The Future of Sexuality
Issue #10 of DIALOGOS : An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology
First posting of this issue, Aug. 17, 1998. Last update Apr. 8, 2014.
To see the most recent comments on this issue, go to comments.
Richard W. Kropf, Editor
In this issue of DIALOGOS, we presented, with the permission of its author, a
paper delivered at the 14th World Congress of THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIOLOGICAL
ASSOCIATION which met in
Human Relationships in the 21st Century: Labor Pains of a New Integration
By Robert T. Francoeur, Ph.D.
Back in 1972, when I started teaching a college course in human sexuality, we were still experiencing the aftershock of the 60s sexual revolution. I wanted to make my class on lifestyles and relationships personal and real for these 20 year-olds. So I invited some friends who were living a variety of alternative lifestyles to share their stories. The students listened politely, hid their smirks, and muttered "WEIRD RADICALS" (definitely sick perverts).
The implications of what these older adults were going through, and how they were adapting their marriages and relationships to life in the 1970s were too frightening for my students to hear or think about in their own lives. I had to switch my educational strategy. Forget the direct confrontation with their personal daily lives. I would try a more philosophical, indirect questions.
"What happened to the dinosaurs?"
"They died out."
"Ah, I guess they couldn't adapt to their changing environment."
"Good. Now, I want you to help me list all the many changes that have radically altered intimate relationships, courtship, marriage, and sex in this century. Tell me what has changed since 1900, when your great-grandparents were teenagers, dating, getting married, and raising a family. You have grown©up in a different world, with the birth control pill, AIDS, MTV, gay liberation, and the like. I want you to help me list all these changes, and then I want to talk about Deeper Questions, like the evolution and future of intimate relations, sex, marriage, and family. I want to talk about the Deeper Question of how you will have to adapt to all the changes we have made in our ecosystem in this century, the radical changes you will be forced to make in your sexual lives and relationships if you want to survive and thrive in this brave new world."
My new approach seemed to work, but I wonder. Older, non-traditional students definitely get the point about how male-female relationships, marriage, and family have, and are, changing because of our radically changed environment. For the 20 year-olds the issue is sex and long-term intimacy in our radically changed world because they were born after the pill, after the sixties, after Ozzie and Harriet Nelson left television. They know the sex and marriage stuff. And because they see sex as perfectly natural, it isn't really much of a big deal for them, what with contra-ceptives and the freedom of college dorms and living away from home. They want to find someone to love, a dependable, stable, mature partner, with a pleasing personality. In the American spirit of tolerance, alternative patterns of marriage, creative singlehood, open or closed marriages, divorce and remarriage, step-parents and step-families, comarital relations, swingers, man-sharing, gay couples, "un hombre completo" and "la casa chica" are okay for others, if that's what they want. But when I get married, it will be forever, and no affairs or divorce. They are more concerned about finding a good paying, interesting job. For women, sex and gender may enter the job concern as they become aware of the "glass ceiling" and the murky domain of sexual harassment. But, in general, it takes some years of personally experiencing the social changes around before they will start asking Deeper Questions about the future of sex, marriage, and family.
Having recently edited a three-volume International Encyclopedia of Sexuality with in-depth reports on sexual attitudes and behavior in 32 countries on six continents, I would like to speculate about the extent to which the Daily Concerns and Deeper Questions of Americans about the future of sex, marriage and family and the changes we have experienced this century may echo around the world.
Our Radically Changed and Changing World
Before I sketch out what I believe is a fair prognosis for the future, let me share with you the world my American students desribe every semester.
1. AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY
Americans came close to doubling our average human life expectancy in this century. In the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was 30 something. In 1900, 47 years; 1920, 53 to 54 years; in 1995, 73 for men and 79 years for women. An infant born today has an estimated average life expectancy of 90 to 110 years. My students immediately gasp, when they think about the impact of this change on "until death do us part." Modern medicine has been a major factor in similar dramatic increases in average life expectancies around the world. In more developed regions, the average life expectancy at birth in 1993 was 77 years; in less developed regions, 63 years, and the least developed countries, 51 years. Of course, the AIDS epidemic is having a serious negative impact on life expectancy in
2. INFANT AND MATERNAL MORTALITY
In the 1800s, one in five infants died in its first year. In 1940, one in 20 infants died. Black infant mortality was twice that of whites. In 1995, only one in 200 newborns did not survive its first year. Maternal mortality rates have also plummeted from the 1850s when one in five women died of puerperal fever.
