To all my daughters:
Now that you are young adults starting college and your independent lives, we need to talk. Your future is bright, but these can be confusing times for young women, as "experts" are jumping in to guide, chastise or scare you into making choices that may not fit who you are or what you want to become. This Sunday, the New York Times published "She Can Play That Game Too," an article about young women and the hookup culture on campus and beyond. As a long-time couples and individual therapist, I have plenty to say in the debate about sex, men and relationships. First and foremost: Disregard the one-size-fits-all approach. There is no one right way for all women.
The world has changed. You are the first generation of women who have achieving unprecedented social, educational and economic equality with men. Childless, unmarried women under the age of 30 are making more money than their male counterparts in 97% of the cities in the U.S.. Although women are still making 80% of what men in comparable jobs make across the board, they are the breadwinners in 40% of all households. And while we're talking about your college years, remember that more women than men are graduating from college and graduate schools.
Depending on your personality, the hookup culture may work for you... or not. You may choose to have spontaneous, casual sex on a regular basis as a way of not being distracted from your education and career goals. This behavior is certainly not new: Men have been doing it since time immemorial. Now with women pursuing the same achievements, casual sex has become gender-neutral, as the Times reminded us -- with more than a little worry in its tone.
If you are emotionally fine with that kind of no-strings relationship, it's perfectly OK--as long as you and your hook-up buddies practice safe, responsible sex.
Ignore the finger-pointers who accuse you of trying to outrun the biological clock, or of waiting until all the good guys are gone. Do not worry about missing the marriage boat. You will not end up a spinster alone with your five cats on New Year's Eve. As a strong, confident, career-oriented woman, you can focus on finding a partner later, probably in your early thirties. You will be savvy enough to pick a partner who will be supportive and loving-- and mature enough not to be threatened by your ambition and assertiveness.
Statistics show that the older you are when you marry, the more likely you will not divorce. While you do have to be mindful of your biology and cannot postpone child bearing indefinitely, research shows that marriage rates have held steady or increased for the top 10 percent of women earners. Sucessful women find partners and get married if they want to. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Now I want to address my other daughters, those of you who may not fare so well in the hookup culture. You are less aggressive than your sisters and you like to please. Because you are a team player and more of a follower than a leader, you sometimes go along even if you don't really want to because you don't want to be left out. You are not a prude, but casual sex sometimes makes you uncomfortable. Listen carefully to your feelings.
Having sex is your choice. You do not have to hook up just because people around you do. Don't worry about being shamed if you decide to end an encounter that is going somewhere you don't want it to. You can always, always say NO. Never give in to sex -- any kind of sex -- just to please a guy or to get it over with. It's OK to be selective. You are wary for good reason. This is all easier said than done, but be tough. Be clear about what you want -- and don't want. It will pay off later.
You may be looking for a relationship earlier than your sisters, which is not a problem. You have lots of time. Stick to your principles and by your mid to late 20's, chances are, you'll find the right guy. Remember, many young men are selective too. Just as it's a myth that all young women are having casual sex, it's a myth that casual sex is all young men want.
My dear daughters, we are in a period of ground-breaking changes in the way we look at traditional male and female behaviors. As the new generation of women, it may seem like you are navigating a set of complicated career and boy problems (as one of my clients put it). You are. But there is no one way to resolve them. You have more options than any women have had in our history. Be true to yourself, and take the options that work for you.
Sonya Rhodes, Ph.D. has been a practicing psychotherapist for more than 30 years. Her book with Susan Schneider on successful women and dating-- "The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match--will be published by William Morrow in May, 2014.