"Sexual Revolutions," Great and Small
I. From Repression to Liberation
Everyone knows from decades of surveys, if not from simply surveying the glossy magazines at newsstands, that twentieth-century Americans (Shorter, 1975, pp. 251-52) and Europeans (van de Kaa, 1987) have had a revolution of sexual behavior. They are having more sex, sooner, and with less confinement to a single, wedded partner. They are said to have moved from a "golden age of marriage to the dawn of cohabitation," to have overthrown "Repression," and replaced it with "Liberation."
But the revolution was not as sweeping as one might think either from the rejoicing of its liberal admirers (say, Delora and Delora, 1972 or Macklin and Rubin, eds., 1983) or from the warnings of its conservative detractors (say, Gilder, 1986). The best evidence now available says that for most heterosexuals, most of their lives, monogamy is more the rule than the exception. Male homosexuals, while far from monogamous and much more active and less socially constrained now than they were thought to be in the days of the Kinsey Reports, are also much less common than Kinsey's evidence seemed to show, and, by many indicators, more constrained in their sex behavior since the 1980's than they were at their peak of liberation in the 1970's, after the Stonewall Rebellion but before the AIDS epidemic.
The 1994 National Health and Social Life Survey (Laumann et al., 1994 and Michael, et al., 1994, hereafter NHSLS) is a good example of the current evidence both on the behavior of heterosexuals and on the number of homosexuals, though even it leaves some questions and blank spots. It was performed on a tight budget and is thin in some key categories. It couldn't give a total of lifetime sex partners (only partners before and after age 18, but not both combined). 21 percent of the respondents were interviewed with a child, spouse, or other person in the room (Laumann et al., 1994, pp. 568-70); could they have been candid about their extramarital sex in such circumstances? Laumann et al. admitted that some of their estimates, the ones based on survey reports of stigmatized behavior "are no doubt lower-bound estimates" (p. 284). They did not always get perfect agreement with other modern-methodology surveys; their definitions of key terms, such as "sexual partnerships" and "monogamy" were not always tight; some of their figures averaged out a lot of significant variation; and, as with every other sex survey, their males tended to report more sex than their females (Reiss, 1995). "In the real world," said Reiss (1995, p. 80), "...there is no way that men can have six partners and women have only two partners." Some social scientists are convinced that personal sexual histories are bound to be mendacious and "utterly resistant to social science verification" (Lewontin, 1995, p. 24); and the field is new enough that trial and error has to be a big part of it.
Nevertheless, the NHSLS is considered much more reliable than earlier surveys (such as Kinsey et al., 1948, 1953) because it used rigorous random sampling techniques, pursued its interview subjects assiduously, got a high 79% response rate, and, hence, is much more likely to be statistically representative of the public than the earlier studies. The Kinsey Reports, and many other early studies, such as the notorious Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Hite surveys, were taken, not from carefully randomized representative samples, but from "samples of convenience," or "grab samples;" that is, from whatever subjects were readily available and willing to write in or talk to the surveyors. These respondents often turned out to have different views and behaviors than the population at large as sampled in the more rigorous NHSLS (Laumann, et al., 1994, Part I); in general, they seen to have been more promiscuous than the general population, with much higher percentages of homosexuals and bisexuals.
Much of the difference between the new studies and the old has to do with what measures they chose to emphasize, as well as how they got their samples. Measured by percentages of a cohort which has had premarital sex (the most prominent indicator of the old studies) there has indeed been a giant sexual revolution since the turn of the twentieth century. Measured by the average person's lifetime total of sex partners, or by mean age at first intercourse, (common features of modern surveys), the revolution has not been nearly so drastic. A useful summary of these trends from both percentage and partner-number perspectives, based on a long-unpublished 1970 Kinsey Institute survey, is Klassen, et al., 1989 (Table 1, pp. 554-55). This showed 92% of ever-married women born before 1900 to have been virgin at marriage -- and the reader should recall that historically 95% of American men and women have gotten married at some point in their lives. This high figure declined, on average, by about 8% per decade-cohort until it reached 61% for the cohort born in the 1930's -- the one now known as the "silent generation" which came of age in the 1950's. Then, dramatically, it plunged 24% to 37% for the cohort born in the 1940's -- that turned-on, tripped-out, miniskirted, bra-burning, Woodstock-seasoned, "flower-child" cohort to whom we owe the slogan, "smash monogamy." The next Klassen cohort, 1950's-born "disco-era" women, dropped another 7%, to only 30% virgin at marriage by 1970. Measured by percentages of women who had had premarital sex, the change was very great, increasing almost ninefold, from 8 percent of women born in the 19th century to 70 percent of those born at the peak of the Baby Boom.