3. NUMBER OF CHILDREN
The colonial American Family had 8, 10, or more children. The Victorian family averaged between 6 to 8 children. In 1970, one in ten American families had four or more children. In 1996, only 3 percent of our families had 4 or more children while 51.2 percent had no children. In colonial
Worldwide, fertility rates have dropped significantly since
the 1970s. The Dutch total fertility rate dropped from 3.2 children per woman
in 1962 to a stable 1.5 rate since 1976. The former
In a brief 150 years, Euro-Americans have gone from ineffective and inconvenient contraceptives that were generally available only to the affluent to effective, inexpensive, and fairly convenient long-term contraceptives. The time table:
Antiquity-1850s Crocodile dung, lemon halves, and sheep intestines
1850s Latex condoms
1880s The cervical diaphragm becomes popular
1882 The first birth control clinic (Dutch) opens.
1890s Male surgical sterilization
1909 IUDs developed
1962 The PILL
1966 U.S. Supreme Court declares unconstitutional all state laws limiting the right of married women to purchase contraceptives
1972 State laws limiting contraceptive sales to single women declared unconstitutional
1985 Long-term contraceptive implants.
The effects of modern contraception are obvious in many countries where the total fertility rate has dropped significantly in recent years, even though the affordability of contraception is a major problem in countries racked by HIV and negligible per capital monies for health care and disease prevention.
5. MEDICAL ADVANCES
In addition to increasing our life expectancy, reducing infant and maternal mortality with the 1864 discovery of antiseptics, improving the effectiveness and variety of contraceptives, and increasing the safety of abortion, medical research has made other contributions to our rapidly and radically changing social environment. These include advent of Planned Parenthood clinics starting in 1916, the use of surplus World War I cellulose wadding in menstrual padding in 1920, the discovery of penicillin which provided an effective cure for bacterial sexually transmissible diseases during World War II, and, of course, the pill. And yet, despite it medical prowess, puritanic Americans have refused to deal with sexually related diseases. The
Since the world's first test-tube baby in 1978, there has been an explosion in new infertility treatments, which create new forms of parenthood, and new treatments for all kinds of sexual dysfunctions, including Viagra and other medications for male erectile problems. Even as worldwide television coverage of Viagra led to black markets in many countries, public pressure, stirred by European and North American television documentaries on female genital mutilation, have produced serious efforts by the World Health Organization, United Nations, and international physicians' groups to eliminate this dangerous practice (Francoeur and Taverner 1998:134-153).
6. PUBERTY AND ADOLESCENCE
Between the Middle Ages and today, the age of menarche has remained fairly stable between age 12 and 14 years, depending of food supply. What has changed is that stage of life we call adolescence. In the Middle Ages and Shakespeare's time children were considered immature adults when they attained the use of reason about age 7. Like Juliet they married about age 14. "Childhood," as we know it, did not exist until the Victorian period, while "adolescence" did not exist until the 1950s or thereabouts. The emergence of childhood and adolescence, combined with increasing later age of first marriage, has given us a new species of human, sexually mature single young adults! While the age of menarche has remained stable, a puzzling phenomenon has recently been documented. A nationwide study by Hermans-Giddens (1997) found that 50 percent of African-American girls and 15 percent of white girls in the
In the least developed nations where urban migration deprives adolescents of traditional sex education by their elders, there is a frightening rise in teen pregnancies and disease. In cultures where the prevailing philosophy holds that parents should be the primary source of sexual information, today's teenagers obtain most of their sexuality information from peers and the media, not from their parents. In most cultures, from the least developed to the most industrialized, there is little effective formal education and social support to help children and adolescents deal with their sexuality.
