The new campus rebels

They are the campus rebels, the young women who refuse to play by the rules laid down by a male-dominated culture.

They wish that more young men would focus on their minds and souls, instead of their bodies. They are tired of crude social games that serve the desires of men rather than the dreams of young women.

They are rebels, the religious women who struggle with the frat-boy patriarchy that rules the modern university campus on nights and weekends.

"There is a mini-revolt going on out there and you'll find it in the Christian groups that you find on most campuses," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. "The students in these independent religious groups -- especially the girls -- are the new countercultural revolutionaries at our modern secular universities."

That's the good news. The bad news is that if alternative religious groups didn't exist on most campuses, then these young women would have "nowhere else to go if they are looking for the kind of moral support that they need to find some way around the 'let's get drunk and hook up' scene," she said.

Secular and religious researchers have tried to describe the causes and the effects of this alcohol-fueled sexual mayhem on mainstream campuses.

Thus, publications ranging from Christianity Today to Rolling Stone have published reports on this issue, with predictably different verdicts. Much of the news coverage has focused on novelist Tom Wolfe's profane morality tale "I Am Charlotte Simmons," in which a brilliant Christian from the North Carolina mountains suffers a moral collapse during her freshman year on an elite campus that is famous for academics, basketball and sexist lacrosse players. Many critics noted a resemblance to Duke University.

College administrators have responded by focusing on alcohol abuse and its impact on campus life. However, they have failed to realize that alcohol is linked to other moral issues, said Whitehead, author of a book on a related topic, "Why There Are No Good Men Left." Administrators must understand that campus gender roles have been turned upside down, with mixed results.

Only a few decades ago, men ruled the classrooms on most campuses, stressed Whitehead, writing in the progressive Catholic journal Commonweal. There were more male students and more male professors, resulting in powerful networks that dominated academic life. Women, however, controlled campus social life, with all of its formal and informal rituals of dating and courtship.

Times have changed.

"Women now rule the classroom," argued Whitehead. "With the strict enforcement of laws prohibiting gender discrimination and sexual harassment, the classroom has become more egalitarian and merit based. Women have flourished academically in this well-regulated environment.

"On the other hand, men increasingly set the rules for an unregulated social life. ... They've streamlined the old system. They've eliminated the time-wasting efforts to attend to women's wishes and gotten down to the fundamentals of adolescent male desire: playing competitive games, drinking with buddies and having sex with lots of compliant women. They've also taken charge of party venues and themes: they rent off-campus party houses, stockpile massive quantities of alcohol, hire strippers and organize female wrestling and wet T-shirt competitions."

It's hard to party harder than the guys who make the rules and the girls who are willing to play by them.

Yet, when reporters and researchers ask the right questions, even many young women who are not religious sound stunned by the choices they have to make when it comes to alcohol, clothing and sex. One Duke coed told Rolling Stone: "I have done things that are completely inconsistent with the type of person I am, and what I value."

Whitehead said that these young women often sound like they have been abandoned, rather than "empowered." Their confused statements sound like they want help, but don't know how to say so.

"In many cases their moral compasses have become so disoriented that they can't even describe how they feel," said Whitehead. "These young women feel bad, but they can't pin down why they feel bad. They feel guilty, but they've been taught that there's no reason to feel guilty about anything. ...

"Many girls sound like they want a way out. If their own parents and churches won't help them, who will? It sure doesn't seem like their colleges are going to."

(Pro) Life after Scheidler

There was a time in the late 1980s when Georgette Forney didn't want to turn on the evening news because she kept seeing the same frightening scenes over and over.

Waves of Operation Rescue activists were doing sit-ins at abortion facilities, often handcuffing themselves to the doors while others collapsed nearby chanting, singing, praying and reading scripture. Then police would drag everyone off to jail. This cycle of civil disobedience kept repeating itself at other clinics, in other towns, in other states.

"I remember thinking, 'They're all nut cases,' " said Forney. "Those tactics were so intimidating to me as a woman and, especially, as a woman who had had an abortion. ... I wanted to stay as far away from that extreme anti-abortion stuff as I possibly could. It was all dangerous, as far as I was concerned."

