Many young women today look upon the world of dating with anxiety, hopelessness, disappointment—even dread. They express disappointment with young men's stubborn immaturity, with their own slim chances of finding love, and with the sad fact that whereas in the past, everyone expected women not to have sex before marriage, nowadays everyone, especially their boyfriends, expects that they will. And though they often don't say so directly, many young women are disappointed by their parents' advice or, more often, complete lack of it.
Young women have, of course, adjusted to the world around them. In the vernacular, they aren't looking for Mr. Right but for Mr. Right Now. But looking for Mr. Right Now has taken an enormous toll on their lives and emotions. The decision to look, or settle, for Mr. Right Now might be described as Heather's Compromise. Heather, today's young woman, is tempted continually to compromise her ultimate happiness for the momentary attention of an undependable young male on his terms.
Young women respond to this temptation in roughly three ways. According to their different responses, we might call them party-girls, perennial girlfriends, and romantics: the first have lots of sex with lots of men; the second become continually "involved" in relationships; and the last are those women who hold out for something better.
The party-girl embraces the new regime of sexual freedom. She's the celebrity of the hook-up world. Paris Hilton is her patron saint. She is stunningly attractive and has no conscience. She wins hot legs contests, flashes passers-by at Mardi Gras, and goes home with a guy she meets at a club, if she wants to. If not, she leaves with the satisfaction that as she danced to Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," all the men truly wanted her "naked by the end of this song." (Though given the way she dresses, there isn't much left to take off.) There have always been girls who are considered "loose" or "fast." But in the past they had to be somewhat discreet in their escapades. Nowadays, they are brazen. The party-girls begin dating college guys when they are in high school. In college, they join the sorority most known for its attractive women, low average GPA, and wild parties. The party-girl will, of course, have a boyfriend from time to time. Between boyfriends she will hit the clubs aggressively, partly to get back at her old boyfriend, partly to see if she can find anyone else, mostly just to have fun. She has no thoughts of the future and no dreams about romance. Nor has she any worries that men will not want to be with her because of her sexual history. She has guys literally falling all over her. Why should she care if there are one or two men out there who would not want her to be the mother of their children? Those guys are boring anyway.
True party-girls are few in number. But there are many more party-girl imitators and wannabes. Girls of weak character and low self-esteem, left alone by laissez-faire parents, frequently crave social acceptance. Sex becomes the easy answer. Most any girl who offers sex cannot fail to be accepted, at least for a night. By the time she gets to college, if she goes to college, her habits are fixed. Unlike the celebrity party-girl, who has her pick of men and can say no to anyone, the party-girl wannabe must say yes to almost everyone. She often ends up sleeping with entire groups of young men. The girl who wants to be with a certain type of athlete ends up servicing the whole team. The same is true of the "house-rats" who sleep their way into a fraternity and never leave. Indeed, even some of the fraternity brothers get sick of these women hanging around. These pathetic girls are simply used. Though not publicized in recruiting brochures, many colleges in this country have something called "the walk of shame." On Sunday mornings a steady file of female students can be seen walking from fraternity row back to the dormitories, their clothes somewhat wrinkled, their hair a mess. The real shame, however, is that these women don't appear, at least on the outside, the least bit ashamed. They have had drunken, casual sex with a fraternity guy. What's the big deal? Their secret unhappiness and chronic self-doubt are the big deal.
Most young women are incapable of brazen sexual abandonment. They long for stability and permanence and love in their lives. But they begin receiving the attentions of young males at an early age, long before they intend to marry. So they enter into a half-way covenant between marriage, the longed-for ultimate source of stability and love, and the worrisome condition of the unattached female. To be unattached and female in our society is a difficult undertaking, psychologically, socially, and, at times, physically. Psychologically, the unattached woman often wonders whether she can get a man. Her self-confidence is not helped by her friends reassuring her that she will get a man "some day" or that she will "have lots of men." Unattached males, on the other hand, are always assumed to be playing the field. Women by their very nature have more difficulty being alone or unnoticed. They want to be loved, or at least complimented. The best male compliment to a female that we currently have in this society is the invitation to a date or to a kind of ongoing date.
