“What I know now is that birth control and ‘safe sex’ won’t really protect me. My choices then put me at risk, not only for STDs and pregnancy outside of marriage but also emotionally, because of the psychological side of sex.”
—Brittany, a single, working-class mother of two in her late 20s, who began using birth control at age 16.
I thought about Brittany, a regular writer at a site I founded, I Believe in Love (iBiL), as I read the recent blog post by family law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, responding to the IFS/AEI report, The Millennial Success Sequence.
In their article, Carbone and Cahn make a sensible suggestion that “men and women… delay family formation until they reach emotional maturity and financial independence” because “adult commitments rest on flexibility and trust,” with one of the greatest of those responsibilities being childbearing. But their claim that contraception is “the most effective weapon in our arsenal for strengthening family stability” fails to consider the role that contraception and nonmarital sex have played in inhibiting the development of emotional maturity, flexibility, and relational trust among Millennials. Additionally, their argument that earlier introduction to and more consistent use of contraception is a necessary solution for young adults wishing to follow the “success sequence” (i.e., complete high school, get a job, get married, have a baby—in that order) is too simplistic.
In my work at iBiL, a storytelling website and program specifically for and by Millennials, I’m in regular contact with many of the very young adults struggling the most to get on and through the success sequence: the working class and the poor. The voices of our storytellers represent the voices of the thousands of readers who interact with our site daily. These storytellers are willing to share some of the most private details of their romantic lives because there are so few places they can go to talk through questions and receive support as they reach for a stable family.
Sex is a topic that is frequently addressed at iBiL because it’s one of the most fraught elements of the Millennial dating culture today. Yet in virtually every story about sex, there are references to familiar driving motivators like love, belonging, self-esteem, adventure, or commitment.
Whether one is for leaving “sexual activity to individual choice” or “shepherding sexuality into marriage,” as Carbone and Cahn describe the “Red” and “Blue” divide over this issue, the experiences of young people over the past several decades—during which contraception became more widely available—do not fully match either pattern. Instead, their lived experiences all too often reveal a lack of intentionality about sex.
The role sex plays in partner selection is an important conversation our culture should be having but unfortunately isn’t. All too often, it seems the conversation surrounding sex centers on the premise that the primary concern is the prevention of nonmarital pregnancy (and disease).
Carbone and Cahn’s suggestion that contraception “become a system integrated into routine medical care that separates birth control from the use of sex” would likely further hinder intentionality concerning sex. That’s because the widespread promotion of contraception cannot resolve—and could further exacerbate—the problems of gender mistrust and poor partner selection that are so prevalent among Millennials, due to the roles contraception, sex, and pregnancy play in today’s dating script.
Brittany’s story highlights this. She writes, “When I was having sex, I would have a small sense of being loved and being wanted—two feelings that I craved. To make a guy want me—I thought that was the power of a woman.” She continues:
My young adult life has not been easy. I’m now...a single mom with two kids, who mean the world to me. But I’m still looking for a man who will love me and my kids unconditionally. I wish I had known then what I know now, that getting on birth control and having sex was not the way to find him.
Throughout the next few years, her writing has returned to this theme of remorse and regret that no one really warned her about the relational and emotional risks involved in sex outside of marriage, even though the emotional and relational risks are well documented.
Carbone and Cahn's claim that contraception is “the most effective weapon in our arsenal for strengthening family stability” fails to consider the role that contraception and nonmarital sex have played in inhibiting the development of emotional maturity, flexibility, and relational trust among Millennials.
The work of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and others have confirmed the impact of sex and love on the brain, including that women particularly are more vulnerable to developing feelings of attachment to a sexual partner, regardless of romantic intentions or commitment, because of the hormones activated in the sexual act. Numerous books—Sex and the Soul by Professor Donna Frietas, Unhooked by Laura Sessions Stepp, Unprotected by Dr. Miriam Grossman, to name a few—have told stories about the emotional and relational strain caused by casual or nonmarital sex, showing, too, how that turmoil seeps into other areas of life, leading to more depression, less success at work and school, and more trouble in relationships. To wit, the connection forged through sex makes it much more difficult to properly discern other important elements of compatibility, such as maturity, emotional connection, and trust.