No doubt reflecting these changes, public tolerance of premarital coitus has grown markedly since the 1960s. In 1969, 68% of the general public thought premarital coitus was wrong; this declined to 48% by 1975. By 1975, only 19% of college students thought premarital coitus was wrong. [update]
But the changes were something less than a smashing of monogamy. About half of the extra premarital sex was with the woman's eventual spouse. Two-thirds of Klassen's 1940's-born women entered their first marriage either with no previous partners (37%), or with none but their husband-to-be (31%). Less than 3% of this miniskirted, bra-burning cohort had ten or more partners besides spouse; only a quarter had four or more.
The high-tech 1994 NHSLS survey confirms both Klassen's liberating trend and the limitations on it. Just over half of the NHSLS cohort of women born from 1933 to 1942 were virgins at marriage, but only a fifth of women from cohorts born after 1952 (Laumann et al., 1994, Table 13.12, p. 503). By the 1970's, each new cohort of women did seem to have had more premarital sex and more cohabitation than the one before -- to say nothing of higher rates of divorce, more and earlier teenage sex, and much higher ratios (but not always rates) of illegitimacy and single parenting -- than the one before. But the liberation did not lead to noticeably higher rates of infidelity during marriage (see Laumann et al., 1994, Tables 5.9A and B, pp. 208-210), and it meant, in effect, that the average woman since the 1960's has had about two sex partners after age 18, a surprisingly modest increase of only one since the turn of the "revolutionizing" century (See Table A-1 and Laumann et al., 1994, Tables 5.4C, 5.1,D pp. 191, 180, citing similar results from other studies and other Western countries).
II. Downsizing Heterosexual Liberation
Table A-1, adapted from Laumann et al., 1994, and Klassen et al., 1989, shows the median number of sex partners since age 18 (or, in some cases, since puberty) for a number of social categories: male, female, black, white, old, young, educated, not-so-educated, domestic, foreign. Except for males and unmarried or divorced people, who seem to have had two or three times as many partners as females and married people, the contemporary medians are all remarkably similar, all but one of the categories (the exception is Asians, with only one partner since 18) falling in a range from two to six). The same might be said for religions, which are not listed in Table A-1, but range from three (Catholics and Type II, conservative Protestants) to six (Jews) (Laumann, et al., 1994, p. 180. If the NHSLS is representative, the current U.S. population, on average, takes on twice as many sex partners as did the cohort born before 1900 -- but, again, the increment of one more partner -- or could it be two? -- in a lifetime for women, three more for men, looks more like a stretching and serialization of monogamy than a smashing of it.
Sex Partners since Age Eighteen
Category Median Maximum N
Total Pop. 3 1,016 3,126
Male 6 1,016 1,394
Female 2 1,009 1,732
18-24 2 256 499
25-49 4 1,016 2,152
50-59 2 604 475
Never married 3-4 900 868
Married 2 604 1,660
Div/sep/wid. 5-6 1,016 561
HS or less 3 1,016 1,331
Some coll. or + 4 1,009 1,776
White 3 1,009 2,427
Black 4 1,016 544
Hispanic 2 142 317
Asian 1 323 65
Born bef. 1900:a
Male 3 <31 174
Female 1 3 79
U.K. male >4 8,834
U.K. female <2 10,492
French male >4 8,872
French female 1 10,449
Finland male >4 980
Finland female <4 1,046
Source: adapted from Laumann et al., 1994, pp. 180, 191, except:
a: from Klassen, 1989, pp. 554-55, partners ever, ever-married men and women only.
