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Monday, September 26, 2005

Media whore: 16 million readers

Now that I've been writing professionally for a few years, I usually turn down pro bono work. Earlier this month, though, the US editor of India Today invited me to contribute an article on sex and the single woman from an American perspective. The magazine's circulation is like 16 million give or take a hundred thousand or two. How could I refuse?

So, here's the first three-quarters of it.

The other day a friend and I were having coffee at Starbucks, chatting about nothing important. Between sips of coffee, we debated, with misplaced passion, the Brad, Jen and Angelina love triangle—weeks after his separation, America’s sexiest man not only had a new woman, but a couple of kids as well. And then we started talking about the teen- and twenty-somethings.

They all seemed obsessed with marriage and children, I said, naming Britney Spears, Kate Hudson, Michelle Branch and Paris Hilton, as examples. Even MTV had recently aired three series about family life: Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen and Dave, and Meet The Barkers, which shows tattooed blink-182 drummer Travis Barker at home as husband and daddy.

“It’s a conservative conspiracy,” my friend concluded.

Being in our thirties we had spent the last years of our twenties believing everything we saw on Sex and the City, a television series that ran from 1997 to 2004 featuring four single gal pals living large in the Big Apple. A woman without a ring was never so glamorous and sexy. Carrie Bradshaw and her posse had fulfilling jobs, big apartments, clothes to die for. They spent their nights at jazz clubs, trendy restaurants and art gallery openings, and rarely did they go home alone. They were never—never—lonely.

Maybe we had been duped, I thought but didn’t dare say to my friend. After all, the real Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker, tied the knot with fellow thespian Mathew Broderick a year before the series premiered and, in the next to last season, she was pregnant. When I read in a tabloid that she said, “I tell my friends married life is boring, but that’s just a fun thing to say to make single people feel better,” I felt personally deceived.

Then, my friend, a strong and smart woman who is an attorney, desperately admitted to me that she couldn’t stand being single much longer. A stream of boyfriends and relationships that ended badly had wounded her self-confidence. When I showed her photos of our mutual acquaintance’s wedding and baby, I remarked that the new mother had gained weight. Wow, she’s aged.

My friend, though, just stared. “I feel like she’s doing everything right, the way it’s supposed to be done.” I knew what she meant.

Only a year after the last episode, Sex and the City already seems like a relic. Like the hippie chicks of the 60s who replaced the housewives of the 50s; like the supermoms of the 80s, who replaced the feminists of the 70s—today’s young mamas are replacing the “Carrie Bradshaw” wannabes of the 90s.

With President George W. Bush in office, it’s no wonder the pendulum is swinging. Under his “traditional” values platform, sex is once again taboo. Conservative Christians are taking the lead in spreading the message. For instance, they invented “virginity pledges,” some with ceremonies where young men and women stand before friends and family promising to wait until marriage. These declarations are no longer just for the far-right fringe. When Jessica Simpson revealed that her father had given her a ring when she was twelve and that she vowed he would be the only man in her life until she married—the practice went mainstream. This, despite research showing 88 percent of those who make virginity pledges have sex before marriage.

At the same time, teenagers are learning less about sexuality in schools. Since Bush has been in office, the government has spent nearly $1 billion for abstinence-only sex education. While most sex education curricula promote abstinence as the healthiest choice, abstinence-until-marriage programs present it as the only choice. Discussing safe sex or contraception is off limits, even though such information is crucial for the health and well-being of youth, 60 percent of whom have sex before eighteen.

The President’s efforts, right or wrong, aim to reverse marriage trends. Not only are women marrying later (from 20.8 years in 1970 to 25.3 years in 2003), couples are splitting up at record rates. Currently, nearly 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. With belief that single-parent homes—and the dissolution of the traditional nuclear families in general—hinder the development of children and the stability of society, the President launched the Healthy Marriage Initiative in 2002. The initiative allocates funds for pro-marriage programs, including public advertising campaigns and courses for high school students.

Whether influenced by Bush’s policies or not, a generation of twenty-somethings—many of whom grew up in single-parent or step families—seem eager, if not desperate, to take the plunge. Months after her two-day marriage to childhood sweetheart Jason Allan Alexander, Britney Spears walked down the aisle with Kevin Federline, an unemployed backup dancer whose “ex-girlfriend” was pregnant with his child. At 21, Nicky Hilton got hitched in Las Vegas to the balding, pudgy, albeit very rich, Todd Meister; three months later the wedding was annulled.

But are Hollywood headlines indicative of a larger social trend? Of the women I know born in the 70s and 80s, nearly all are interested in settling down...

OK, yada yada...

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