Another iBiL writer, Shannon, knows this all too well. Shortly after her high school graduation, she found herself buying a pregnancy test, and anxiously taking it in the drug store bathroom. Her boyfriend had made it clear he would not support the pregnancy or child should she actually be pregnant. She explains:
This should have come as no surprise to me given the fact that he couldn’t even formally commit to our relationship. His life was tumultuous and messy. He was in and out of jail, doing drugs and hopping from one job to another. I loved him more than he loved me, and we both knew that too…When our relationship had stalled out and he began losing interest, I used sex to get him back.
Mercifully for Shannon, the pregnancy test came back negative, but her reaction to that scare startled her. “I realized I had been hoping [a pregnancy] could be a way to rope my boyfriend into loving me—even if it was only through a child- forever,” Shannon writes. “We would always be in each other’s lives even if he never married me, even if we didn’t stay together. He didn’t want to commit to me of his own accord, so I thought outside circumstances would force him to.”
Shannon’s experience—right down to hoping a baby would keep a man in her life forever—echoes what professors Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas detail in their landmark book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Edin and Kefalas paint a compelling picture of how poorer women often hope a baby will be the force that changes their man from someone who is uncommitted and unreliable, to dependable and involved. In fact, Edin and Kefalas explain the women often stop using contraception as a relationship progresses in order to see if their boyfriend is willing and able to do the right thing. More contraception is unlikely to help Millennials in these communities see more effective ways to assess the qualities of a capable partner and develop trust and intimacy in their relationships—which are keys to building a stable marriage.
But it’s not only nonmarital sex that clouds judgment in relationships. Earlier this year, Brittany shared at iBiL about her growing awareness that what she puts into her body impacts her emotions and therefore her relationships. Ultimately, she quit birth control and switched to a fertility awareness method instead.
“Now that I’ve been off birth control for a couple of months, I feel more clear-headed about things,” Brittany writes, “I am not getting as stressed out or suffering from anxiety like I used to. Getting off hormonal birth control has made a real difference in my mental health. I no longer cry all the time. People who are close to me have noticed the difference in my mood.” And that difference has surely meant healthier and stronger romantic relationships.
Brittany’s experience speaks to a growing movement among women who are speaking out against the emotional and physical risks of hormonal contraception. See for example the work of activist Holly Grigg-Spall, whose book Sweetening the Pill sent a shockwave through the pro-woman, pro-contraception movement with its comprehensive research highlighting the health risks associated with hormonal contraception. Relevant to this conversation especially is the newly growing body of research acknowledging that hormonal contraception impacts a woman’s brain, particularly decreasing her emotional regulation and response to rewards. This information should give pause to anyone who sees contraception as a catch-all solution to Millennials’ struggles to find and keep stable love and marriage.
Millennials today are not ignorant of the importance of relational compatibility, maturity, and trust when it comes to creating a stable marriage, but they are admittedly unsure of how to understand and measure those factors. This is exhibited in a recent report, The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment, by professor Richard Weissbourd and his team at Harvard University, and in the countless articles we host at IBiL. Weissbourd’s report states at the beginning that the focus on the hook-up culture means “that parents and other key adults in young people's lives often fail to address [young adults’] struggle with forming and maintaining healthy relationships.” His report argues for more adult involvement in the emotional elements of Millennial romantic relationships.
Our storytellers would agree. For Brittany, the mentoring relationship with her iBiL editor—who met with her in person to work on articles and developed a friendship that elicited exposure to new ways of thinking about herself and relationships—gave her the space to develop that sense of personal agency that The Millennial Success Sequence advocates. For Shannon, the non-confrontational wisdom of her mother led her to develop intentionality about the role of sex in her romantic life. She ultimately decided to save further sex for marriage in order to focus on choosing the right partner for her emotional well-being, first and foremost.
In discussing sex at iBiL, our aim is to help our readers and storytellers better understand the role that sex is playing in their romantic lives, and help them develop greater clarity and intentionality in their decisions about who to date, trust, and perhaps marry.
Granted, it is much easier to promote and prescribe contraceptives than to take up the hard and often messy work of individual accompaniment that young women and men need. Yet the challenges Millennials face make accompaniment done right a much surer and more comprehensive way to close the inequality gap so that all young adults can realize their desire for a happy marriage and successful family life.
Meg T. McDonnell is the executive director of I Believe in Love, a project of the Chiaroscuro Institute.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.