“The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” demonstrates convincingly that we should try to strengthen the institution of marriage and puts forward many ways we can begin to do so. It falls short only in failing to acknowledge how today’s sex and dating scene has contributed to the marriage crisis.
Given the authors’ hope of attracting the attention of lawmakers, their emphasis on public policy—the social safety net, job opportunities, education programs, and more—is understandable. Such initiatives have proven effective in strengthening marriage in the past, as the authors point out, and we should try to implement them more widely.
My favorite of the report’s recommendations, however, was the last: “Find your marriage voice.” An individual may acknowledge the societal benefits of marriage, but that will not lead him to marry any more than recognizing the societal benefits of fighting obesity will lead him to lose weight. Only a personal desire for marriage, and the faith that marriage can work, will inspire more Americans to tie the knot. Public service announcements are unlikely to accomplish this; more effective would be face-to-face conversations with and support from friends, relatives, social workers, religious leaders, and mentors.
Despite the report’s strengths, I was struck by the authors’ near-silence on the subject of sex. The breakdown of marriage stems not only from economic factors but also from changing standards in the realm of sex, dating, and intimate relationships. Making these standards more conducive to marriage is as crucial as political reform if we are to restore the institution.
Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no such thing as consequence-free sex. No form of contraception is 100 percent effective; even a one-night stand can result in the creation of a child. Aside from pregnancy, sex has dramatic effects on physical, mental, and emotional health. Hookups, for instance, significantly increase teenagers’  and female college students’  risk of depression. The more lifetime sexual partners  an adult woman has, the more likely she is to be depressed and to report a lower level of life satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction is highest  and the risks of sex lowest in the context of marriage.
But even Americans who hope to get married can easily damage their chances of doing so successfully. Those who first have sex at a young age are less likely  than those who wait to achieve satisfying romantic relationships as adults. Studies also suggest that having sex early in the course of a relationship can undermine the relationship’s development and lead (at least for women) to lower relationship quality, possibly because sex causes partners to overlook other important factors.
This should not come as a surprise. It is hard to imagine that young people can transition smoothly from casual flings to the committed, monogamous relationships most of them desire. Those who have spent their twenties in a series of short-lived sexual relationships may struggle to adjust to the long-term demands of a marriage.
Admitting and teaching these things is not tantamount to calling for a return to the 1950s; it is merely to acknowledge reality. And efforts to restore a more conservative sexual ethic may gain more sympathetic reception than some would expect. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, some six in ten teens  who have had sex wish they had waited longer before doing so, and nearly nine in ten teens believe they “should be given a strong message that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.” Furthermore, despite perceptions that American teenagers are becoming ever more sexualized, the CDC reports  that the percentage of teens who are sexually active has dropped in recent decades.
The difficulty, of course, lies in actually living out the call for greater sexual restraint. Sex educators should be more honest about the downsides of the hookup culture, but abstinence-only sex education has been notoriously unsuccessful. Probably the best way to promote a healthier sexual culture is through supporting families: Studies demonstrate  that teens who have married parents, who have positive relationships with their parents, and who know that their parents disapprove of teen sex are more likely to delay sexual activity than their peers.
Yet America’s sexual culture is dysfunctional long beyond the teenage years. Young adults—who are quick to enter sexual relationships and cohabit, but reluctant to marry—likewise need the encouragement of relatives, friends, faith leaders, and mentors in order to develop the kind of lasting relationships that lead to marriage.
Love, sex, and marriage remain closely tied in most people’s minds, even as they are less connected in their lives. Helping Americans tie these experiences together again is crucial to fostering a culture where both adults and children can flourish.
 Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, page 139
 See e.g. the report cited in first footnote of http://www.familyfacts.org/briefs/1/the-benefits-of-marriage but I believe many surveys/studies have shown this
 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00996.x/abstract (summary at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201208/take-it-slow-if-you-want-your-relationship-last) see also http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/fam/24/6/766/ (summary at http://www.livescience.com/10935-delaying-sex-relationships-study-finds.html)