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Who and What Would it Take to Heal the Male/Female Problematic? The Third in a Series of Four…

alvare_h.jpgIn two previous columns I suggested that a not insignificant cause of the current rates of out of wedlock pregnancies in the US is a breakdown of healthy relations between women and men.  Past attempts to address high rates of nonmarital pregnancies failed to note this possible cause.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that all prior attempts to curb such pregnancies (e.g. policies in areas such as education, job-training, sex-education, child support enforcement, social welfare, and marriage) were wrong or illogical in themselves, only that they were incomplete.  At the same time I would have to note that some policy responses may have actually exacerbated the situation. Those involving large-scale birth control distribution, for example, and abortion on request, were not only unsuccessful, but sent messages about the meaning of male/female relationships that very likely sent nonmarital birth rates to higher levels. [1]

Evidence set forward in previous columns – much of it from qualitative interviews and other published accounts of unmarried pregnancy and parenting – suggests that deep levels of mistrust between the sexes, unrealistic or wrong ideas about sex and marriage, ignorance about the social importance of stable, long-term heterosexual coupling, and ignorance about men’s and women’s different relationships with children, fuel our current out of wedlock birth rates. 

But what can be done about these deep-seated and complex misconceptions and attitudes?  And by whom?   This column begins to propose some answers to these questions in a systematic fashion.  It contains summaries of proposals which are a part of a much longer paper on which I am working.  One final column will complete this “series” on the relationship between a male/female problematic and out of wedlock pregnancies. Here, I will first suggest messages which need to be delivered to counter the existing misconceptions and attitudes which together form the male/female problematic. Then I will offer principles for deciding who – which persons and institutions — ought to deliver such messages, focusing primarily upon parents, churches, and the state.  The last column will suggest some concrete policies or solutions each person or institution might pursue and why.

Based upon women’s and men’s narratives about how they came to be unmarried parents, as culled from research shared in earlier columns, I think that the following questions or issues need to be addressed in order to assist the healing of the male/female problematic in connection with out of wedlock pregnancies.  The first area concerns the equality of males and females, but “this time” (as distinct from attempts during the 1960s and 70s) with special attention both to avoiding generalized, gratuitous male bashing, and to pointing up the differences between men and women, particularly respecting the inclinations of each toward children.  I say this for the following reasons. Unmarried mothers often testify to an early inclination toward motherhood, but don’t understand their male partners’ temporary or scarce interest in the child.  They don’t understand how, biologically and historically, it seems that men’s attachment to children is closely related to a mutual commitment between the father and the mother. [2]  They don’t understand women’s attraction to interweaving childcare and work, and men’s greater aversion to “multitasking.” [3] Understanding these sorts of matters might help women and men avoid behavior leading to conception, and avoid “writing off” the possibility of a commitment to the opposite sex during a pregnancy or after a childbirth.

Second, there is needed more information about and support for the unique personal and social importance of the married heterosexual pair.  Closely related, there is also needed more information about the common “disorders” that plague intimate heterosexual relationships.  It is well known by now that for most people, a significant and foundational portion of their happiness is linked to a strong heterosexual relationship. Stably married persons are far happier and healthier than their single or separated or divorced counterparts. [4]  We also know that a consensus has formed around the conclusion that children fare best in stably married households. [5]  When children falter – as they will more likely do when raised outside of such families – huge external costs are imposed upon society in the form of school failure, drug use, criminality and violence, out of wedlock pregnancies, cohabitation and divorce. Even faltering couples give rise to social costs – whether due to poverty, lost work productivity or declining citizenship participation. [6]

As personally and socially important as good heterosexual relations are, they are also subject to some “classic” troubles.  It has been documented for example that men are more willing than women to have sex without commitment, to seek multiple, serial sex partners, to cohabit, to cheat on their romantic partners, and to fail to care for their own children. Women, on the other hand, are increasingly willing to play the role of sex objects and to participate in uncommitted sex.  Yet they are also far more willing than men to break marriage commitments and file nearly two thirds of all divorce actions in the United States. (Christians will not be at all surprised to see in these modern problems, echoes of the descriptions of “his and hers” original sin as explicated by John Paul II in his Theology of the Body).

Were there more information and reflection about the important roles as well as the common pitfalls of heterosexual relations, and more support for their success, young men and women might be less likely to make the uninformed and unrealistic choices they are making today about intimate heterosexual relations.

Third, the full meaning of sex ought to be surveyed. Presently, it seems sex is understood primarily as a source of physical and emotional pleasure, and possibly as an indicator of the strength of the romantic heterosexual relationship.  But its full meaning – which tends to become visible only after the fact for too many people – also encompasses procreation, the couple’s heterosexual relationship as parents (not just romantic partners), and the widely-acknowledged social/moral goods of children’s welfare as well as adults’ capacities for integrity and faithfulness.  I don’t think it is at all unfair to claim that the main messages young people imbibe about sex today are: sex is all about the partners’ romantic relationships; unprotected sex is procreative; sex can cause diseases. [7]  The facts of the matter, however, are different. Our out of wedlock pregnancy rates and the situation of unmarried parents and their children say so. Sex ends up being very much linked to procreation, and to the long term practical, financial and emotional well being of both the parents and the children. It also ends up very much linked to public health and the economy.

