children.

Social scientific evidence says that if there is just one divorce with no other major disruptions, then most kids of divorce do quite well. But a significant minority of the million kids each year that go through it experience emotional or economic damage that is longer-lasting. One form of damage is to the bond between the child and the father. Usually the relationship is OK before the divorce and gets significantly worse in the long run. For daughters, there is a correlation between divorce and increased risk of early sexualization and inappropriate love relationships.


Well, their dad was the first man who ever loved them and who they loved back and now he's gone. And they repeat that experience in their own intimate relationships. For example, often they get involved with older men. Also, girls whose fathers have all but disappeared from their life are at a much higher risk for unwed childbearing.

For sons, I think the damage lies in the absence of a male role model. One way boys react is by displaying hyper-masculinity. You would think that without a dad, men would be softer and gentler. It's the opposite. The predatory, hyper-aggressive, hyper-macho males are often young men without a man in their life who has loved and cared for them in a reliable way. It also correlates with a hatred and acts of violence against women.

What do you think of men's groups like the Promise Keepers, which advocate a lot of the things you write about -- families staying together, and fathers being more involved with their kids?

I have mixed feelings about Promise Keepers. On the one hand, it's hard to criticize a group of men who pledge to be faithful to their wives and devoted to their children. My criticism of these groups is that if you want to build strong father-child ties you need to include women. Men can't do it alone. For some very practical reasons, women are the custodians of the children, particularly in a divorce culture. Women pretty much govern access to the children. This gives them great power, either to promote or work against fathers being in touch with their kids. So I think the goal has to be cooperative parenting. We already have enough separatism in this society.

Some states are re-thinking no-fault divorce and considering legislation designed to make divorces harder.

We are in an era now where, when things go awry, we immediately think "the government should fix this." Generally, I think public policy and law can be helpful -- enforcing child support, for example. But we shouldn't ask the government to solve all these problems. Some approaches, like mediation, can reduce conflict. The idea of "breaking in" a divorce that involves children -- a mandatory period where you have to go through counseling -- would be good. A divorcing couple often takes it out on the kids, using them as leverage. Counselors could certainly help parents avoid that.

A lot of people, quite surprisingly, don't understand that divorce is tough on their kids.

Tougher than an obviously bad marriage?

Sure. Bad marriages are bad. The worst kind of behavior in marriage results from infidelity and fighting, which can have a terrible effect on kids. But the idea that divorce can be pleasant and sanitized is equally mistaken. What is often forgotten is that divorce makes people nasty, hateful, miserable and mean.

Classroom for call-girls

In Amsterdam, would-be prostitutes flock to practical seminars to learn their trade.


AMSTERDAM -- as corporate downsizing spreads across Europe, it's no surprise that Mareska Majoor's school for prostitutes is often filled to capacity.

Majoor -- a former prostitute herself -- teaches would-be hookers the ins and outs of turning pro at her cheery classroom in Amsterdam's red-light district. The six-week seminar, which costs 250 guilder ($146), covers law and lovemaking alike.

After a brief review of hooking history, the orientation concentrates on each student's specific career goals. Although a few horny housewives occasionally enroll, most prospective prostitutes are motivated by the lure of fast cash. According to Majoor, Amsterdam's sex workers earn between 300 and 1,500 guilder ($175-$877) a day depending on their looks and venue. Those working in bordellos make more per trick, while competitors in store-front brothels benefit from volume, volume, volume. A recent study by Rotterdam's Erasmus University concluded that the sex industry annually pumps at least 800 million guilder -- $467 million -- into the Dutch economy.

Majoor doesn't provide her disciples with explicit financial advice -- that's left to recommended investment bankers -- but she does offer revenue-enhancing marketing strategies. For instance, married clients are considered assets warranting protection, as they often stay faithful to one mistress. "I tell the girls to avoid wearing too much perfume and make-up. You mustn't get anything on a man's clothes," Majoor confides, adding, "Prostitution is intended to save marriages, not break them up." Bringing home a sexually transmitted disease is a sure-fire way to spawn a divorce, so Majoor constantly uses her lectern as a bully pulpit for safe-sex techniques -- like unrolling a condom with one's mouth.

With its gleaming parquet floors and exhibit of tasteful charcoal nudes, one might mistake the street-level classroom for an art gallery -- until the cases of condoms and dental dams for sale shatter any misconceptions. And Majoor, a trim, raven-haired 26-year-old clad in a well-tailored suit, looks more like a curator than an ex-hooker. "I was 16, very young and impulsive, when I became a prostitute," remembers Majoor, who publishes a pornographic yellow pages when she's not teaching. "Don't laugh, but I became a prostitute because I wanted to buy a dog, a German shepherd. The only thing I knew was that you give sex and make money. It seemed so easy." Her husky voice rises to compete with the chiming bells of a nearby church. "Now, I teach to make people think about what they are getting into."

Before receiving their diplomas, students spend their final class haggling with surrogate johns for various sex acts. "Never let a client walk into your room," Majoor coaches. "First, you talk with him outside and set a price. You can always say no and shut the door." Most transactions, however, come off smoothly. Majoor understands why: "Sometimes, we are all prostitutes. Everybody must make money."

David Wallis is a New York-based writer whose work appears in the New York Times and other publications.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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