It is still not clear that the reading public, brought up on Kinsey and Cosmopolitan, has caught on to these findings. To the extent that the public has caught on to them, the NHSLS results have come as a bigger shock than Kinsey's findings were to a public brought up on Freud two generations earlier. They give little support to social scientists' sweeping pronouncements in books like Intimate Lifestyles (Delora and Delora, 1972) -- to say nothing of less credentialed, but equally sweeping, pronouncements in Playboy and Cosmopolitan -- that sexual restraint has become a thing of the past. For most people, most of their lives, it hasn't.
What about males? Measured by percentage having premarital sex, U.S. males did have their own revolution in premarital sex, though from a much higher baseline than women, consistent with the Ogden Nash's widely-shared stereotype of males as naturally more promiscuous than females: Hogamus higamus, men are polygamous. Higamus hogamus, women monogamous. 46% of Klassen's pre-1900-born ever-married male cohort were virgins at marriage, but only 11% of his 1940's-born flower-child cohort. Another 12% males of the latter cohort had consorted only with their wives-to-be. 78% of males had consorted with someone else before marriage, compared with only 33% of women of the same cohort.
Klassen's median male flower-child had had six sex partners in his life, a doubling of his pre-1900 cohort (three partners, see Table A-1; Klassen et al., 1989, p. 555; Laumann et al., 1994, p. 180), but perhaps not such a surprising trend for males of a generation which was better nourished, more sexually precocious, more mobile, much less supervised, and much better shielded from the costs of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy than its precursors, and which, with a longer adolescence than the "silent generation" of the 1950's, and more years of education, had to wait longer to get married. Even for the flower-child generation -- Ogden Nash, scholarly celebrations of alternative lifestyles, and the Playboy philosophy and surveys to the contrary -- the premarital sex life of the average heterosexual male was not so much a matter of Toga parties and one-night stands as of "cohabitation," that is, to a series of generally monogamous premarital relationships, each with a half-life of about a year. 40% of such relationships ended in marriage (Laumann et al., 1994, pp. 496-97).
Moreover, marriage, once incurred, still remains an undeniably strong brake on promiscuity among heterosexuals. Only a quarter of married men and 15% of married women in the NHSLS sample (Laumann, et al., 1994, p. 216) reported any extramarital affairs at all during their lifetimes. The infidelity percentages, especially for men, were markedly lower for younger generations than for older generations, no doubt because they had fewer years of cumulative opportunity. 96% of the NHSLS married respondents had had no more than one sex partner in the last twelve months; less than one percent reported more than five partners (Laumann, et al., p. 217; see also Smith, 1991, p. 103 (98 percent of married men, 99 percent of married women faithful in last year)). Of all Laumann's respondents, married and unmarried, of all ages, 82% of men and 87% of women had had no more than one partner in the last 12 months, and these rates did not vary startlingly between whites (88%), blacks (82%), and Hispanics (86%), or between high school dropouts (88%) and college graduates (79%) (p. 217). In sum, heterosexuals have had noticeably more premarital (and postmarital) sex than before the "sexual revolution," but there is little convincing evidence that the revolution has impinged much on marital fidelity, or even put an end to all premarital sexual restraint.
III. Homosexuals: Fewer than Kinsey Thought, but More Liberated
Since Kinsey, female homosexuals have generally thought to be about as monogamous as unmarried heterosexual females (Kinsey, et al., 1953, p. 683) -- which is to say that only five percent of his 591 lesbian respondents reported ten or more sex partners in their lifetimes. NHSLS data, however, show the average sexually active lesbian to have had 20 sex partners since age 18, about ten times as many sex partners (not all of them female, however) as the average heterosexual female (Table A-2 below). These figures may need some adjustment, since the ones for lesbians are means and for sexually active lesbians only, lesbians being defined as women having had any same-gender partner since age 18. The figures for heterosexual women, by contrast, are medians, and for all such women, not just the sexually active ones. But the differences between NHSLS and Kinsey figures are so great that small adjustments seem unlikely to make them go away. Either the NHSLS figures, whose lesbian samples were admittedly very small (Laumann et al., 1994, p. 316), or the prevailing stereotype of strong, long-lasting lesbian partnerships, or both, seem in need of another look.
