- There are strategies to strengthen the motivation to avoid a first or second unplanned pregnancy that also tap the honorable instinct of protecting children. Tweet This
- The “script" of sex-too-soon, and living together without a mutual commitment can be challenged in ways that teens and young parents can embrace. Tweet This
Eve Tushnet is correct in noting that it's much easier for privileged youth to follow the success sequence. But the real point, as Randy Hicks explained yesterday, is that highlighting the sequence may help to focus and position resources, policies, and initiatives to make all three steps more accessible to more people. And that was the recommendation of “The Millennial Success Sequence” report. We need to make access to educational completion more universal, starting with early childhood initiatives and parent support starting at birth (like the Harlem Children’s Zone Baby College), as well as quality K-12 education, and low-cost access to college, apprenticeships or other training. We need to increase access to employment that pays with investment in infrastructure and jobs for the future with higher wages and benefits to make work pay. These two steps, education and employment, typically have broad support. But I want to focus on the third step—and that is, marriage before children.
My problem with Tushnet is not her assertion that the ethic of sex first, then cohabitation as the best path to marriage already exists among the low-income women she works with. I agree. My problem is her impression that this ethic is here to stay, that it can’t be challenged in a respectful and empowering way for women and for men—and challenged in a way that builds knowledge, skills, and confidence to do things differently in navigating their love lives.
Tushnet assumes poor women (who can’t do what her friends at Yale did) will always be caught in a “triple bind”—wrong to have a baby while poor and unwed, wrong to abort, and wrong to save sex for a wedding night that may never come. She wants us (rightly in my opinion) to appreciate the high moral ground of the belief that all children are blessings—even if poorly timed, unexpected, or initially-unwanted, and that this latter belief makes them more likely to accept economic hardship as the price of motherhood. Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas helped us to appreciate this in Promises I Can Keep.
Tushnet asserts that if a woman rejects this belief, then she is under pressure to abort and this is where she starts to veer off in a bleak prognosis of the future. Her argument assumes this ethic will stay this way until we build a culture of communities—churches, extended families, schools—"where all babies are blessings and premarital chastity is imaginable and acceptable.” Wow, that is a stark either/or! We may be waiting a very long time before those chaste communities arise across the land.
There is something in between the two stark poles Tushnet posits. Teens and adults can change their beliefs and behaviors with high quality innovative and integrated approaches—ones that offer healthy relationship education and skills to reduce unplanned pregnancy and partner violence.
I would offer a more optimistic view. There is something in between the two stark poles she posits. Teens and adults can change their beliefs and behaviors with high quality innovative and integrated approaches—ones that offer healthy relationship education and skills to reduce unplanned pregnancy and partner violence. There are strategies to strengthen motivation to avoid a first or second unplanned pregnancy that tap the honorable instinct of protecting children and help people become more thoughtful about decisions like cohabitation and marriage and when to have a child (or a second child).
I know from my work that it is not such a stretch for people to recognize the high costs of sliding into sex-too-soon before you know someone’s character and before you discover if they are worthy of your love. They’ve seen the truth of it from their own experiences. I have found a strong embrace of this empowering type of education. I find people are hungry for help in navigating their love lives—hungry for good information, for guides, for ways to assess relationships, and for better ways to communicate and negotiate with partners and leave safely if necessary. Even more, they embrace the support to define for themselves a context for sex that is personally meaningful and protective of their aspirations. They embrace new pregnancy prevention approaches that help them see it through the eyes of a child. They can discover that their love lives are not neutral—to them reaching their goals or to their children. I’ve been incorporating messages on the success sequence with messages on the benefits of deciding and not sliding when it comes to your love life for over a decade. And I believe it is possible to empower women and men with information about when cohabitation carries more risks and when it is less risky.
The “script,” as I would call it, of sex-so-soon, and living together without a mutual commitment can be challenged in ways that young people and young parents can embrace. They can learn that sliding into sex-so-soon carries serious risks. The definition of “safe sex” can be redefined as safe for the heart, too, not just the body. Taking one’s time, acquiring insights and guides to help discern if someone is worthy of your love, and about how to make clear decisions versus sliding into sex and then into cohabitation—these are things that people are eager to learn.
When you do provide this comprehensive approach to empowering youth, they embrace it and implement it. For example, researchers at the University of Louisville found that teens who took the Love Notes program—which includes the teaching of the success sequence—had a 46% reduction in their pregnancy rates, as compared to the teens in the control group.
The problem raised by Tushnet, and perhaps other critics of the success sequence, could be the assumptions about what teaching it might entail. Would it be morally preachy—and be blind to the reality that following it is much easier if you are privileged? Would it emphasize a “bloodless moralism,” as if gaining economic success is all that counts? Would it imply moral inferiority on being poor, and worse, shame women into feeling a pregnancy is a failure requiring a choice between abortion or her own instincts that “babies are a blessing”?
There are practical and real steps to help people take charge of their love lives; there is something in between resigning ourselves to the current state of affairs or waiting for the kind of cultural communities Tushnet envisions. The question is, where do people get this kind of “heart-based” and skills-based approach—one that embraces slowing it down and questions the current norm of sliding into sex and cohabitation? The answer, unfortunately, is not many places. And that’s something we need to change.
Marline Pearson is a sociology instructor at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the author of Love Notes: Skills for Love, Life and Work(a curriculum for older teens and young adults), Relationship Smarts Plus(for younger teens), and co-author with Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades of Within My Reach, a relationship skills and decision-making program for adults who struggle with disadvantage.