Where Has Healthy Romance Gone for Young People?

Pro-Family Activist Connie Marshner Surveys the U.S. Scene

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 31, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Courtship and healthy dating among young people seem to be on the endangered-species list in the United States.

So holds Connie Marshner, a longtime pro-life and pro-family activist in the nation´s capital, who is author of “Decent Exposure: How to Teach Your Children About Sex” (Legacy Communications, 1994).

She is also chairman of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to maintain the religious identity of Catholic colleges. In this interview with ZENIT, Marshner discussed the state of romantic dating and how young people can be helped in this field.

Q: A few months ago there was a study by the Independent Women´s Forum on college-campus dating that basically said courtship is in decline. Is that a fair assessment of life on U.S. college campuses? You´ve done your own research in this field.

Marshner: First, we must define our terms in order to avoid misunderstandings. Most parents think of “dating” to be something like it was in the 1940s and ´50s: what was sometimes called “playing the field.” In other words, a girl might go out with one fellow one weekend, and with another fellow the next weekend.

However, that is not how most people who are doing it define dating. What kids mean by “dating” now is what previous generations called “going steady.” You go out with one person, but only with that person.

Dating as the secular youth culture currently defines the term is little more than a euphemism for serial sex partnering. Every public high school student knows that to be “dating” somebody is to be sexually active — with a few prominent exceptions, such as Mormon or Muslim students.

Unfortunately, diocesan high schools are far from exempt from these attitudes and problems. It is hard for the readers of ZENIT to even conceptualize how sex is viewed by the young generation — at least in the U.S., and probably most of the West. Sex is not something special or private, let alone sacred: it is really regarded as little more than a rite of passage, something you do to prove you´re grown up.

And when one of these serial partnerships gets boring, then the way to win the freedom to associate with a different guy is to have a dramatic breakup with the first guy. Meet, sleep with, break up — over and over again, that is the cycle of dating in America, from junior high around age 12 until marriage around age 25. It doesn´t prepare anybody for marriage. It prepares them for divorce!

Those are the basic problems with contemporary dating: the sexual activity and the exclusivity it implies. Even on the “good” Catholic college campuses, it is little different.

For the first two weeks or so, the freshmen check each other out. By about the third week, couples start forming. Everybody is watching to see what guy sits next to what girl at Mass. If a guy and a girl sit together at lunch, the girl´s fate is sealed: Everyone assumes she “belongs” to that fellow, and no other guy would dream of asking her out — unless, of course, there is wide gossip that she had “broken up” with the first guy.

It works in reverse, too, by the way: The guy who doesn´t want to get exclusive with anybody will be rejected by all, because he´s “weird.” At “good” Catholic colleges, the level of sexual activity is far lower than at other campuses, but the basic rules of exclusive association are otherwise the same. This is why the Cardinal Newman Society is working so hard to focus attention on student-life policies — because on most campuses, those policies just passively conform to the world.

Think about what this all translates to in the life of a young person. First of all, it severely limits the range of a girl´s association, to say nothing of programming repeated emotional crises. Under these rules, the only way a girl can hope to have a range of friends through her college career is to not date anyone at all, but to always be part of a group.

Q: Can healthy dating and courtship be restored? Or is it by nature incompatible with Christian living, at least in the United States?

Marshner: Let´s define healthy dating and courtship. Of course, serial fornication is incompatible with Christian living. Does this mean that Catholic parents should refuse to allow their adolescent sons and daughters to be in the company of non-related persons of the opposite sex? I don´t think so. That would be an overreaction in the opposite direction.

The goal should be the happy medium: Our sons and daughters should get to know each other naturally, as siblings of friends, as co-workers on practical projects, as partners in academic projects, in groups, mainly through normal activities.

It is through shared work and activities that a person gets to see many different facets of another. By contrast, in the exclusive dating game each wears a mask that is designed to achieve a certain response.

The habits of youth socialization can be improved immensely. Bringing about improvement is where parents and the Church can be of major — in fact, invaluable — help.

For instance, if a critical mass of students in any school, or on any campus, decided to boycott the current rules of serial exclusivity, they could change the culture of that school. But it would have to be a critical mass — enough girls in enough different cliques to simply say, to every boy, “We´re not going to go steady with anybody”; enough boys willing to have real friendships with a number of girls at the same time, rather than one semi-marriage with one girl at a time.

The alternative norm is this: Exclusive, one-on-one unstructured dating should be viewed as preliminary to a proposal of marriage. And until a couple is contemplating marriage, the model for male-female relationships should be fraternal friendship. There´s no need for exclusive, one-on-one dating, “going steady,” unless and until a couple is contemplating marriage. Which means that for high school and college, the model to follow should be non-exclusive, non-pairing off, non-sexual. Girls and boys should not be trying to attract one another; they should instead be developing deep friendships with each other.

It is the girls who must make the difference. I don´t mean to sound sexist, but the fact is girls do set the standards in the whole courtship and dating thing. They are the ones who bear, disproportionately to boys, the consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage.

