1 MAY 2003

One Simple Rule for Dating Someone's Teenage Daughter: There Are No Rules

Tough Love

What do girls want? Erik Anderson, Alex Taylor and Andrew Buck, from left, hanging out at Andrew's Reston home, want to know. (Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)

Teenage boys are lonely creatures when it comes to romance. Or if not lonely, they're awfully perplexed. Perhaps it has always been so. But you would think this generation might be different. Today's young men have traveled coed since middle school, their boy-girl groups not couples roaming hallways by day, movie theaters and the Internet by night, swarming via cell phones. They trade lewd jokes with girls. They confide feelings. They reveal an understanding of some things about the opposite sex that is dead-on. "I have a lot of friends who are girls," they'll say, confounding parents who remember the stiff formality that once divided the sexes in junior high and high school.

But ask them how to move from pal to partner, and their confidence fades fast. Dating and other conventions that earlier generations of men once followed are disappearing as girls, not guys, redefine what it means to be in a relationship. And the new rules seem to change from girl to girl and day to day. In this chaos, it's hard for guys to know how to pursue love or, if they find love, how to practice the qualities that sustain it: caring, honesty and, above all, trust. At least that's what coupling experts say, those with and without degrees.

"I've been in relationships," offers Andrew Buck, an 18-year-old with an easy grin, big brown eyes and lots of friends among the 2,300 pupils at Herndon High School. "In eighth grade I had a girlfriend a week, the same my freshman and sophomore years. After a short time, it stops being romantic. It becomes something else. I like it better at the beginning."

Two guys he's known for years, over at his house for Chinese food, nod in sympathy. "One reason I'm not in a relationship is I don't want to lose my friendships," says Alex Taylor. "Romance is hard," Erik Anderson agrees. "All we have to go by is the movies. Or 'Joe Millionaire.' Or 'The Man Show.' "

What is meant by "love" is hard to say, compared with the love as "a many-splendored thing" in the songs, movies, romance magazines and comic books of their parents' and grandparents' day. Is romance even desirable, considering the endlessly chronicled pain that accompanies it? Is the going up worth the coming down?

Across the Potomac River, the Rev. John Thomas, chaplain at St. Andrew's, a small Episcopal school in Potomac, says he hears the same thing. "There are very few long relationships in this school," he says. "It's striking how much more complicated relationships are in a casual atmosphere." Boys may know more about girls, but they don't feel known, says Thomas. And oh, how they would like that. Thomas is 36, grew up in Athens, Ga., and doesn't remember having any friends who were girls. Well, maybe one, "but I didn't tell anyone. We talked about girls, not to them." Unless they were your date. Thomas took out girls in high school and college before meeting, at age 25, the woman who would become his wife. "Dating was training," he says. "I learned about relationships by being in relationships."

Once a way of experimenting with and organizing teenage romance, dating is disappearing fast both in number of dates and frequency, according to several national studies. In its place is "hanging out with" or "going out with," looser concepts that could mean a couple is in love, or special friends, or simply meeting other classmates at Starbucks for latte. The vagueness keeps parents clueless, which of course is a big plus from the teenager's point of view.

"My parents say, 'You're going on a date,' and I say, 'No, I'm going out with so-and-so.' A date is more serious," says Michael Thomas, a high school sophomore from a rural community near Spokane.

Thomas and 11 other high school guys are in Washington to help the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy figure out how to reduce the pregnancy rate. They are student leaders back home, wise to the ways of their world, some virgins, some not. They agree with Thomas.

"With dating, you have to get it all set up, have the whole thing planned out," says Brad Keating from Las Vegas.

Eric Reyes from New York says he has had a couple of serious girlfriends and several brief relationships, but "I've not been on one date." So what did he do with these girls? "Either we would hang out at her house or she would hang out at mine, and if we got bored, we'd say, 'Let's go to the movies.' "

Not exactly the stuff of previous generations' "Love Story" or "Now, Voyager."

Romantic Horseplay

Before you hang out, you flirt. That hasn't changed. What has changed is the openness with which young women, encouraged by society to go for whatever they can get, now play the game, even when they're supposed to be serious about one partner. Peggy Giordano, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, recently surveyed 1,300 teenagers about romance, and found that three in four girls who were in a relationship said they flirted with other guys at the same time.

They do it, then deny that's what they're doing, says Buck. One example: "My old girlfriend asked me online to hang out with her one Saturday night. When we got together, she held my hand, then put her head on my shoulder. When I said something to her, she said, 'I do this to Denise, too. Am I flirting with her?' I said, 'We have a past. How could you not think you're flirting?' " Again, he gets a nod from Anderson and Taylor, who adds, "Girls give off a lot of mixed signals."

