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Deny yourself: Self-discipline in sexualized American society

Jesus may have turned water into wine, but when he said, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me," he didn't imply that science is on his side.

However it turns out denying oneself brings more than just religious benefit.

Time magazine explores the relationship of religious celebrations like Lent, Yom Kippur and Ramadan that require self-denial. According to Jeffrey Kluger of the magazine, even if one does not believe the doctrine surrounding the customs, the traditions themselves provide health benefits.

"Willpower is not some shapeless behavioral trait but a sort of psychic muscle, one that can atrophy or grow stronger depending on how it’s used," Kluger writes. "What’s more, neurologists and behavioral psychologists generally think of willpower as what’s known as 'domain general,' which means that the more you practice it to control one behavior — say, overeating — the more it starts to apply itself to other parts of your life like exercising more or drinking less."

Kluger mentions an experiment conducted by Roy Baumeister of Florida State University where subjects were given difficult tasks to perform, such as holding their hands in freezing water. For the following two weeks, the subjects were given a self-disciplining rule to follow outside the lab and then were brought back in to redo the task. Those who had followed the rule outside the lab performed the task better the second time.

Yet to become self-disciplined is a paradox of sorts. In a marshmallow experiment conducted by Walter Mischel of Stanford University, where he tested children's willpower by giving them a marshmallow and telling them to not eat it for 20 minutes in order to get another one, he said those who were successful were the ones who realized how weak the human will was.

“Kids who can delay gratification have a much more realistic understanding of willpower,” Mischel told Wired. “They know that willpower is very limited. If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it. The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

The patient children either covered their eyes, looked away or became involved in another activity, understanding resistance is only possible when they were not actively trying to resist.

However, one of the issues in modern society is what or why to resist. The Christian value of denying oneself of sex outside of marriage isn't the stuff of pop culture, but men who don't exercise willpower in terms of premarital sex may be hurting themselves and society, too.

As Mark Regnerus of Slate points out, many men see no need to resist sex. Although men make up only 43 percent of undergraduates in America, trail women in the work force and their earnings as 25- to 34-year-olds have dropped 20 percent since 1971, they have the advantage in premarital heterosexual relationships.

Quoting research done by social psychologists Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, Regnerus draws attention to the fact that although women like sex as much as men, "men have a greater and far less discriminating appetite for it." Add the rise in pornography, emergency contraceptives and the growing divide between successful women and successful men skewing population demographics on college campuses, and Regnerus says women are at a disadvantage.

"Sex is clearly cheap for men," Regnerus writes. "Women's 'erotic capital,' as Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics has dubbed it, can still be traded for attention, a job, perhaps a boyfriend and certainly all the sex she wants, but it can't assure her love and lifelong commitment. Not in this market."

However, the lack of self-discipline seems to be hurting more than just the parties involved. Twenty-four million children — 1 in 3 — live in homes without fathers, and almost 40 percent of American children are now born out of wedlock, according to National Vital Statistics Reports. Also, men's college education rates are projected to drop below 40 percent in 2020, according to the Department of Education.

"Don't forget your Freud," Regnerus writes. "Civilization is built on blocked, redirected and channeled sexual impulse because men will work for sex. As the authors of last year's book 'Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality' put it, 'Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant and plenty sexy.' They're right. But then try getting men to do anything."