The New Rules Of Courtship

It used to be simpler. When the parents of today's teenagers were kids the rules of attraction were clear, logical, precise. Boy liked Girl. Girl liked Boy. Boy asked Girl out. Boy spent the next five months trying, often against all hope, to score. Boy, despite embarrassing failure, lied to his friends and said he scored anyway. Back then, before Prince and all that disco unpleasantness, even the most pathetic black-socks-in-gym-class loser could find someone to go out with.

Now all bets are off. Oh, sure, the essence of courtship still exists, but barely. Today's teenagers, who wouldn't carry books or share milk-shakes if their lives depended on it, are ditching the preliminaries and cutting straight to the chase. They're courting earlier, they're paying more to do it and, sadly, they're tumbling into the back seat so quickly you'd think they were getting honor points for it.

Today's courters get busy in the fifth grade. In one Oakland, Calif., grade school the first-kiss process goes like this: two 10-year-olds, chaperoned by a four-foot-tall (but no doubt mature beyond his years) "witness," descend to the school parking lot under a cloak of danger and intrigue almost unfathomable to the rest of us. The next thing the world knows, the witness is careening into the lunchroom and hollering, as only an overwrought prepubescent can: "They did it! They did it! They're going!"

But once kids hit high school--which is to say, once boys realize they don't have to be swooning dopes to score--they get jaded, cynical. The new modus operandi: traveling in packs. The place: anywhere you can swagger, preen and buy Slurpees (read: malls). Walk through any mall and there are roving packs of teens, waves of them with moussed hair and Reeboks, virtual testosterone and estrogen armies primed for battle.

The whole strength-in-numbers thing is no new breakthrough, of course. It's just getting more, let's say, refined. Dallas high-school student Zack Knaub, sounding rather like he's been reading a little too much Berry Brazelton during study hall, says teens often avoid traditional dating because--write this down--"the American and European family ideal puts a lot of pressure on young people to carry on that ideal." Zack would probably also agree that romance goes a bit more swimmingly if your lederhosen-wearing grandparents don't tag along to the putt-putt course.

Not that kids these days don't have some more concrete concerns, courtshipwise. In one of the more jarring statements on the go-go '80s in which teens spent their formative years, there is a new priority: bucks. "Personality is the main thing," says a 16-year-old girl from Chicago's racially mixed Steinmetz High School. Dramatic pause. "And he has to have some money!" Adds another female student: "You see, we like our young men to have something going for them--a job, maybe, a car." Memo to the young men of Steinmetz High: when planning to ask out a classmate, bag the why-don't-we-just-stay-home-and-read-some-Proust idea.

Then again, you Midwesterners should just feel lucky. In New York, where love doesn't come cheap, some guys have to flip weeks' worth of Cheese Whoppers to cover a single date. Dates can typically cost about $60. Then there are extreme cases like that of Ilianette Vazquez, 15, who must be one great date, seeing as how an evening with her goes for between $150 and $200. This covers movies and a restaurant "where you get a menu" (menus being elegance defined to teens), then someplace else for the kind of dessert that doesn't have "Better If Eaten Before May 1995" stenciled on its wrapper. After the poor slob comes clean for cabs, dance clubs and drinks, he would be wise to contemplate the term college loan.

By this point some of you young men are whining about who, precisely, is calling the shots these days. Get with the program, boys. Girls now do some asking. New York teenager Joseph Pittman assumes that, even if he asks, "she'll pay her way, I'll pay mine." And just listen to Oakland 10th grader Veronica James, who doesn't seem to be the oh-I-dropped-my-hankie type: "I hate it when a guy snaps his fingers. I say, "I'm not walking a dog. Don't snap your fingers at me. I'll cut them off'."

Aside from thinking Bart Simpson would be an OK lab partner, teens form a solid consensus on very few things. Indeed, the only thing everyone seems to agree with is that this isn't "One Life to Live." We're not talking about marriage here. "In high school no one really loves each other," says Matt Weinstein, the high-school philosopher / cynic. "It's such a farce." The cynicism swells. "We all prefer the word dedicated," chimes in "Tall," a senior at Oakland High School in California, with a knack for sweeping summations. "Love is part of our parents' world."

