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Are Young Women Avoiding Marriage?

In today’s society many females see marriage as a restriction on their freedom.

DON’T Call Me Princess!

Once upon a time and not so long ago, little girls dreamed of frilly wedding dresses, white gloves, picket fences, and gleeful little children scampering at their feet - all of this supported by a high-earning, martini sipping husband. Usually these young lasses grew up and went to college seeking not an education but a marriage proposal. Their highest aspiration was to be an attractive, intelligent, loving, and beloved stay-at-home wife and mother.

That’s the 1950s and 60s TV version of the story, anyway. Whether June Cleaver and Carol Brady were ever actually aspirational role models is certainly open for debate. Certainly by the mid-1970s the feminist movement was openly rejecting these “demeaning” stereotypes and demanding equal rights, equal pay, and equal say. Instead of polishing the glass ceiling, women were seeking to smash it.

Admittedly, the early feminist movement was openly mocked by the patriarchal establishment (and even by many women of the era), but progress was made. And that progress has continued relatively unabated ever since. Today, for the first time in history, single young women in America are on average better educated and more successful than their male counterparts. They are more likely to attend college, more likely to graduate from college, and they typically make more money when they graduate from college and enter the workforce.

This drastic social shift has unsurprisingly created a sea-change in younger women’s attitudes about all sorts of things, including marriage. Nowadays the male-dominated mid-20th century model of marriage - wherein the where the man earns a paycheck and the woman spends it - has become the relic of a bygone era, at least among young people. What fledgling women currently seek from romance, sex, and relationships is almost inconceivably different than what they (supposedly) wanted half a century ago. Essentially, monogamous relationships - once the be-all, end-all of modern American life - are now looked at in terms of what you lose rather than what you gain. In today’s world marriage is seen by many young females as a restriction on their freedom to do what they want, when they want, with their educations, careers, and sexual autonomy.

Independence Is In, Marriage Is Out!

Somehow, over the course of the last 50 years or so, marriage has become a lot less appealing to younger Americans. In one recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Gen Y and 43 percent of Gen X said they consider marriage to be archaic. And this attitude is backed up with real-world behaviors. Currently, only 26 percent of people in their twenties are married. Compare this to 1960, when 68 percent of people in their twenties were married. So clearly, at least among young people, marriage is not as important or sought after as it used to be.

Stereotypically speaking one might expect this downturn in marriage rates to be a male-driven phenomenon - young men seeking to act out a “biological imperative for males to spread their seed” before strapping a self-imposed noose around their neck and settling down with only one woman. In point of fact, however, it may be young women who are driving the no-marriage bus, pushing the bra-burning feminism of yesteryear forward into a modern, tech-fueled, Girl Power golden age. As Hanna Rosin writes in The Atlantic: “What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom - the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career.”

What Rosin is speaking about specifically is the digital hookup culture. Websites and smartphone apps (Skout, Blendr, Tinder, Bang With Friends, etc.) geared toward casual dating and sexual hookups enable young women get their physical needs met without the encumbrance of a serious boyfriend who might get in the way of more important things like school, internships, jobs, hobbies, avocations, and taking out the garbage. In other words, the young women of today are far less interested than predecessor generations in finding Mr. Right, and they’re every bit as likely as most of their male peers to say, after a date or sexual hookup, “It’s been fun, but now I’d like you to leave because I’ve got more interesting things to do than you.” Rosin puts it bluntly: “For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”

A Brave New World

It is interesting to note that this accepting, even enthusiastic attitude toward casual sex is the exact opposite of what young women were taught to want from men and dating a mere generation ago. Sexual liberalism and the early feminist movement of the 1970s notwithstanding, it was typical and expected for a woman of that era (and prior eras) to focus on finding and settling down with a man as opposed to evolving some sort of career.

Perhaps a few older readers are bothered by the lack of meaning that some young people, particularly young women, attribute to much of their sexual behavior. This is probably because for older generations sex has long been seen as the “glue” that holds relationships (especially marriages) together in the early, turbulent stages. (When all else fails, hop into bed and work it out there.) Because of this, older folks sometimes struggle to understand how their younger counterparts can think about sex as an activity devoid of meaningful connection. Nevertheless, that is how a growing number of young people see it.

The simple fact is that in almost every area of human social interaction, digital technology in combination with social change (usually initiated by earlier generations) has wrought major adjustments in younger people’s attitudes and views of the world. Intimate relations are no exception to this. What that means in terms of current human evolution and development is yet to be determined. Ultimately, as is the case with all forms of change, tech-driven or otherwise, the transformation will likely be good for some and not so good for others. Those who successfully adapt to the evolving, less marriage-centric world will not only survive but thrive, and those who remain mired in the relationship models of yesteryear may well suffer for doing so.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Ageand the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. He has served as a media specialist on sex and intimacy issues for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others.