Socially, women and men both have a hard time being unattached because the world is set up for couples. High school formals, for example, come with great regularity. These events practically mandate teenage pairing-off. Who wants to show up at a formal occasion alone, have his own picture taken, and have no one with whom to dance? To the unattached adolescent, a high school formal appears like the coming of The Deluge. To board the Ark two-by-two one must find another unattached person. The collective attempt to find that other person constitutes the great emotional drama of the high school years. Nowadays it is also becoming physically necessary to "be with someone." Because the barbarians leer and jeer at women walking alone, women often attach themselves to men just to feel safe when going out. To keep the gorillas off, as young author Wendy Shalit has observed, you have to find your own gorilla. These various pressures practically force young women to attach themselves to someone. To whom is less important than the fact of being attached.
This attachment is called a relationship. The woman who enters into a relationship takes on the status of girlfriend. In relationships we come to understand Heather's Compromise in its purest form. The pattern begins somewhat like this. Heather is a 16-year-old girl, a sophomore in high school. All her friends began dating even in middle school, but Heather was a late developer and was not asked out very often. Now she is developing, and boys are beginning to notice her. She is pleased by the attention. Finally, the cute guys in the school are noticing her rather than her best friend. One of the boys is in her chemistry class. He's "a pretty nice and cool guy," so she goes out with him. Her parents are pleased that Heather is now dating just like all the other girls. Pretty soon Heather and her boyfriend are a serious item. No one else would dare ask Heather out. He introduces her to all his friends, and she quickly becomes "popular." Admittedly, she does not always like the way he acts around his friends, but it's different when they're alone. He makes Heather laugh on their dates. He can also be romantic. On her birthday her boyfriend puts a card and a flower in her locker. After about three months, right around Christmas, he uses the word. One night while saying good night on her front porch and kissing her (her parents are already asleep), he says, "You know I love you." Heather is thrilled. His words give her butterflies in the hollow of her stomach. She can hardly get to sleep that night. A week later his parents go out of town on a skiing trip. Though he normally takes these trips, he stays behind this time to work on his chemistry project. Heather goes over to his house without telling her parents that the two will be entirely alone. They get pretty serious that night. They do not go all the way, though. Throughout the spring, they try increasingly to be alone together. He takes Heather to Junior Prom, of course, and that night they do go all the way. Heather does not feel completely right about it at first. But he loves her. He assures her that he will still respect her even after they've had sex. All her friends had sex "a long time ago." Why should Heather be any different?
Such is the nature of relationships. They become more serious, physically and emotionally, by increments. No one step seems completely revolutionary except perhaps the last one. But that step is taken at Prom, which after all, is a special occasion. Realize, however, that after Prom, Heather has no reason to refuse sexual favors nor may she want to. She loves her boyfriend and loves being his girlfriend. They have already gone that far, so why should a Tuesday evening in the summer be any different from Prom Night? Prom Night has served its romantic, or carnal, purpose as The First Time. But when Heather and her boyfriend break up, as surely they will when they go off to college or he gets tired of her, Heather now has no reason not to go all the way with any other boyfriend. That boyfriend only has to say, "So you loved him more than you love me?" "No, of course not. It's not like that. That was a different kind of relationship," Heather will counter. Here Heather is wrong since every relationship is like that. When she lost her virginity, she lost the argument for sexual continence. She is right when she invokes the experience of her other friends in saying, "I have known so many couples whose relationships have been ruined by sex." But her current boyfriend won't understand that reasoning. Nor does Heather, because she doesn't understand the true nature of relationships and of being a girlfriend. That ignorance is the source of her undoing and her unhappiness.
In today's culture, chastity is a difficult enterprise. Girlfriends are not libertines. They do not get involved in sexual relationships based upon the pleasure principle. Rather, two principles of their own nature work against them. First, their feminine nature invites them to please others, especially those close to them. Second, they long for intimacy. Young men are by nature keen and devious psychologists of the female sex. They can easily appeal to these principles of the female nature and produce a winning argument for their case by using the language of sacrifice and intimacy.