I wish that men set standards of chastity, but the men in our culture seem to have abandoned the job of setting standards at all — but that is a conversation for another day. The fact is: Get the girls on the side of chastity, and there is hope for the guys.

Q: What signs of hope do you see?

Marshner: Several, actually. First, there´s human nature coming to the rescue. People can deceive themselves for one generation, but the next is not so easily fooled. Reality can be avoided only so long.

The infatuation of one generation with libertine sex extracts a price from the next generation — fatherlessness, divorce and the like — and the pendulum begins to swing back. We are seeing the pendulum swinging back already: Reliable surveys find that eight out of 10 girls and six out of 10 boys wish they had not had sex when they did. When feel that way, they talk to their friends.

Second, there is the abstinence education movement, which is sweeping through all the Christian churches, and the common sense of which is even pervading public schools. Thanks to George W. Bush in the White House, HHS [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] is spending some money now on real abstinence education. These funds are helping the authentic abstinence movement.

The pregnancy rate of teens aged 15-19 was lower in 1997 than any year since before 1972. These figures are just becoming available,
but the trend has been headed down since 1991. In 1997, only 93 out of a thousand girls aged 15 to 19 became pregnant. That´s still appalling, but it´s a lot better than the 110 it was in 1982. The trend is moving in the right direction, so something is going right.

Unfortunately, at the same time the pregnancy rates are going down, STD [sexually transmitted disease] rates are going up and up and up. Ten thousand teens per day contract a sexually transmitted disease. Nationally, one in four Americans has an STD. And they´re not all curable, either, as teens find out when they contract one. An STD is a strong dose of reality for a kid who feels that nothing bad can happen.

Q: What can parents do to help teens in this area?

Marshner: They have to start when the child is an infant, as I explain in detail in “Decent Exposure.”

Hopefully before the child reaches the teen years, he has learned right from wrong, has learned that his parents want what is best for him and know more than he does, and has developed some of the other virtues which enable him to practice self-control. Make sure they know that sex is beautiful and wonderful when exercised in marriage, something really worth waiting for.

I´m afraid some parents still manage to convey the idea that sex is merely some dirty secret that should never be talked about. That attitude does a youngster no favor — because if they can´t talk with their parents, whom can they talk with? Be careful to not be sarcastic, don´t use “put-down” tones of voice, be willing to be flexible. Don´t condemn them, help them. Just because you love your children does not mean that your children feel loved — and that is a crucial distinction.

Beyond that, parents need to continually remind themselves to be reasonable; be realistic; be loving and sympathetic — and provide lots of structure for the social lives of our teens.

The next thing to do is to know their friends and their friends´ parents, their group, their environment — what rooms are in the place they hang out, for instance. Then know their lives and the pressures on them.

Know what they need from you, which is your help to balance all the demands of the peer group, the school, overloaded schedules, the plummeting self-confidence, the wild ambitions, the body that changes from day to day, the moods that swing from day to day, and all the other complexities of their lives. Make sure they are continually receiving spiritual formation in some form, and getting regularly to a good confessor.

And be on your knees every day for each and every one of them.

Q: What kind of message do young people want to hear from the Church?

Marshner: The magisterium has already addressed the subject adequately, though not explicitly.

At the parish level, chastity needs to be taught over and over. Not in condemnation, but with joyful anticipation, and with recognition of the vast forgiveness of the Father. Saints like Mary of Egypt need to be taught as well as Maria Goretti.

Don´t teach it as if God is sitting up in heaven waiting to catch you doing wrong so he can punish you. Instead, convey that God, who loves you ten million times more than you can possibly imagine, is sitting in heaven, beckoning you to be like him so you can share his love, a little now but infinitely more later.

The Church, at the parish level, can certainly help provide some structure to social encounters: for instance, youth groups that keep youth busy with performing corporal works of mercy. And don´t allow unsupervised “pairing off” in the context of endless entertainment. Coordination among parents of active young people can be helpful too, especially in parishes where a high proportion of both parents are working.

And, for that matter, parent education. Remember, a huge proportion of today´s parents grew up with only one parent — they need help to be good parents, and most of them know it and would welcome it from their parish if it is offered in a practicable manner.

But most of all, the Church can mediate between parents and the youth culture. The parish should educate parents, exhort parents to pay attention to what is happening with their young people, help provide resources — counseling comes to mind as one that is all too scarce, but very much needed. Also, a space — gym, basement, whatever — where teens can “hang out” under unobtrusive watchful eyes, for snacks and good clean fun within a few basic rules. Constructive help in planning and executing shared activities and shared fun.

Q: What can young people do to encourage healthy dating among their peers?

Marshner: Young people themselves need to decide that they want to make abstinence socially acceptable in their group. Once they decide that, the sky is the limit.

If numerous Miss America pageant winners can have it as their platform, that´s a start. I´ve already mentioned how girls will set the climate of the group they are in.

Young women and men who are committed to chastity need to be strong. They need to be prepared to be “different,” and to face ridicule and loneliness. It may be very lonely in high school, but they know they are worth waiting for, and they need to tell their friends the same message.

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