Sexual liberalization

One of my challenges in discussing my work leading to the writing of Youth and Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century United States has always been the confusion even well-educated people experience when I talk about sex and history. The average heterosexual on the street usually assumes that sex has no history, that it pretty much operates the same way in all times and places. True, sex acts have only a narrow range of possibilities–there are far fewer sex manuals than cookbooks in the world. But a moment’s reflection (or perhaps a look into Time magazine for pictures of Afghan women in burkhas or a National Geographic spread on Carnivale in Rio) should quickly consign the no-change notion to the list of intellectual Darwin awards.

Someone who thinks about sex as one element of larger social and cultural systems may arrive at some version of “sexual liberalization.” In this view, the 20th century begins in Victorian repression and then progressively, continuously, steadily becomes less repressed and more open to choice in sexual matters. You can see this idea demonstrated graphically if in the chart provided here.  Sexual choice has been aided and abetted by the expanding technology of birth control and abortion, by the growth of work opportunities for women, and the proliferation of divorce. The term works well whether you are a social conservative, who sees the liberalization of anything as bad, or socially liberal. But even someone who believes that decisions about sex and commitment should be made in a free market of desire and advantage will also agree that problems will arise if liberalization unravels all social constraints.

Percentage of 19 year old females who have had sexual experience.

Percentage of 19 year old females who have had sexual experience.

Liberalization provides an intuitively complete explanation for sexual change. Anyone who, as a teenager, argued with parents or other dim adults about his or her apparel/piercings/music/politics/hairstyle or choice of companions will know that prior generations carry such backward, pernicious, and repressive ideas about life (and especially sex) that it should amaze us that the genus still has a species to go with it. But even more compelling for adult members of the liberalization school is that almost any two-point measure irrefutably proves the theory. Compare 1910 to 1920, or 1930 to 1980 or 1990 to 2000 and you find that a) boys and girls are having sex as teenagers more frequently; b) that the average age for first intercourse has declined markedly (17 for white males, 18 for white females in the mid-1990s); c) more people use birth control and have abortions; d) more young women have children outside marriage; e) sexual minorities are more visible and have greater freedom to date and mate with the people they find attractive. In fact, the recent findings of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, that teenagers who take chastity oaths end up having sex as frequently as non-oath-taking teens, provides a perfect example of liberalization. Not only are lots of teenagers having sex—what is more compelling is the assumption, even among those who support and promote chastity, is that teenagers will be the ones who make decisions about whether they have sex or not. At the turn of the century, almost no teenager would have been viewed as capable of that decision, and even the notion of decision-making in sexual matters would have seemed suspicious.

Pick at any strand of the liberalization idea, however, and the whole theory starts to unravel. Pre-marital intercourse always acts as a leading indicator in the free market theory of sexuality. Clearly, more people have sex before they marry these days. Yet, most men had sex before marriage through most of the 20th century, and the rates for women (even white middle-class women) increased very rapidly. In your mother’s generation, and probably in your grandmother’s generation, at least half of women had carnal knowledge before marriage. Of course, all this knowledge existed within a well-accepted system (even though it didn’t accord with public morality) in which women generally gave sexual favors to men they expected to marry, and usually they did marry them. Men, you will be amazed to learn, generally assumed that they had a right to greater latitude in pre-marital sexual partners. The major change in this system began in the early 1970s as more women had sex with men they did not plan to marry. Even this change has not gone in only one direction. After a rise through the mid-1980s, percentages of women choosing to have sex outside marriage began to decline. For African-American women, those declines (albeit from a higher percentage) have been more dramatic