And indeed, these psychological comforts can be had for a time within relationships. Ultimately, however, relationships fail precisely because there are no social sanctions or supports to make them work and they have no view to the future. In former times, the ends of marriage were straightforward. Marriage was the basis of the family, which in turn was a microcosm of the political or religious order whose purpose was to secure the good life. But what's the purpose of a relationship? Relationships don't aim at the procreation and education of children; indeed, they must avoid procreation at all costs. The ends of a relationship make no reference to the whole of a person's life. Young people date in order to express their passions, to find companionship, to gain social acceptance, and to have fun. All of these are fleeting aims. The goal may also be love, in some sense. Particularly in these times when, due to the breakdown of the family, love is not easily come by at home, adolescents tend to throw themselves into these volatile affairs of the heart. I suspect that whereas in the past most adolescents (especially girls) confided in their parents about their romantic troubles, today more young people confide in their boyfriends and girlfriends about their home troubles. Nonetheless, if this attachment in relationships can be considered love, it is conditional and temporary rather than permanent. It depends on the couple's present feelings towards each other, which may change very rapidly, especially because the young, as yet unformed, boys and girls are themselves changing as they grow up.
To be sure, relationships end up imitating marriages. Boyfriends and girlfriends talk of "anniversaries" and of belonging to each other, and they engage in sex and often live together. When not involved in a relationship, they call themselves "single." Yet every girlfriend secretly knows that a "break-up" could occur at any moment. Indeed, couples even talk about "taking time off" for an indefinite period when things do not seem to be going well. Married people don't have the luxury of taking time off. There's no sabbatical for the seven-year itch. Marriage, at least according to its vows, settles for nothing less than always and forever.
The prevailing culture of relationships, however, tends to undermine marriage. Most perennial girlfriends will have had several serious relationships before getting married and therefore several serious break-ups. These break-ups take an enormous toll on the happiness of young women. Especially when sex is involved, young women can feel these failed attempts at love as "losing pieces of yourself." They no longer feel whole. Erotic encounters, like any repeated activity, are habit-forming. If you have broken up several times before, what will stop you from doing the same thing once you are married? Relationship gurus assert that dating helps you find the right mate and that living with someone teaches you how to live with someone. It is more statistically accurate to say that the cycle of dating and breaking-up is good practice for divorce. In our society, with all the emphasis placed upon youth and individuality and fun, marriages more often imitate relationships than relationships prefigure marriage.
The obvious outcome of Heather's Compromise is that Heather loses more often than she wins, if ever she wins. Occasionally, a young woman will, after several tumultuous relationships, find a decent man, marry him, and live happily ever after. That happiness appears to be the result of Fortune, as fickle a deity as Eros, rather than any planning or attributes of character on her part. More often she ends up emotionally drained, jaded, confused.
At this low point, Dear Abby might tell Heather to seek a "spiritual advisor." Oprah would tell her to go on a journey to find her spirit. Dr. Phil would tell her to get tough. The Rules show her all the tricks of playing hard-to-get and tell her not to have sex until she is in a "committed relationship." No one, at least no one she is listening to, tells her to become a lady and to require this "guy" to become a gentleman. The sexual revolution aimed at undermining the sexual restraints imposed by a supposedly patriarchal, puritanical, repressive society. Young people of both sexes waged this revolution. The young people won, so it would seem. But only the young, unattached males won completely, from their limited point of view. The females gained a Pyrrhic victory. They are forced to resort to tricks to keep their boyfriends "committed," but commitment is relative and changes with the wind. The girlfriends "can't get over it," it being the endless series of relationships that rarely materialize into something beautiful, transcendent, ultimate.
Heather's boyfriend, at least for now, thinks he has won. He always gets sex and, equally important, the base sense of achievement that comes with sexual conquest. Certainly, guys may get upset and even cry during a break-up. In part, they are sad that they are losing a good deal. In part, they are not completely unfeeling and have some sympathy for their girlfriends. They can also be good actors. For the nice guys who enter into relationships with the best of intentions, breaking up can be a very hard thing. But the emotional consequences are far less dire for the male.