Then her spiritual walls began to collapse. She had a daughter, which reminded her again of the daughter lost in her 1976 abortion. Eventually Forney had a soul-shaking experience of grief, reconciliation and healing. By the late '90s she was a leader in the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life. But she still could not embrace the tactics of the Operation Rescue era.

Nevertheless, Forney was one of many who cheered after the U.S. Supreme Court's 8-1 decision that the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act could not be used against groups that protest at abortion facilities. While the cases -- Scheidler v. NOW and Operation Rescue v. NOW -- stirred up the usual combatants, the anti-abortion coalition also drew wide legal support from other activists who saw the importance of this legal precedent for all forms of protest. Among those showing support were People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, the Seamless Garment Network, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Pax Christi USA. Actor Martin Sheen and the activist priest Daniel Berrigan even signed on.

This decision may have closed the door on an era in which anyone who wanted to oppose abortion had to worry about being associated with illegal forms of protest.

Finally, an intimidating link to the past is gone, said Forney. The emphasis now is on finding ways to reach women before and after their abortions. In January, she helped lead a "Silent No More" campaign in 46 states built on the testimonies of women who have had abortions. They held quiet demonstrations at state capitols and other public places, holding black-and-white "I regret my abortion" signs.

"After 30 years, we have to try to teach our choir a new song," she said. "We can't keep using the same pro-life words and images that we've always used. We have to talk to the women and try to see things through their eyes. We have to let women know that they deserve something better than abortion."

Meanwhile, there are still legal issues to be resolved about the legal rights of those who still want to pray, preach and protest on public sidewalks, said Joe Scheidler, the activist whose Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League was caught up in the Operation Rescue-era legal wars.

After all, the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act calls for sanctions against those who conduct "threatening" protests in or near the "safety zones" around abortion clinics. And after this Supreme Court decision, NOW President Kim Gandy vowed to see to it that "religious and political extremists do not resume their reign of terror at women's clinics. We are looking at every avenue, including the U.S.A. Patriot Act, in order to protect women, doctors and clinic staff from these ideological terrorists."

No one expects conflicts to cease near abortion facilities, said Scheidler. But the momentum is behind those willing to find ways to do sidewalk counseling, hold vigils and to distribute information -- even coupons for free ultrasound tests -- without inspiring fear or lawsuits.

Nevertheless, one person's free speech may be another's harassment.

"I don't know how often we've been outside Planned Parenthood saying the Rosary and then suddenly four squad cars roll up," said Scheidler. "The cops say, 'We got a call saying you have weapons.' So we hold up our Rosary beads. ... For some people, saying the Rosary can be a form of intimidation."

Missionary cohabitating, Part II

From the pulpit, the typical pastor can see all kinds of people whose ears will burn during a sermon about what used to be called "living in sin."

There will be a few young adults who are cohabitating, as well as many moms and dads whose children quietly share street addresses with their significant others. There will be smiling couples the pastor married without asking many personal questions. There may be one or two divorced deacons with skeletons in their closets.

Few ministers have the courage to risk offending these people, said Scott Stanley of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Pastors are afraid that if they preach on cohabitation many people will get mad and that some will hit the exits.

"Pastors are getting very gun shy when it comes to issues of marriage, family and sex," he said. "Certainly, cohabitation would be right at the top of a list of these issues, along with premarital sex. They are so tired of getting beat up because they have hurt people's feelings.

"So they just give up and what you hear is silence from the church. All people are hearing are the 'Go!' signals from the media and the culture."

This silence seems to be having an effect, especially with women, according to a study by Stanley and his colleagues Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman.

The researchers found -- as expected -- that deeply religious men are much less likely to cohabitate before saying their vows. But, to their surprise, they learned that religious women are just as likely to move in before marriage as non-religious women.

These religious women probably think they are being cautious and "testing" their relationships. They may be convinced that they have to cohabitate in order to compete for love in this day and age. Some may believe that they will eventually be able to convert their live-in lovers to a traditional view of faith, marriage and family.

"Truth is, a woman gains nothing" by cohabitating before marriage, said journalist Michael McManus, author of "Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Stay Married." Whatever their rationalizations, these women "are just being fools. ... Too many women today are allowing themselves to be used as playmates," he said.

Some church leaders, said McManus, have fallen silent on this issue because they no longer believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. Their silence is understandable. It is harder to understand the silence in so many congregations -- Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox -- that still affirm centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings on sexual morality.