It makes sense, then, that so many teenagers are pursuing, with increased vigor, a decidedly liberal policy on the commitment front. The system is rife with rules that vary from clique to clique school to school. At Lincoln Park High School in Illinois, it's also rife with many rules to break the other rules. "You have a boyfriend," begins senior Tiffany Conley in almost solemn testimony to fidelity, "but"--here we go-- "when you're not with him and somebody asks you to go out, you go out with him." That's quite a system, Tiffany. In Tiffany's world, a world most of us can only dream of visiting, these saps are called "staff members," which is not a flattering thing to be called.

The operative reason for dating outside of school is simple, says Lincoln Park senior Tiewese Hudson with simple eloquence: "You get tired of someone's face if you see him every day." Fair enough. Tiewese and her friends date gentlemen outside the neighborhood because (1) it gives them something to yammer about with their classmates and because (2) neither boyfriend is any wiser because of it. They are now.

Another, more refreshing twist is that, in an age group that often shows mind-bending intolerance of different looking shoes, larger taboos are being confronted. Interracial dating, historically right up there with Sansabelt slacks on the great teen never-never list, is now actually preferred by some white teens. For one, increasingly mixed classrooms mean that Buffy doesn't just meet Skip: she can now meet Jose or Abdul. For another, this sure rattles the old domestic cage.

Sure, it's cute. But this youthful experimentation does raise at least one sobering issue: teen sex. Lillian Rubin, author of several books on teen sex, says that up to two thirds of all teens are having sex. Just as alarming is the realization that teens are having sex earlier in their relationships--so early that some are puzzled by the whole concept of it. After one young teen had sex for the first time, she asked Rubin with genuine bemusement, "Why is sex so prized?"

Sex--and talking about sex--have become so common that whole lexicons develop in each community. Oakland has busloads of nicknames for gratuitous, noncommittal sex, which is not an encouraging sign for you parents. "Scamming" and "scooping" are currently in vogue. But those terms, despite the rather unpleasant images they evoke, are positively tame compared with the other unprintable terms that describe certain teenage girls who have sex in several different cars in one night. "You race your car and they get with the man with the cleanest car," says Tall, who evidently has a spotless car.

Still unconvinced that little Scooter and Sandi may not be playing Twister on Saturday nights? Listen to Jayme Burton as she matter-of-factly explains that "a virgin today is not the same thing as it used to be. A virgin might be someone who has only had oral sex." And lest you conclude that this stuff goes on only in the inner city, think again. Another student says that in California's "surfer" cliques, "everyone sleeps around. They kind of rotate."

Of course, if you ask a teenager if he or she indulges in this naughtiness, you get enough guffaws and righteous indignation to fill a gymnasium. But they will gladly explain everybody else's exploits. One 15-year-old New Yorker says "it's expected" by boys that girls will sleep with them after a couple dates. Vazquez says girls carry $20 cab fare on dates because many boys routinely ditch girls when it becomes clear they won't get past first base. In Dallas, teens generally wait a few months before having sex, although first-date sex is far from uncommon.

But let's not get too bent out of shape about The Trouble With Kids Today. A sizable wedge of America's youth has not yet tumbled, screaming, into the fiery maw of Satan. Most hormone-addled boys will still lighten up after hearing a certain, succinct magic word: no. A lot of you teens already know this. You know that, even in a time when grade-schoolers wear "I Want Your Sex" T shirts, courtship hasn't changed that much; it's just been speeded up and made more expensive. But for those of you still on the clueless side, just follow these unscientific guidelines: stay away from the surfers, go easy on the mousse, avoid overly clean cars in Oakland--and, please, don't be a dork.

Boys are more sexually active, but girls aren't far behind.[*] Percentage of girls having sex Age 1979 1988 15 22% 27% 16 27% 34% 17 47% 52% 18 54% 70% 19 65% 78% Percentage of boys having sex Age 1979 1988 15 na 33% 16 na 50% 17 56% 66% 18 66% 72% 19 78% 86% [*] FIGURES REFLECT ONLY TEENS IN METROPOLITAN AREAS SOURCE: GIRLS NAT'L SURVEY OF FAMILY GROWTH; BOYS: URBAN INSTITUTE