Male homosexuals show even more striking differences from Kinsey-generated expectations. Long before the Stonewall Rebellion, Kinsey's data seemed to show that ten percent of the male population was exclusively homosexual, and another 27 percent bisexual to some degree (Kinsey, et al., 1948, p. 650) -- but that most male homosexuals were no more promiscuous than unmarried heterosexual males. More than three-quarters of both heterosexual and homosexual male populations reported no more than ten sex partners in their lifetimes (Kinsey, et al., 1953, p. 683; Table A-2, below). It is true that a small fraction of Kinsey's homosexual males far outdid unmarried heterosexual males in number of partners, even in those days. Eight percent of Kinsey's homosexual males had had over 100 partners in their lifetimes, compared with only one percent of his heterosexual males (Kinsey, et al., 1953, p. 683). "Many of the [homosexual] males," Kinsey reported (1953, p. 475), "had been highly promiscuous, sometimes finding scores or hundreds of sexual partners." But even eight percent was a decided minority compared to what is found today.
More recent surveys of homosexuality show much lower levels of homosexuality than Kinsey reported -- maybe two to five percent homosexual for males, half that for females, with very few male bisexuals and no clear difference between rates in societies where toleration of homosexuality is high (the Netherlands) or low (the United States) (See, for example, Whitam and Mathy, 1986; Turner, et al., Eds., 1989, pp. 113-128; summary of studies, Posner, 1992, pp. 294-296; Fay, et al., 1989, pp. 343-44; Smith, 1991, p. 104; Laumann et al., 1994, ch. 8, esp. pp. 290-301, 306-07). The new, low figures have been bitterly controversial between gay and lesbian activists, who cling to the old, high Kinsey numbers, and anti-gay conservatives, who favor low numbers, while often opposing spending public money on surveys that might settle which estimates are more true. The low numbers come from much better methodology and are much more likely to be correct. No one, however conservative, reads the new, lower estimates to show an actual trend away from homosexuality. What they do show is more careful polling techniques than Kinsey's (Turner et al., 1989, pp.. 113-128).
As if to make up for sharp reductions in the estimated size of the gay male population, however, modern studies report startling increases in its levels of promiscuity, especially in big cities, since Kinsey's time. Table A-2 gives several perspectives on this.
Sex Partners since Age Eighteen
Category Median Maximum N
Male (NHSLS, '94)a 43 >30
Female (NHSLS, '94)a 20 >30
Male (Kinsey, '48)b 2 "hundreds" 1,402
Female (Kinsey, '53)b 1 <20 591
Male (Chicago '67)c >100 >1,000 (20%) 458
Male (Bay Area '70's)c >250 >1,000 (28%) 574
Female (Bay Area)c <9 <499 (1%) 227
a: Laumann, et al., 1994, p. 315. Sexually active respondents only; includes partners of both sexes since age eighteen.
b: adapted from Kinsey, et al., 1953, pp. 475, 683. "Homosexual contacts."
c: adapted from Bell and Weinberg, 1978, p. 308. "Number of Homosexual partners ever, white homosexual males and females."
Note: The Kinsey and Bell & Weinberg samples were "samples of convenience," or "grab samples," not necessarily representative of the populations from which they were drawn.
Where Kinsey's average 1940's-vintage homosexual male reported only two partners in his lifetime, and only eleven percent reported more than 50 partners (compared to five percent of heterosexual males), the average 1990's-vintage NHSLS homosexual male reported 43 partners. Alan P. Bell and Martin S. Weinberg (1978) got even higher responses from targeted samples recruited from big-city gay males with activist or bath-house connections -- and hence not representative of the general male homosexual population, but only of its most active element. But their samples did give new meaning to the word "active." The median respondent to their 1967 Chicago pilot study reported more than 100 lifetime partners. The median respondent to their 1970's San Francisco Bay Area survey reported more than 250 partners. Only 17 percent of their Bay Area respondents (p. 308) reported fewer than 50 partners in their lives. 60 percent reported 100 or more. 28 percent reported a thousand or more (Table A-2). NIH researcher June Osborne notes that the NIH was repeatedly forced to redefine "multiple sex partners" for big-city gay males during the 1970's -- from 10-20 a year in 1975 to 50 a year in 1976 to 100 a year in 1978, and finally to an astounding 500 a year in 1980. "I am duly in awe," she said (quoted, Rotello, 1997, pp. 62-63).
