You've probably read the stories about the large numbers of twenty- and thirtysomething women who, like the yuppie characters on HBO's Sex and the City, assert with varying amounts of conviction that they no longer feel it's important to get married and that if they do decide to get pregnant, a sperm bank will suffice. In TV land in general, at least since the demise of the Cosby show, it's hard to find programs which honor those old dinosaurs -- committed fathers. Homer Simpson often seems to be the best prime-time TV can muster.
A recent study by the National Fatherhood Initiative found that out of 102 prime-time TV shows, only 15 had fathers as regular, central character's. And only four of those 15 shows had positive characterizations in which the TV fathers were involved with their children, offered moral guidance, were competent and made their family a priority.
In the midst of such reports, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and even intimidated by disillusioning cultural trends driven by a multibillion-dollar entertainment juggernaut largely indifferent to the cultural fallout of its programs. But it would be a mistake to fail to notice a powerful undercurrent among significant numbers of people and key groups in our culture who, after years of widespread confusion about love, marriage and sexuality, are engaged in earnest pursuit of what I like to call "relationship intelligence."
Consider the comments of an attractive thirtysomething TV contributor on MSNBC cable TV:
"I used to complain to my mother, who is a liberal, about boyfriends who seemed commitment-shy. And she would say, `Well, why buy the cow if the milk is free?' We're in the sexual promised land now; the milk is free, people are surfeited with sex. And yet we're starved for love. I didn't kiss the man I'm dating now until the seventh date. He respects and values me a lot more than the men I dated in college, when I was a lot more casual with my body."
A poll at the University of California at Los Angeles revealed that 40 percent of its undergraduates were virgins. In the 1990s, for the first time in 20 years the proportion of high-school students who had sexual intercourse dropped by nearly 10 percent, with the largest drop among teen-age males. Half of teenagers in the United States are virgins. The largest study ever of adolescent health behavior discovered large numbers of teens who had made pledges to save sex until marriage and were three times more likely to be virgins. Teen illegitimate births, the driving force of so many other social problems such as poverty, crime and school failure, are down. They have tumbled among blacks by 20 percent in the last decade and plateaued among whites.
Increasing numbers of young males see manhood as more than an exercise in libido. A study of young urban males by the Urban Institute found that in a hypothetical case of pregnancy involving an unmarried couple, the percentage of males who endorsed having the baby and supporting it rose steadily, from 19 percent in 1979 to 59 percent in 1995.
For decades males were told that opening a door for a woman was sexist, that their leadership in the home was "patriarchal domination" and that maleness itself was suspect as a possibly toxic substance. In poor neighborhoods, men soon learned that they could be replaced by a government welfare check -- so why bother?
But our culture is rediscovering fatherhood. Large public events such as the Million Man March and the Promise Keepers' rallies attracted a lot of attention but, more importantly, an emerging fatherhood movement has sprung up in inner-city neighborhoods where committed fathers have been a scarce commodity. At a conference I attended last year, several young fathers involved with one fatherhood program explained with pride how they were taking responsibility for their sons and/or daughters, reversing a tradition of abandonment that had run for generations in their families. …