The sexual revolution, nonetheless, has had deleterious effects on men as well. In previous ages, the system of courtship and marriage required on the part of young people both sexual restraint and a strong sense of the future. Young men had to "clean up their act" before they could become truly eligible bachelors. In order to gain a young lady's approval and ultimately her hand, a man had to do several things. He had to master his sex drive. He had to prove his devotion to her, usually over a long period of time. He had to pass inspection before her discerning parents. He had to become financially stable so that he could support his wife and the children they would have. In short, he had to become a man of means, a man of parts, and a man of character. The exacting demands of courtship discouraged males from becoming wimps or barbarians.
What worked to the advantage of individual women also worked to the advantage of society. Women, at least a certain kind of women, force men to become civilized when they are not already. Clearly men will not be properly civilized in our day unless the traditional standards of courtship and marriage return in some form. Rowdy men who are not married and have no plans of getting married; who can "score" with party-girls from time to time and with party-girl wannabes all the time; who may occasionally lie enough about their emotions to have a girlfriend for a few months; who share the rent with their roommates, both male and female; who need only shell out for beer, cable television, and pizza; and whose ambitions amount to little more than a higher "max" bench press—these barbarians have all the basic pleasures and no incentive to shape up. They're just living out their favorite beer commercial.
We will never re-establish the happier relations between the sexes until the third group of young women, the romantics, make their preferences known and become models for others. The romantics are those few young women who are disappointed in the young men they meet these days and unwilling to compromise their hopes just to have boyfriends for the moment. They believe that the ultimate source of romantic happiness is marriage to a good man. Unfortunately, they live in a world largely populated by wimps and barbarians. The romantic would rather sit at home or go out with her female friends than be bothered by such types. This patient longing for a true man is admittedly not an easy task. The romantic woman may often find herself lamenting to her parents like Rousseau's Sophie:
"Give me," she said, "a man imbued with my maxims or one whom I can bring around to them, and I shall marry him. But until then, why do you scold me? Pity me. I am unhappy, not mad. ...Is it my fault if I love what does not exist? I am not a visionary. I do not want a prince. I do not seek Telemachus. I know that he is only a fiction. I seek someone who resembles him. And why cannot this someone exist, since I exist...?"
But the romantic woman, the modern Sophie, prefers this anxious waiting for a good man to the unhappiness she is sure to find in settling for a bad one. Meanwhile, she will let the wimps and barbarians who try to whine or crash their way into her world know that their behavior is unacceptable and unmanly. Deep down, no man wants to be rejected or, worse, laughed at by a superior, discriminating woman.
Once while teaching the topic of chivalry in a Western Civilization class in college, I put the question to a "barbarian" student: If women refused to be around you if you cursed in front of them, stared at their chests, and in general acted in a lewd and drunken manner at parties, would you clean up your act? His answer was straightforward. "Yeah, of course. Who wouldn't?" Should romantic women across the nation make their preferences known by their great power of refusal, and should increasing numbers of perennial girlfriends come over into the camp of the romantics, young women would regain their natural capacity of commanding men. As surely as day follows night, young men would have to reform their character in short order.
What women want is neither Rambo nor Woody Allen. Nor is it Mel Gibson in pantyhose and in their aerobics classes. They don't want men to boss around. They don't want men who cook meals and do the dishes. They want real men, the kind that men themselves deep down want to be but have largely forgotten how to be. A former college student of mine explained the problem succinctly. The class was debating the merits of a required period of national service for men, lasting at least two years. The women saw the benefits of such a program, not so much for the nation as for themselves. Boys would leave high school, they imagined, serve their country for a couple of years in some important capacity, and enter the university as mature and responsible men rather than as immature partiers and class-ditchers. They would be more like the men in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, said one woman, a business major. Back then it was not unusual for a man to be a real man at 19. Nowadays, she said, guys that age behave like they are 14. On a much larger scale, the enduring popularity of movies such as Blast From the Past and Kate and Leopold, in which gentlemen literally come to the present from a previous age to woo jaded and unhappy women, reveals that young women long to be treated like ladies again; but on the whole have lost the self-confidence, the arts, the patience, the self-restraint, and the hope to make their dreams a reality.