Here, much more than with the heterosexual population, was a population which really had come close to abandoning self-restraint, seriously taken up a variant of the Playboy Philosophy, and produced a true behavioral revolution of "sex-positive" behavior with scores or hundreds of short-term couplings, but very few long-term ones. Tragically, the behavioral revolution was followed by a clinical revolution of mass diffusion of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, not all of which could be stopped with pharmaceutical silver bullets. The social-harassment costs of risky, unrestrained behavior plummeted in the 1960's; but health costs skyrocketed in the 1970's and since. <move to AIDS chapter? Gabriel Rotello (1997, Ch. 3) lists a number of perceived post-Stonewall behavioral changes among gay males contributing to the STD epidemics: choosing "versatile" anal sex over oral sex or receptive-only anal sex with straight partners; choosing multiple, concurrent contacts over single or serial monogamy; and creating cores of sexual hyperactivity with many bridges to people outside the core. Together, he argues in effect, these multiplied transmission risk by many orders of magnitude and converted many diseases from trivial-to-minor health problems to mass, gay-centered urban epidemics, one of which seems to have come close to destroying half the gay populations of the biggest cities. Among these behavior-multiplied diseases were hepatitis B, syphilis, giardiasis, shigellosis, amoebiasis, gonorrhea, and HIV. HIV incidence skyrocketed in big-city gay populations -- New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco -- from next to zero in the mid-1970's to 40-73% by 1985. Other STD's followed similar, but much less fatal trajectories. According to CDC interviews, the first several hundred gay AIDS patients averaged 1,100 sexual contacts apiece (Rotello, 1997, p. 62).
A few gay activists (Shilts, 1987; Kramer, 1993; Rotello, 1997) attacked the new, promiscuous, "sex-positive" gay life style as a deadly trap for gays. The acerbic Larry Kramer, co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis and The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up), gave a startled Playboy interviewer the bluntest of counterrevolutionary counsel for his readers. "Keep it in your pants, boys," he growled (Kramer, 1993, p. 66) -- over the stunned interviewer's protest: "We ... detect an undertone of morality."
But many other gay activists continued to defend their curb-crawling, fast-lane life style, some minimizing the threat of AIDS as "unfounded," or "a historical accident" unrelated to personal behavior; some arguing that abandonment of the "brotherhood of promiscuity" would be a "communal betrayal of gargantuan proportions;" some, like Kramer's own Gay Men's Health Crisis, attacking condoms and partner reduction as "sex-negative" (Rotello, 1997, pp. 94-107; see Shilts, 1987, Part V).>
IV. "Safe Sex" Among Male Homosexuals
Whatever gay spokesmen may have thought, there was a behavioral pullback among rank-and-file gay males in the 1980's almost as striking, in some respects, as their behavioral breakout in the 1970's. Before the AIDS breakout, many urban gays, probably badly underrepresented in the Bell and Weinberg survey but not in the NHSLS survey, already practiced "safe sex" by personal preference, limiting partners, avoiding anal sex, or using condoms. After the breakout, others seem to have followed suit, often with bitter regret. Interviewees reported a host of new behavioral constraints -- fewer, and more carefully selected partners, less use of drugs and anal sex, more use of condoms, and so on (see Los Angeles Times, 17 Aug. 1991, p. A28, c.3) -- and the interviewees were not just saying these things to make a favorable impression. Health authorities reported marked reductions in new cases of other STD's and an apparent flattening or declining growth in new AIDS cases in the late 1980's. Philpson and Posner (1993, Ch. 2) cite these trends to support their "economic" model of human behavior. Like most economists (and unlike most psychologists), Philipson and Posner argue that people are better explained and predicted as risk-balancing rational calculators of personal cost and benefit than as bundles of uncontrollable, irrational impulses.
