Monday, August 5, 2013

New York Times Article on College Women's "Hook-Ups"

The New York Times ran a lengthy article on college women's sexual "hook-ups," a few weeks ago, based on interviews with several dozen female students at the University of Pennsylvania. A key theme of the article is that young women, or at least those at this Ivy League institution, are so single-mindedly devoted to acquiring the skills and credentials for a high-powered career that they show little apparent interest in full-fledged romantic relationships. Instead, they confine their romantic/sexual activity to less time-consuming hook-ups. One student is quoted as saying, “If I’m sober, I’m working.”

The article's author also interviews several researchers of hooking-up. One is Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociology professor. The Times article summarizes one of Armstrong's major arguments thusly:

Increasingly, [Armstrong] said, many privileged young people see college as a unique life stage in which they don’t — and shouldn’t — have obligations other than their own self-development.

This observation is, of course, very much in line with one of Jeff Arnett's five facets of Emerging Adulthood, namely that it is a time of self-focus (see Chapter 1 of Arnett's [2004] textbook, which is free online). According to Arnett, "To say that emerging adulthood is a self-focused time is not meant pejoratively... The goal of their self-focusing is self-sufficiency, learning to stand alone as a self-sufficient person, but they do not see self-sufficiency as a permanent state. Rather, they view it as a necessary step before committing themselves to enduring relationships with others, in love and work" (pp. 13-14).

In research I conducted with Arnett and my Texas Tech colleague Malinda Colwell, we developed a measure of the five Emerging Adulthood facets. The self-focus subscale asks respondents the extent to which this time of their life can be characterized by phrases such as "personal freedom," "responsibility for yourself," "self-sufficiency," and "focusing on yourself." We also have a subscale called other-focus, which is not part of the primary concept of Emerging Adulthood, but instead represents a counterpoint to self-focus. Items on the other-focus subscale include "settling down," "responsibility for others," and "commitment to others."

We have found in some of our studies that self-focus tends to be highest in 18-23 year-olds, a little lower in 24-29 year-olds, and lower still among respondents in their 30s and beyond. In contrast, other-focus tends to be lowest in 18-23 year-olds, and incrementally higher in the 24-29 and 30-39 age groups. Other-focus appears to decline somewhat among people in their 40s and 50s, perhaps because some of them may live in "empty nest" households.

Toward the end of the Times article, the author alludes to an alternative perspective, one that urges young people to be open to early marriage and focuses on "the support that young couples could provide each other as they faced the challenges of early adulthood."

Statistically, early marriage is associated with increased probability of divorce. However, according to the 2011 book Premarital Sex in America, by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, "Most sociological evaluations of early marriage note that the link between age-at-marriage and divorce is strongest among those who marry as teenagers (in other words, before age 20). Marriages that begin at age 20, 21, or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as most Americans presume" (p. 180).

Later marriages are probably best for some people, whereas earlier marriages are probably best for others. One might say that, for any individual, wisdom is knowing which option will lead to the greatest stability, growth, and fulfillment.

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