All Sex All the Time
A campaign to prevent unplanned pregnancy encourages casual sex.

A Bedsider graphic (via Facebook)



The goal of the Bedsider campaign — lowering unintended pregnancies among twentysomethings — is good. Reaching it should be a bipartisan, inter-religious effort. Currently, the majority of unmarried pregnancies are among twentysomething women. 

Forty-eight percent of first births are to unmarried women; specifically, by age 25, 44 percent of women will have had a baby, whereas only 38 percent will have married, according to the Knot Yet report, co-authored by the National Campaign, the National Marriage Project, and Relate Institute. Social-science data have clearly shown that children raised in homes with a single parent or cohabiting parents don’t fare as well — emotionally, physically, academically, and otherwise — compared with their peers raised in a stable home with their married, biological parents. Unmarried mothers and fathers also report higher levels of depression than do their peers who are married and parenting, the report also notes. So, indeed, unintended pregnancy when you’re unmarried is something to avoid. It makes sense that the National Campaign is responding to this crisis.

Yet, the “sexy” approach taken by Bedsider is not only out of step with the “be responsible” message of the National Campaign’s past initiatives; it also raises questions about how effective, ultimately, this campaign will be. After all, casual sex can have consequences other than unplanned pregnancy.

According to research from Johns Hopkins University professor Kathryn Edin, a leading scholar on poverty (particularly in the context of single parenting and family formation), unplanned pregnancy is often a “test” of a relationship. “As a new romance deepens, young women who are ‘not exactly planning’ to have children may nonetheless begin to look for signs of their partner’s willingness to ‘do the right thing’ if they were to ‘wind up pregnant,’” Edin reports, with her co-author Maria Kefalas, in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. Contraception is accessible and affordable, Edin and Kefalas note, but women are not always eager to use it. They cite reasons such as side effects, desire to build trust with their partner, or simply the desire to have a baby.

Women can find that a baby provides meaning and purpose to an otherwise chaotic and dismal life, but the transformation often isn’t as dramatic for the father. According to Edin and Kefalas:

The pattern of negative behavior that strains or breaks the relationships between mothers and their children’s fathers often crops up in the first few months after the birth because young fathers find that the promises they made, perhaps at the magic moment of birth, to trade street life for family life are not the ones they are truly prepared to keep. . . . Fathers also get fewer rewards from their peers in their status as a parent than mothers do. . . . Meanwhile, there is more than ample opportunity for infidelity in a social world where a lack of clear, socially supported relational guidelines means there are few sanctions against pursuing other relationships.

Simply stated, there are complex problems in young Americans’ relationships that contraception cannot simply fix, and the encouragement of more uncommitted sex may only perpetuate the trouble.

A new study from Ohio State University, published in the Journal of Sex Research, indicates that casual sex (defined by the study as sex with an individual one has known for a week or less) and mental health may each negatively influence the other. “Teens who showed depressive symptoms were more likely than others to engage in casual sex as young adults,” a summary of the study says. “In addition, those who engaged in casual sex were more likely to later seriously consider suicide.”

Further, books such as Unprotected, by Dr. Miriam Grossman, and Unhooked, by Laura Sessions Stepp (who serves as senior media fellow at the National Campaign) detail the diminished self-esteem and the depressive patterns that women especially experience as a result of multiple sex partners and uncommitted sex. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has offered numerous analyses of the effects of sex and love on the brain, including one noting that women particularly may be 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.

Another study by researchers from the University of Louisville and University of Florida, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, indicates that more alcohol consumption is linked with more “friends with benefits” (FWB) hook-ups. The majority of young adults in this study reported positive emotions from their FWB relationships, but the women, more than the men, hoped that their FWB relationships would turn into committed relationships. More research should be done on this, the authors suggest, to determine the role that hope for commitment plays in a woman’s decision to engage in FWB relationships.

Yet another study, by Cornell University and University of Wisconsin-Madison scholars, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that “women who deferred sexual involvement for over 6 months reported significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, and emotional support, as well as sexual satisfaction with their partner” compared with their peers who got sexually involved within the first month of a relationship. Additionally, the “results provide empirical evidence . . . that the speed of entry into sexual relationships is negatively associated with marital quality, but only among women.” All of this makes it all the more concerning that Bedsider’s target audience is women.

Young Americans overwhelmingly desire marriage. According to the Knot Yet report cited above, “80 percent of young-adult men and women continued to rate marriage as an ‘important’ part of their life plans; almost half of them described it as ‘very important.’”

As I have reported before, the idea of marriage is “beyond mission” for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. And there is no question that there are complex issues associated with helping young adults discern when and whom to marry. It would seem, though, that an effective approach to lowering the unplanned-pregnancy rate among unmarried twentysomething women wouldn’t encourage behaviors — such as drunken, casual sex or multiple sexual partners — that can have a negative long-term impact on the still nearly universal aspiration toward marriage.

Sex makes babies, and the majority of young adults may be having sex. If the National Campaign wants to be considered a leader in preventing unplanned pregnancy, and if it is serious about its bipartisan, inter-religious support, it would be wise to encourage more thoughtfulness in young Americans’ relationships and sexual activity. Surely that can’t be “beyond mission.” 

— Meg T. McDonnell is the executive director of the Chiaroscuro Institute and communications director of Women Speak for Themselves.