No doubt the economists are right to a degree. But Rotello argues that rational calculation by rank-and-file gays has not been enough to stop the AIDS plague, or even to block HIV from threatening to infect half of the U.S. urban gay male population in the future, as it seems to have in the past. He notes (1997, pp. 127-130) that much of the apparent behavioral change in the 1980's may have come from "saturation" -- not so much from people making big changes in their behavior as from the high-risk-takers dying off in droves, leaving behind a residue of risk-avoiding survivors.
He also criticizes the "condom code," the gay community's preferred health strategy in the late 1980's. The code said, in effect, "don't ask or tell HIV status, but, for your own protection, try to get everyone to use a condom." Rotello thought the condom code was far too weak to stop the spread of AIDS for several reasons. Condoms fail; many still scorn them as cumbrous and "sex-negative;" most HIV-positives prefer not to disclose their condition, lest it interfere with their pleasure; people aren't always careful; "relapses" are widespread; and, in a highly infected population, all it takes is a very few departures from strict compliance to keep the plague spreading. Two-thirds of San Francisco gays in 1988, at the height of the AIDS scare, had "relapsed" to high-risk sex; 47% of Chicago gays (Rotello, 1997, Ch. 4). And a 1991 survey of data from gay cohorts in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh, all originally uninfected in 1984, showed that 46% of them had become infected by 1990 -- that is, during the peak of public AIDS apprehension (Hoover, et al. 1991). Hoover calculated that, at these post-AIDS-scare rates of infection, half of uninfected gay 20-year-olds would contract HIV by the time they were 55 (cited, Rotello, 1997, p. 121). If so, one may still wonder whether "economic rationality" has wholly won the day.
V. Did They Really Smash Monogamy?
By the indicators so far discussed, the twentieth century has produced giant sexual revolutions if you measure either by the increased percentage of men and women who have had some premarital sex or by the increased number of partners of big-city gay males. The revolutions are still visible, but not nearly so big, if you measure, as you preferably should, by the increased number of sex partners in the average man or woman's life. It makes some difference how many of us have strayed once; it makes much more practical difference whether the straying is rare or frequent, and when most of it takes place. By the last two measures, sexual behavior has been least revolutionized where it counts the most, that is, in the mutual faithfulness of married couples while they are married. This is not 100 percent, with zero outside partners. It is closer to 91-96 percent in any given year (Laumann et al., 1994, p. 190, 75-85 percent (M/F) during any given marriage (p. 216), with a median of one outside correspondent (p. 180) and no clear evidence that has gotten worse from one generation to the next (p. 216). It's hardly perfect, but it is not the smashing of monogamy either. The modern sex surveys tell us that most heterosexuals are still monogamous during most of their lives, but that male homosexuals, who may well have been mostly monogamous in Kinsey's time, have been anything but mostly monogamous since the 1960's, especially in the big cities -- though many seem to have become more restrained since the AIDS epidemic.
Stated public tolerance of homosexuality has not grown as much as stated tolerance of premarital sex. Six out of seven Americans disapproved of it in 1970, and about three out of four say they disapprove of it now. But it is hard to view the proliferation of organized gay rights groups, the repeal of sodomy laws and employment restrictions in several states, and the American Psychiatric Association's discarding of homosexuality as a treatable disease -- all of which have taken place since 1969 -- as anything but a major relaxation of public hostility toward homosexuality.
VI. Trends in Divorce, Illegitimacy, Teen Pregnancy
What about the other perceived symptoms of the end of restraint? What about the massive increases in divorce, teenage sex, and pregnancy? What about the alarmingly high, and growing illegitimacy ratios, especially those of blacks and Hispanics? What about Swedish women and American black women, with 52% and 68% of their births, respectively, being out of wedlock in the 1990's? Are these alarming indicators true? Can both they and the rather staid NHSLS findings be true simultaneously?
