Did "Sexual Liberation" Make Us More Monogamous?

When I was babysitting back in 1975, I was afraid of a book enshrined on one family's coffee table: Open Marriage, by Nena and George O'Neill. I can't really tell you why it scared me; I never opened it, and I didn't grasp the topic, but its prominent and seemingly fixed placement made it seem evangelically threatening to my family life in some way I couldn't express. Our rural exurb of an Ohio Air Force base (a SAC command, for those who remember the Cold War) wasn't exactly the key-party, "wife-swapping" territory of Updike's Connecticut or Rick Moody and Ang Lee's Ice Storm. But there was Open Marriage, on display deep in Republican territory -- an announcement to the married, retired colonels and military wives who visited that alternatives to each other were available.

It was also the year that the fabulously named Dr. Pepper Schwartz and Dr. Philip Blumstein were doing the broad-scale research that resulted in their landmark book, American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. Long before lesbian and gay issues were discussed by the mainstream, Blumstein and Schwartz trailblazed marital research, gathering data on the attitudes of more than 4,000 heterosexual men and women, nearly a thousand gay men, and 750 lesbians. Reading the book in the late '90s, when I was writing my own on the history of marriage, was entertaining--partly because the 1970s were such a unique moment for attitudes toward sex and marriage. The number of respondents who approved of nonmonogamy as a model was exceptionally high -- highest, as you'd imagine, among men (with gay men enthusiastically out in front), and lowest among women.

I was also amused by Schwartz and Blumstein's scrupulous chronicling of lesbians' determination to keep absolutely everything equal -- finances, housework, sex -- and to smash gender roles into utter androgyny. The lockstep lesbian feminism of that era was so painfully serious. Equality meant we were all supposed to be exactly alike -- lordy! Thank goodness we've lightened up a little since then and opened up to variation; just picture Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi together, and you can see that at the very least, lezzies are now allowed to wear dresses and makeup without threatening our cred.

Of course, as those of us who've been adults for more than a decade know by now, all historical moments are unique: fashions in clothes, politics, public health, marriage and family change in ways that are impossible to imagine in advance. That's why I was so interested in a recent comparative study, published this month and reported on in USA Today. Schwartz took her 1975 data and compared the results with those from a 2000 study led by Dr. Sondra Solomon. The 2000 study surveyed same-sex couples that got civil unions in Vermont along with demographically similar same-sex couples who were not in a civil union and with similar heterosexual married couples.

Here's what got reported most widely: The authors concluded that American couples of all stripes are more monogamous now than they were in 1975. Back in the sexually liberatory 1970s, more American couples agreed it was okay to have an outside dalliance -- and more men and women screwed around, with or without the partner's okay.

According to these two sets of data, in 1975, roughly two-thirds of partnered gay men said it was okay to have sex outside the relationship; aboout a third of partnered lesbians did; one-fourth of married heterosexual men did; and about a fifth of married heterosexual women did. By 2000, those numbers dropped dramatically, to less than half of partnered gay men, only one in twenty partnered lesbians, about the same percent of married straight men, and three in 100 married straight women. The actual incidence of sex reported outside the couple dropped just as precipitously, from eight in ten to six out of ten partered gay men; nearly a third to less than one in ten partnered lesbians; nearly a third to one in ten married straight men; and one fifth to one in twenty straight women.

The researchers wonder whether HIV caused the drop, since the virus means screwing around can be fatal. It's hard to imagine how that would apply to lesbians; we have the fewest sexual opportunities for contact with either sperm or blood, HIV's two primary means of transmission. Amanda Marcotte over at Slate's Double X thinks it sounds weird for straight folks as well:

They had STDs in 1975, and people worried about them then, too. Plus, the unintended pregnancy rate was much higher then, and most research I've found suggests that straight people worry far more about pregnancy than any STD. AIDS really doesn't account for the difference, since most straight people really don't see themselves at risk, even if they're cheating. They worry more about the stuff they worried about in 1975: the clap, herpes, warts.

But Marcotte's conclusion -- that "sexual liberation" leads to more monogamous marriages -- hits me as more than a little off. She reasons that because people can work out their adventurousness in their early twenties before settling down, they are happier and less likely to stray once they couple up. Andrew Sullivan agrees, and then presses his oft-iterated point that legal acknowledgement of gay male couples makes them settle down into monogamy.

But is it really "sexual liberation" that's led to monogamy? "Sexual liberation" -- including with "Open Marriage" -- is what they thought they were inventing in 1975, when Schwartz and Blumstein did their research. Updike's couples were bedhopping almost as much as the gay men who were dancing the night away to "It's Raining Men." There's a way in which Marcotte is right: "sexual liberation" was a reaction to the problematic 1950s model of marriage, in which two people married in their very early twenties -- about five years before the West's historic norm -- and were then assigned to separate daily working spheres, with no shared labor whatsoever. All those young pairs stuffed themselves into the brand-new suburbs that were made possible by the GI bill, living as far from the rest of their families as they could get courtesy of new government highways. Then they were left to marinate alone with each other, peers their age, and their children. It was a peculiar new family mode. It didn't work out.

But neither, really, did "sexual liberation." After the 1970s, we headed into the far frostier and more conservative era of the 1980s, the era of "Just Say No." Even Marcotte's belief that more monogamy is better is a more conservative position than her political counterpart might have taken in 1975.

Meanwhile, different models for marriage have emerged different demographic and geographic slices of the population. We know that blue-state, college-educated, professional-class families are more likely to marry late and to stay married than their red-state, working-class counterparts, who marry early and often. I'm not sure that the 2000 Solomon data captures all that. The researcher interviewed couples who formed civil unions in Vermont and straight friends of theirs who were willing to be interviewed. Were their friends really demographically representative of the nation--geographically, economically, socially?

Even if they are, the study and others like it often fail to ask how many marriages or partnerships each person has had. Do we really have more "monogamy" if the only change is that you're less likely to stay married if there's adultery? Maybe what happened is that, when someone has sex outside the marriage, 1970s couples stayed together--but the 2000s couples got out and tried monogamy again.

Which leads me to the Marcotte statement that really made me raise an eyebrow:

No need now to go through the process of laying waste to your marriage through cheating and fighting in order to justify the divorce, not when you can simply say, "I'm not happy anymore," and divorce amicably.

"Amicably"? Really? Buy me a drink, Amanda, and I'll tell you some hair-raising stories about how bad couples can be to each other when they're ending a marriage of twenty-something years. My anecdotal sample includes lots of lesbians and straight folks; I don't know as many gay men. But in my broad listening experience, marriages end with sound and fury, signifying adultery. My guess is that our standards for marriage are higher: Marriages and partnerships are more widely expected to be monogamous--which makes adultery the quickest way to dynamite your way out.

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