This post originally appeared in September, 2006.
I was talking last week with a young woman who works as an aide to a colleague of mine. She’s 19, and has a boyfriend the same age. “He cheated on me”, she blurted out to my colleague and me yesterday; “We broke up.” We made vaguely soothing noises, and listened to her story as best we could. One part in particular struck me:
“He told me he can’t be faithful right now. He’s got too many ‘wild oats’ to sow.”
And this made me realize I’ve never posted about “wild oats.” Doing five minutes of quick Internet research reveals that the expression “sowing wild oats” to refer to reckless, usually promiscuous behavior on the part of young men, goes back to at least the 17th century. And while many old-fashioned phrases have vanished from the idiom of today’s college-age population, most of them are quite familiar with the “wild oats” notion.
The popular “wild oats” thesis is basically this: young men (usually in their late teens and twenties), have an enormous amount of sexual and creative energy. (Depending on whom you talk to, this is attributed to their “essential masculine nature” or “testosterone” or the “Y chromosome”.) It is natural and good and right for men in this age bracket to be a bit wild, a bit irresponsible, and to be unwilling to make enduring commitments. Those who love them — and are wounded by the carelessness of young oat sowers –are given the cold comfort of being told “Sooner or later, they grow out of it. They just have to get them (the oats?) out of their system.”
I’ve noticed that the “wild oats” theory is closely linked to the “get it all out of your system” idea. The latter notion is that we men have a finite amount of “wildness” within us. After we’ve sown our oats for three years, or five, or ten, we’ll be “done.” After we’ve slept with 5 women, or 25, or 250, we’ll presumably be “all out of oats” and ready to settle down into monogamy and responsibility.
There are a couple of things I loathe about this theory. One, women rarely get to use the “wild oats” excuse. Teenage and twenty-something women who exhibit reckless or sexually adventurous behavior get shamed as sluts. Since we all “know” that “women don’t really have wild oats”, a woman who behaves as if she does is “unnatural”, “perverse”, a “whore.”
Now, I spent a fair amount of time on a ranch growing up. I know a bit about oats. (Like the fact that if they were really “wild”, we wouldn’t sow them in the first place. But “he needs to sow his domesticated oats” lacks a certain ring.) Men don’t have them, women don’t have them — be they wild or genetically modified, oats are not found in the human body unless they enter through the mouth and get processed through the digestive tract. Now, both men and women — particularly when young — have adventurous spirits. Both men and women have strong sex drives, though we tend to want to deny that women’s libidos make much of an appearance before 32. But nobody got no “oats” no how.
The other great problem with the wild oats theory is more subtle. It suggests that if we indulge irresponsible and reckless male sexual behavior for a given period of time, young men will just “grow out of it.” Remember, the implication is that the number of oats inside each lad is finite. Once he’s sown them, he’ll be “done” and be ready for settling down. Clearly, this isn’t an accurate description of how most of us work! When we do something pleasurable and exciting, the more we want to do it. Rather than getting rid of our wild oats, we become more and more accustomed to the lifestyle of sowing them. If there are oats inside young men, and I don’t think there are, then the better understanding would be to say that the more we sow, the more oats we grow.
We all know many men who have prolonged their adolescence into their thirties, forties, and beyond. Some fellas out there have been sowing their oats fairly consistently since the early days of disco, and their internal barn shows no sign of being depleted any time soon. Pity the poor woman who waited years and years for Johnny to finally “get it out of his system.” I can think of half a dozen male friends of mine, all well my senior, whose “systems” keep right on producing the urge to be irresponsible and commitment-phobic.
We learn to do things by practicing them. If we practice recklessness, we become more reckless, not less. If we practice dishonesty, it becomes easier to lie — not harder. It’s bad psychology to suggest that engaging repeatedly in a pleasurable activity will ever get it “out of one’s system”. Rather, the more one does it, the harder it will be to change in the future.
When I was in college, I was encouraged to “sow my wild oats.” I sowed them. I enjoyed sowing them. And then I tried to transition seamlessly into my first marriage. I found that, whoops, I still had more oats. So that marriage ended. Back to sowing, in the hopes of getting rid of the last little clusters still lurking. I got married a second time. Wouldn’t you know it? The dang oats were still there! Second divorce (not yet thirty). I went on a wild oats rampage for a couple of years, ending only with a dramatic series of events that led to my complete emotional collapse and spiritual conversion. Trying to get “done” and get all the oats out nearly killed me, and it broke the hearts of quite a few other people in the process!
Years ago, not long before my final collapse, I had a particularly spectacular “oats sowing” experience involving a coke-and-Ecstasy-fueled menage a trois. After all was concluded, I walked one woman to her car, a woman I had only met hours earlier. As we made the kind of awkward small talk that often seems to follow these sorts of encounters, I looked into her eyes and said “You know, I can’t keep doing this.” “Why?”, she asked. “Because I want to be a father someday, and when you’re a Dad, you can’t do this sort of thing.” The gal took a step back as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up, and she stared into the distance. She shuddered once, and then looked back at me with a firm gaze, saying with great intensity: “No, you can’t keep doing this. Not if you want that.” She kissed me on the cheek (an odd thing to do, considering what had just happened between us) and climbed into her car. I never spoke to her again.
I don’t know why I said what I did. It wasn’t because I felt “done” with my oats-sowing. But I knew that as much fun as I was having, it was slowly killing me. Having the same experience over and over again with different people was as fun as ever — but it was making me progressively more and more miserable. I had just assumed, you see, that I would “grow out of it” naturally. But at the time I said this to this young woman, I was over thirty and showing no signs of “slowing down.” If my life changed, it would have to be because of grace — and, of at least equal importance, my commitment to changing my behavior despite the enduring desire to “sow oats” until the cows came home. (The cows, in my experience, never came home.)
So the point of this rambling, personal essay is simple: we do a great disservice to both young men and women when we encourage and indulge the reckless sowing of wild oats. While adolescents and twenty-somethings should have new and interesting experiences, we make a mistake in assuming that all of them will inevitably outgrow the desire to behave wildly. Put another way, if there are wild oats inside us, then it’s pretty clear that a lot of young women have them too. And it’s pretty clear that some of us have an inexhaustible supply, one that is endlessly replenished. What we practice at 19, I’ve found, becomes what we still want to do at 29, 39, 49, and beyond. That may not be true for all, but it’s true for enough to make the “just let him sow his oats” remark a very dangerous bit of advice indeed.