Problems associated with the decline of the traditional family and increases in the percentage of children born to single women have been well documented on these pages and elsewhere. The problem is especially acute among the least educated and poorest Americans, of whom only about 48 percent get married.
Many of these people are caught in a downward spiral of poverty and hopelessness. Studies show that children raised by single mothers are susceptible to a host of behavioral problems and suffer from a lack of opportunities. This is especially true for boys, who nevertheless grow into men who create out-of-wedlock children of their own, perpetuating the cycle.
Part of the answer to this lies in public policies that reinstate marriage and the traditional family as the gold standard for long-term relationships. Young men must be incentivized and taught how to be providers and caring fathers. Sex for pleasure must be subordinated to commitment and responsibility. This must remain the goal.
Instead, popular culture continues to saturate young people with titillation, heaping attention on the most provocative attention-seekers. And too many people believe the real answer lies in providing young people with a broader range of accessible reproductive services and a thorough education in how to have sex responsibly. They believe we should agree “to be less puritanical and more practical.”
That was the message New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow advocated recently. He dismissed the “halcyon ideals” of the traditional family as gone forever and said we need “to adjust to a new reality rather than simply bemoan it.”
That new reality requires no longer “sex shaming” young women for “not being proper guardians of chastity.” It means teaching boys to “value themselves as fully human,” and it means young people must be taught to “love themselves enough emotionally to be in control of whom they allow to love them physically, and when.”
Of course, he never explains how a young person, fully developed in most ways other than the ability to reason and make mature judgments, is supposed to learn this. From television? From parents who merely tell them not to do anything they feel they aren’t ready for? He doesn’t confront the reality of youthful passion that can overwhelm a person without the governing mechanism of moral and religious training.
Nor does he confront the consequences of what he promotes.
Research on the effects of promiscuity and cohabitation is not new, but it is overwhelming. About 10 years ago, researchers Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, and Lauren R. Noyes conducted research that found teenagers who engage in sex outside of marriage suffer much higher rates of depression, thoughts of suicide and regret than their peers who are chaste. Even accounting for other possible factors, they found that 25.3 percent of sexually active girls are depressed much of the time, compared to 7.7 percent of those who don’t engage in such activity. Fully 14.3 percent of them said they had attempted suicide, compared with 5.1 percent of their abstinent peers.
Teenage boys experience similar results, although their overall rates of depression and thoughts of suicide were found to be much lower.
Critics would say this is because a patriarchal society casts shame and blame on girls. But that ignores the real costs of promiscuity. Sociologist and author Mark Regnerus calls this “the dynamics of sexual economics.” A permissive society has devalued marriage and thus reduced the investment young men must make in exchange for sex, such as providing care, fidelity and commitment. But it hasn’t removed the costs to physical and emotional health and financial stability.
Studies show cohabitation comes with negative outcomes. These include a greater likelihood of infidelity, a higher divorce rate should the couple eventually marry, and less financial stability than married couples.
The answers to the high out-of-wedlock birthrate and its attendant social impacts are vague, complex, expensive and difficult if you eliminate a return to traditional families. They are simple and obvious if you look for ways to officially promote abstinence before marriage and commitment and fidelity after it.
Children raised in homes led by married parents are much more likely than others to avoid poverty and be emotionally and psychologically well-adjusted. They are even, one might say, more likely to “value themselves as fully human.”
That is a point on which there should be no confusion.