Guys frequently still make the first move toward romance, but some girls are not reticent about asking a guy out. Guys don't necessarily seem to mind. "It takes the pressure off," says Keating from Las Vegas. If a guy wants to take the relationship further, though, Keating and his seminar buddies agree, he knows he must follow certain rules -- unspoken and again, designed by the girl and her girlfriends. He has to play up to the girl's "tribe" because if they don't like him, his intended may not stay around very long. He's also supposed to hold her hand or rub her shoulders around the tribe. He's a status symbol, a prize won in competition with other, lesser girls. "Girls want to put the relationship on the wall" is how Michael Thomas sees it. He means it literally: "I had to go into my girlfriend's bedroom one time and she had pictures of me all over the walls. I have two pictures of her, one in my locker and one in my wallet."

Should the couple decide to go out, girls frequently say they'll pay their way. But secretly they want the guy to pay. "There's something there if you don't," says Reyes.

Doug Bower, a senior at St. Andrew's and a shrewd social observer, agrees: "First they'll say no, you can't, my dad gave me money. Then you pay and they're happy."

When they get older, says Andre Powell, a sophomore on leave from Virginia Tech, "they'll say, 'I'm an independent woman,' but they'll still expect the dinner and the roses."

Then they'll turn around, as one female friend of Powell's did, and surprise the guy with dinner and roses. "I enjoyed it," he admits, "but it made me feel a little awkward."

The Wild Thing

When things get physical, many girls no longer think it is their job to keep guys at bay. So sometimes they don't don the armor, and sometimes guys take advantage of their trust in them. In his former coed college dorm, says Powell, a guy kept his computer camera running 24 hours a day, recording everything that happened there. "Sometimes the girls knew and sometimes they didn't," Powell says. And those that found out? "Sometimes they got upset, and sometimes they wanted to see the pictures." "With girls more readily available, everything gets rushed," he continues. "You may end up in bed after the third or fourth date rather than six or eight months later."

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guys and girls in fact act very similarly now when it comes to sex. Forty-nine percent of high school boys in 2001 reported ever having intercourse, only 6 points higher than girls. When asked whether they were currently sexually active, 33 percent of girls and boys said they were.

When Giordano and her colleagues at Bowling Green asked couples who decided how far they went sexually, almost half the girls said they did. Fewer than one in five boys said they played that role. The conventional view that boys dominate relationships may no longer be as common as it once was.

"It seems that girls are wielding more power than we think," says Monica Longmore, a psychologist who works with Giordano.

That power can overwhelm teenage males, who usually lag behind girls in their emotional development. Eric Reyes says he thought he was in love in junior high with a girl his age who lived in his neighborhood. "She asked me what I thought about sex, and said she thought it ought to be a regular thing. I thought it should be special. This was eighth grade, my heart was pounding, but it was the last thing I wanted to do."

Encouraged by fashion retailers, girls also tease more today in their dress. They sport glittery T-shirts that say "Hot," or others that proclaim "Sexy" in big letters across the bust and in tiny print below, "It doesn't mean you have to have sex."

Says one young man, "Those girls project one thing: They want to hook up."

Ah, yes, hooking up, this generation's substitution for sexual intercourse. Hooking up can politely be described as serious making out, no strings attached, with one partner one weekend and another partner the next. Think fast food because you don't have the time or energy for a sit-down meal.

Says Arlington therapist Tom Oberdorfer, "You're sort of friends, but you go places friends don't go."

Hooking up, including oral sex, "is as common as going to McDonald's," says one young man. And girls as well as guys initiate it. "These girls think they are so liberated when they're emulating the worst in the male stereotype," says Deborah Roffman, who teaches sex education in the Baltimore-Washington area. At first glance, hooking up may seem like a boon for young males. Sexual release without any emotional commitment isn't that what males have always sought? In addition, "hooking up gives us something to talk about with other guys in the SUV on the way home from baseball," says a high school senior.

The problem is, it can easily substitute for relationship-building, says Oberdorfer, who counsels young men. "They crave to be understood but haven't the foggiest idea how to achieve that. They cheat by having these physical relationships that feel like intimacy when they're not."

Cross Your Heart

A dozen guys are shooting the breeze about girls in Troy Bradbury's senior English class at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. They've got the slouch, swagger and threads of the street but talk sweet about their "wifey," "heart" or "boo." By this age, almost all of them will have had at least one romantic relationship. So what is romance, they are asked. Is it, as French novelist Stendhal wrote, a storm that breaks up the sea yet fills the sails of a ship? An exquisite flower picked on the brink of a precipice?

According to this class, it's more like a golden retriever at your side on an evening walk. It's "having somebody to be there to talk to, who will understand," a young man answers. The guy next to him frowns. "That sounds like a best friend." The volunteer nods. "A girl should be your best friend, someone you can tell almost everything." The National Campaign student leaders are asked the same question and give the same sensible, safe answers. "Romance used to mean flowers and candy," says Tommy Allison, a junior from Irvington, N.J. "Now it means honesty. Loyalty. Trust." Trust is a big deal to this generation of young people. Going by the annual survey of high school seniors known as "Monitoring the Future," it appears that they trust other people significantly less than teens did 20 years ago.