7. THE ECONOMIC AND PSYCHOLOGICAL EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN
A hundred twenty-five years after the first women's rights meeting in
Around the world, in
9. LEGAL CHANGES
As mentioned above, the right of American women to purchase contraceptives was recognized in 1966 and 1972 Supreme Court decisions. Abortion was made legal by Roe v. Wade in 1973. The repressive Comstock laws were gradually rescinded, with the first Consenting Adult Laws adopted by
Around the world, the availability of sexual materials on cheap videocassettes, satellite-access television, and the internet has greatly reduced the control and censorship governments were able to maintain in the past with print media. Although the concept of sexual harassment is scarcely acknowledged outside northern Europe, the U.S., and Canada, awareness of women's rights in this regard is spreading, mainly because of media coverage and emerging women's rights movements in the less and least developed countries including Eastern Europe (Francoeur 1997:974, 1065, 1158-1159).
10. INCREASING SOCIAL MOBILITY AND ANONYMITY
Everywhere in American rural villages and farm lands of the 1800s, social conformity was expected and unavoidable. Then mobility by foot and horse was augmented by urban mass transit, trains, and steamships. In the 1870s, human-powered bicycles and tricycles were challenged,‘rite de passage for teenage boys in the 1960s and beyond (Bailey, 1988). For the youth of the 1960s, the Vietnam war marked a generation split by rebellion that quickly spread into the courtship and dating rituals of young Americans. The generations have become increasingly split ever since. As the car became ubiquitous, mobile middle class Americans demanded lodgings away from home. As simple roadside cabins of the 1930s evolved into ubiquitous posh motels for traveling businessmen and vacationing families, they also quietly became convenient places for adult affairs, In more recent years, small privately owned motels have struggled to survive the competition of nationwide motel chains often by offering reduced hourly rates many adolescents can afford. Many major motels also offer hourly and day rates.
How might this increasing mobility affect the lives and
relationships of men and women in other nations outside the Euro-American
11. LEISURE AND AFFLUENCE
Colonial Americans were burdened by hard manual labor, from sun-up-to-sun-down, 6 or 7 days a week, as long they had the strength. There was no retirement or pensions plans. In 1935, Social Security gave some support for the 95 percent of elderly Americans who then lived in poverty. With increasing mechanization, unionization, and an expanding economy, half of the
12. SEA CHANGES IN THE VISUAL ARTS
(The following technological developments were quickly adapted to satisfy the age-old male interest in pornography.)
1276 - First European paper mill;
1455 - Guttenberg's Bible;
1477 - William Claxton prints the first books of popular literature;
1837 - Practical photography;
1903 - First full-length movie;
1906 - First radio program broadcast;
1927 - First talking movie;
1940s, 1950s - Television full-time broadcasting;
1953 - Playboy and Penthouse magazines;
1970s to present - Cable TV, videocassettes, camcorders, and most lately, the Internet, allow convenient and private viewing of sexually explicit material in home.
In the past 50 years, print media, radio, and television have responded to the growing public interest in sexual titillation and information. Since the 1960s, unconventional lifestyles have provided grist of the tabloids and talk-shows, but there is also an educational function. Media presentations of the sex research of Kinsey (1948, 1953) and Masters and Johnson (1960s) increasingly legitimized public discussion of previously taboo sexual topics and issues. In recent times, media treatment of the White House sex allegations and Viagra have also increased public discussion of oral sex, impotence, and extramarital and comarital affairs at the family dinner table and the work-place. American day-time soaps, Jerry Springer, and others present a constant diet of sex and infidelity. In advertising, the breakthrough was probably Proscar, with its actual PICTURE of where the prostate gland is in relation to the penis and testes. Cornog and Perper (1996) have documented a sharp increase in all forms of sexuality publications, but especially in mass market trade books designed for audiences ranging from conservative Christian to radical New Age readers. They propose that diversity of viewpoint and opinion, NOT uniformity, is the hallmark of this increase. Although conservative institutions, such as many public libraries, have been slow to recognize this upsurge in publication of books about sexuality, the large chain bookstores, and, more recently, the web bookstores, have been very quick to recognize that "the self-help sex book" is a hot-selling genre in publishing.
And then there is the WWW, the World Wide Web, and CyberSex
on the Net. In
13. MUSIC AND DANCE
For centuries, traveling and local actors and musicians, religious rituals, community festivals, and amateur artists in the family.
14. CONSERVATIVE COUNTER TRENDS
Along with these many ecosystem changes and the adaptations they are triggering, there are several realities that work against any change. First and foremost are the epidemics of AIDS and hepatitis C. And, on the religious side, the Moral Majority in the 1970s and more recently, the Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, and other religious conservatives who opt for literal interpretations of
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