Yet that silence is real. The "Marriage Savers" network (www.marriagesavers.org) is active in 163 cities and towns in 39 states and, wherever he travels to speak, McManus said he never sees more than one or two hands raised when he asks, "How many of you have ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?"

McManus is convinced most pastors simply do not know that 5 million unmarried Americans are living together. More than 60 percent of couples cohabitate before marriage. Pastors do not know that these women face higher levels of depression and lower levels of communication and commitment. They are more than 60 percent more likely to be assaulted and their children are endangered, as well.

Data from the University of Wisconsin provides a painful bottom line: couples that cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent. Researchers found that only 15 out of every 100 cohabitating couples were married after a decade.

The goal is not to attack couples with these numbers, said McManus. The goal is to warn them and to offer them mentors, in the form of married couples who understand the challenges that are ahead. The church needs to reach out to young people while they are dating, before the pressures built to live together. Parents need this information, too.

"We need to set a high standard, but we can do that in a loving way," he said. "What the church has done is collapse its standards. The modern church is -- by its silence -- giving young couples nothing to aspire to. They need a higher goal."

Missionary cohabitating, Part I

Church people have a name for what happens when young believers get romantically involved with unbelievers.

They call it "missionary dating," usually with one eyebrow raised in skepticism. Most of these relationships involve a good girl who is convinced that, with time, she can help a bad boy see the error of his ways and learn to walk the straight and narrow path.

Times have changed. According to new research, a surprising number of females have graduated from "missionary dating" to "missionary cohabitating."

"My theory is that women are willing to make sacrifices for their partners, once they have become emotionally attached," said researcher Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "They're willing to make compromises to try to hang on to the relationship. Men won't do that. ...

"These girls are probably thinking, 'He's not perfect. But I love him and I can help him change.' Meanwhile, we know what the guys are thinking. They're thinking, 'I'm not sure she is the one I want. She's not my soul mate. But she'll do for now.' "

What is fascinating is that women who say they are deeply religious are just as likely to live with men before marriage as women who are not, wrote Stanley, Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman. Their work is summarized in "Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Non-Marital Cohabitation," written for the Journal of Family Issues.

Meanwhile, they found that men with strong religious beliefs are much less likely to cohabitate before marriage than non-religious men.

As a rule, people who lived together before marriage were less religious than those who refused to do so. Religious believers also said they were more committed to the institution of marriage. This is precisely what Stanley and the members of the University of Denver team expected to find as they interviewed 908 people who were married, engaged or cohabitating.

What surprised them was the sharp contrast between the choices made by religious women and religious men.

Do the math. There are currently more than 5 million unmarried American couples living together. Somewhere, there are a lot of religious women who have taken "missionary dating" to a whole new level. They seem to think that they can evangelize the men in their beds.

Meanwhile, Stanley and his colleagues are convinced that women who want solid, "until death do us part" marriages should be on the lookout for men who have strong religious beliefs, who are deeply committed to the institution of marriage and who, as a matter of conviction, reject cohabitation.

That may sound obvious, but it was in the data. If religious women want the odds on their side, they have to hunt for men who are willing to rebel against the conventional wisdom of this age.

"Given that 60 percent or more of couples now live together prior to marriage," wrote Stanley, Whitton and Markman, it seems that "not living together prior to marriage is becoming unconventional. From such a viewpoint, the unconventional couples who do not live together prior to marriage may be the couples with the more dedicated and religious males."

These unique religious males appear to be trying to "preserve the maximum differentiation between marriage and non-marriage. ... In the context of societal trends that increasingly blur the lines between cohabitation and marriage, this stance would represent the new unconventionality."

Stanley said that his team's research parallels other studies on one key point. Millions of young Americans are terrified of divorce and, thus, want to be careful before tying the knot. Young men seem to grasp that marriage does require major sacrifices, sacrifices that many are not willing to make.

Thus, they use cohabitation as a stalling device.

"Young men and women have accepted the message from their culture -- a message that is not supported by the data -- that cohabitation is a good way to prepare for marriage," he said. "They believe that they are in training for marriage. They are in training, but it seems that cohabitating is training them to develop exit strategies for getting out of relationships, including their marriages."