Yet in that same questionnaire they also say, in higher numbers than in 1980, that they value exclusive, intimate relationships. In other words, the degree of their longing reflects how fast what they want is disappearing.

Maybe a girlfriend is telling the truth when she says she's going to a movie with some "friends" from a boys' school. Or maybe she's not, says St. Andrew's Doug Bower. "To be able to say 'That's okay,' that's hard."

Maybe a girlfriend means it when she says she likes the old conventions of respect: a young man opening the door for her or seating her at a restaurant table. Or maybe she'll desert you for the bad boys who care more for adventure than manners, whose musical taste runs to rap about beating, slapping or killing women.

Andrew Buck says that it's been his experience that "girls leave you for the jerks. I started trying to do some of the nice things I saw my dad do. It doesn't work." Maybe a girlfriend means it when she reassures her guy that he can open up, talk over his disappointments, be sad or even cry. Or maybe she doesn't. Because when a guy breaks down, "most girls freak out," says Herndon's Anderson. "Girls want someone who's strong."

Maybe a guy shares his innermost "business," only to see it passed from girlfriend to other girls when the relationship ends. "You're always wondering, who will she tell?" Brad Keating says. Girls have the support of other girls in times of crisis. Guys have no one. "You can't talk about this stuff with other guys, and you certainly can't cry," Eric Reyes says. "If you do, you get called a punk, or gay." This is not meant to suggest that guys don't fall crazy in love. Or that they never find a soul mate.

Anderson caught sight of his current flame last year in English class. "We had that eye contact, you know," he says shyly. "I thought, 'She's pretty good-looking.' " He asked her out to a movie, "either 'Spider-Man' or '40 Days and 40 Nights.' " Since she had a driver's license and he didn't, she picked him up and dropped him off at home. He discovered over time that she listened well and that she had expanded his understanding of himself, just as he had been able to do for her. "I help her have more fun," he says. "She helps me be more serious about school. I feel like I can be honest with her." He considers himself lucky, though: "With most girls, you have to act."

Great Expectations

The average relationship in high school lasts anywhere from two to six months. When it goes south, says John Thomas, the chaplain, "it occupies 90 percent of a young man's consciousness. Boys live in a society where they're expected to succeed. They're not used to failing at anything." Boys talk of trying to meet high expectations, not only from parents or teachers but also from the girls they go out with or want to go out with. Girls take their cue from movie leads, according to Herndon's Buck and his buddies: men who are physically powerful, successful in business and bed. "Compared to them, I'm just a bumbling idiot," says Buck. Hollywood also portrays romantic relationships as both easily acquired and discarded, which does not go unnoticed by Generation Multiplex. "There are no real models on how to act," Erik Anderson says.

Some of these young men have good models, of course, despite the fact that about half of first-time marriages end in divorce. They may have dads who are loving husbands. Or they may know men like John Thomas, happily married, or Matt Bromeland, the youth pastor at the church that Buck and his friend Alex Taylor attend. Bromeland, 28, has been dating the same young woman for 1 1/2 years. Bromeland feels pretty good about what the boys in his congregation have seen thus far: the time he invests in his girlfriend, the affection he shows in little ways like washing her dishes. He worries, however, about the boys' cynicism toward romance, including his. One young man asked him, "What's the point of going out for a year and a half if you're not going to marry her?" Said another, "It's like a lock-in." The question that really got to him was this: "Why do you want a long-term relationship when you know it's gonna stink when it ends?"

In Love or Aloof?

After two serious relationships in ninth and 10th grades, Doug Bower, the St. Andrew's senior, swore off any more until he finished high school. "Sometimes you just wanna be with the guys," he says. Erik Anderson, the Herndon senior who has been dating the same girl for a year and a half, is asked if he's in love. "Maybe," he says with a little smile. "We'll play it as it goes along." Two guys, one with a girl, one without, both hedging their bets. It can be tough knowing when to commit. Do it too soon, and you short-circuit the main job of your adolescent years -- defining who you are apart from other people. You can feel as if you're losing yourself in a relationship, which puts you at risk for anger or depression. Don't commit, and you never discover the satisfaction that can come from cherishing someone and feeling cherished.

Maybe today's young men are playing it smart, given the changes in girldom over the last decade. Maybe it's going to take some time before young men and young women figure out which roles not only feel right but make sense in the world they've inherited. Older generations can take comfort in the fact that most young people tell surveyors that they want to be married. Someday. "Sure, there's some real confusion," says chaplain Thomas. "They clunk around. But so many are intelligent, with decent moral compasses. I think this crowd will get there. They just won't get there our way."

By Laura Sessions Stepp

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