Were there more understanding about the ties between sex, procreation, our moral responsibilities to children and to romantic partners, and the public welfare, perhaps fewer young people would be satisfied to think that a temporary romantic attachment plus a condom are the only prerequisites for embarking on a sexual relationship.

Fourth, gaps and misunderstandings about the meaning of marriage need to be filled in and repaired.  Individuals and couples set themselves up for practical failure by imagining marriage to be the capstone of, or last word about, a past achievement of a certain level of romantic attachment (Maggie Gallagher has often observed this), combined with a “luxury lifestyle” which includes not only a certain level of material wealth, but also the perfect partner/soulmate (whose more or less permanent commitment one has secured) with whom to enjoy it.  [8]

Needless to say — if this is marriage — fewer women and men will see it as attainable for the ordinary person; so many feel that they ought to have more money in their lives before considering themselves “set.”  Fewer still will realize marriage’s orientation to the future, i.e. in the children procreated, in the daily dedication required to make it “work,” and in its power to transform and develop the couple throughout life.

If more young people understood marriage as the “ordinary” vocation of the vast majority of human beings, geared to future positive and mutual development, and more likely than lone parenting or cohabitation to achieve financial stability, more young men and women would likely be willing to plan for marriage with more abstemious sexual behavior, and to marry their serious romantic partners.

Having set for this ambitious agenda of “messages,” who can possibly undertake the delivery of these messages, whether by word or deed?  They are broad and they are deep. Furthermore, there are already many people and institutions active in each area, as well as extant and entrenched objections to the contributions of this or that actor. Many, for example, feel that the state has completely bungled the job, and point to the correlation between lavish state expenditures on sex education and birth control, and rising rates of out of wedlock pregnancies. These observers often additionally object to bureaucratic governmental interference with parental and religious prerogatives regarding children’s sexual education. Sex education enthusiasts, who have turned primarily to the state to implement their wishes, blame parents and churches for saying too little or saying what they believe to be the wrong thing.  They want the empirical “experts” to lead the charge.  There is truth in all of these objections, but not a way forward.  I would like to offer a more systematic approach to the question of who should speak and how.  I offer it in the context of my proposal regarding the male/female problematic, but there is no reason that it could not be adapted by others in connection with other types of approaches to curbing out of wedlock pregnancies.  My approach is to take the following factors into consideration when determining “who” acts and how: (1) parents’ rights (both constitutional and moral) to the care and custody of their children, which include rights to educate their children about their relationships with members of the opposite sex whether from secular or religious sources or both; (2) an entity’s demonstrated willingness, and demonstrable beneficial power or influence regarding the message at issue; (3) an entity’s access to sound, relevant resources; (4) in the case of the state, the avoidance of the establishment of religion alongside deference to its free exercise and; (5) because we’re talking subjects like sex and sex-roles here, about which people in the US are both legally and emotionally sensitive —  the capacity to avoid sexism and respect properly conceived privacy.   I think that this is the logical list of relevant factors.

Based upon these factors, it would seem to me that the most likely players in any campaign to assist the male/female problematic are parents, religious entities and the state.  It is also true that the media and the academy (including any association of professionals pursuing knowledge about the nature of the human person in connection with heterosexual relations and/or parenting) could be of enormous assistance. It might even be persuasively argued that they have a moral obligation to try.  For purposes of my analysis, however, and for reasons of length, I will consider only the first three players. They have robust and vested interests in the success of healing the male/female problematic, and are quite likely in any event to try to harness the information and outlets provided by the academy and the media respectively, in order to accomplish their goals.

In my next (and finally last!) column on this subject, I will address the possible contents of parents’, churches’ and the state’s contributions toward healing what ails male/female relations in connection with the US’ high rates of out of wedlock pregnancies.


[1] See, for example, George A. Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Lawrence F Katz, “An Analysis on Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States," The Quarterly Journal of Economics: May 1996: 277-317.   This article suggests that abortion likely altered  courtship and marriage expectations, and men’s understanding of procreation, in ways that drove more women to engage in nonmarital sex and ultimately give birth to more children out of wedlock without securing a relationship with the father. 
[2] See, e.g., David F. Bjorklund & Ashley C. King, Human Parenting from an Evolutionary Perspective in Gender and Parenthood, ed. Kathleen Kovner Kline and W. Bradford Wilcox (New York: Institute for American Values, forthcoming 2010).
[3] See Nicholas Townsend, The Package Deal: Marriage Work and Fatherhood in Men’s Lives (2002).
[4] See Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite, The Case for Marriage (2000).
[5] See Norval Glenn and Thomas Sylvester with Alex Roberts, The Shift and the Denial: Scholarly Attitudes toward Family Change 1977-2002 (Brief 8, February 2008, the Institute for American Values).
[6] See generally Helen M. Alvaré, An Anthropology for the Family Law of In/Dissolubilty, 4 Ave Maria L. Rev. 497 (2006).
[7] See Jennifer Fulwiler: A Sexual Revolution: One woman’s journey from pro-choice atheist to pro-life Catholic, America, July 7, 2008.
[8] See Andrew Cherlin, The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage, 66 J of Marriage & Family 848 (2004);  W. Bradford Wilcox, Seeking a Soulmate: A Social Scientific View of the Relationship between Commitment and Authentic Intimacy, at “Promoting and Sustaining Marriage as a Community of Life and Love,” A Colloquium of Social Scientists and Theologians (October 24-25, 2005) at http://www.usccb.org/laity/marriage/Wilcox.pdf


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