Written by Richard A. Panzer
Let me tell you about a talented, bold and beautiful young woman named Britnee Marsh, who just entered Delaware State University (on a full academic scholarship) as a step towards her goal of entering the field of Forensic Science.
Last June at an annual banquet, Britnee was crowned “Miss Free Teens 2012” as a consequence of her outspoken commitment to living a goal-oriented lifestyle free from the detrimental effects of alcohol/drug use or single motherhood. A lifestyle she says she has been guided towards by her parents and by a youth program she has been involved with since the age of 10 that promotes healthy relationships and avoiding risky behaviors.
Britnee is a firm believer in the power to choose her own destiny and challenging stereotypes about minority teens from urban areas, saying “just because I come from the ‘hood doesn’t mean I have to act like the ‘hood! I’ve seen too many baby mamas pushing carriages. My friends in Free Teens and I don’t want any part of that ‘baby mama drama’!” (See more about Britnee at http://freeteensyouth.org/)
There are more young people like Britnee than you might think. Consider the results of the recent, largest-ever, federal study on teens’ sex lives, which found that the proportion of African-American teenage girls who reported ever having sex decreased from 57 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2006-10, a nearly 20% reduction, nearly matching the six in ten American teens who reported they’d never had sex.
These teens seem less jaded than many adults I’ve run into. Consider this: 85% of teens say that sex should only occur in a long-term, committed relationship. 84% of teens believe teen pregnancy prevention programs should teach young people to be married before they have a child. They may not know how to get there, but many teens do aspire to a lasting, committed relationship.
Then there’s the not-so-good news. While decreasing numbers of teens are having sex or having babies, increasing numbers of 20-something women are choosing to bring a child into the world without a committed father in the picture. Three in five unmarried births in the U.S. are to women in their 20s. These are women who in the past would have been likely to be married. What’s happening?
Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, believes that many young adults, having seen divorces of their own parents, relatives or friends, are pursuing a “risk-diminishing” strategy. Instead of seeking and holding out for a truly satisfying romance with someone they actually care about, they “hook-up” with a number of short-term, uncommitted partners. (Think of Friends with Benefits, but without the happy Hollywood ending.) They think, “If I don’t have any expectations for love, I won’t get hurt.”
Similarly, they think, you can’t experience the pain of divorce, if you don’t get married. So, instead of getting married, they just move in and live together. But is this a relationship moving towards marriage, or just a convenient arrangement until someone better comes along? Many times it’s hard to know.
Do these strategies lead to less emotional damage, or to more hurt and mistrust, not to mention fatherless families? Van Epp argues that relationship structures from past decades such as dating, going steady, getting engaged and married provided couples with security, clear roles and responsibilities as well as a chance to build a joint identity. Today’s freeform, unstructured relationships often provide little or none of that.
I’ve heard the risk-diminishing ‘hook-up’ culture compared to joining an intramural sports team where the coach tells you that you can show up whenever you feel like it and you don’t have to practice too much. Doubtful that your team will win many games. Yet, that is precisely the kind of low expectations relationship “game” many 20-somethings are playing, to the detriment of themselves and any children they have. But I’d bet Britnee and her buds could have told them that!
Richard A. Panzer, Ph.D. is co-author of The War on Intimacy: how agenda-driven sex ed sabotages committed relationships and our nation’s health (2009), Center for Relationship Intelligence LLC, Westwood, NJ.
 Based on in-person interviews with thousands of teens ages 15-19 from 2006 to 2010. The survey, “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth,” was published in Vital and Health Statistics (2011;23(31)). To access the complete report, visit http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_031.pdf.