The short answers are: "Yes, they are true and grim, though discountable in part," and "Yes, they and the NHSLS findings can be, and probably are, true simultaneously." Conservatives, such as 1992 Republican Vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle, presented high divorce, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy ratios as shocking indicators of cultural collapse. Quayle's attack on Murphy Brown for having a TV baby out of wedlock was not enough to win the election, but the theme of cultural collapse continued to figure in such neoconservative manifestoes as William J. Bennett's Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, Charles Murray's "The Coming White Underclass," and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "Defining Deviancy Down," all of which appeared in 1993. Percentages of marriages ending in divorce had grown from ten in 1890 to 50 in 1970-80; they continue to be projected at about 50 (Nock, 1987, p. 148; Cherlin, 1992, p. 24). Among whites, illegitimate births rose from two percent of all white births in 1960 to 22 percent in 1991 -- almost the same fraction that had moved Moynihan (1965) to declare the breakdown of the black family in the 1960's. Among blacks, the illegitimacy ratio rose from 22 percent to an astonishing 68 percent in the same period, and they have continued to rise since. White single-parent families increased from ten percent of all white families in 1970 to 25 percent in 1993; Hispanic single-parent families increased from 26 percent (1980) to 35 percent of all Hispanic families -- and for blacks the increase was from 36 percent to 63 percent of all black families (U.S. Census Bureau, 1994, Table 72). Since the 1970's, a million or so U.S. teenage girls have gotten pregnant every year, the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western world, twice as high as Canada, England, or France, three times as high as Sweden. About 400,000 a year get abortions. Almost half a million give birth.
Four in five of all teenage births were illegitimate in 1994, up from only 15 percent in 1960 (See Jones et al., 1986; Hayes, Ed., 1987; Population Today, January 1997, p. 6). About two-thirds of female high-school seniors (and three-quarters of males) were sexually experienced by 1992, eleven times more than the six percent Kinsey reported of American women born before 1911 (Laumann et al., 1994, p. 324). An estimated four out of every ten American teenaged women were getting pregnant by age 20, twice the rate of 1950. Two out of ten carried the pregnancy to term; one out of the two was unmarried (Rohde, 1993, p. 311). Pregnancy and illegitimacy rates for black and Hispanic teenagers were much higher than those for teenagers generally.
For conservatives and for some centrist liberals, these are unmistakable signs of moral collapse. The fraction of children raised in fatherless households quadrupled, from 6 percent of all children in 1950 to 26 percent in 1994 (Los Angeles Times, 24 Apr. 1995, p. A17, c. 1). Such children were six times more likely than two-parent children to grow up in poverty, two or three times more likely to grow up with emotional problems, more likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, get in trouble with the law, get pregnant as teenagers, and have fatherless children themselves (Whitehead, 1993, McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). Social science seemed to have borne out Moynihan's grim 1965 prediction:
From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young women to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations toward the future -- that authority asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure -- that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable (reprinted Moynihan, 1973, p. 76.)
But such manifestoes were also vigorously challenged. Many liberals and feminists winced at Moynihan's talk of "broken families, dominated by women" and of "stable relationship to male authority." They were almost as dismissive of the Moynihan of the 1990's for pushing "moralism" and "paternalistic rule" as they had been in the 1960's for his "blaming the victim" (Ryan, 1971). "Problematic for whom?" the revisionists have asked, in effect, of teenage unmarried pregnancy, "under what circumstances, and compared to what?" Maybe the problems are not intrinsic to fatherless homes, but are more the result of other, deeper, social pathologies, such as "structural" poverty, the drying up of the supply of suitable working-class husbands, or patriarchalism itself. Maybe from the teenage girl's own perspective the results aren't as bad as they are made out to be. After all, does postponing pregnancy till you are in your twenties, educated, married, and employed in a nice white-collar job make any sense if all of these hopes are empty ones for an inner-city girl, and the true odds are that you will be just about as uneducated, unemployable, and unmarriageable in your twenties as you were in your teens? If a teenage girl's real choice is not between having fatherless children now and fathered ones later, but between having fatherless children now and no children ever, who would deny herself, or even delay for herself, the comforts of motherhood, especially if there is an AFDC subsidy attached to it? See, for example, Pearce, 1993; Macintyre and Cunningham-Burley, 1993; Phoenix, 1993; and Simms, 1993, p. 249.
Some not-so-enlightened people might wonder which of these revisionist writers, having shown that the flap over teen pregnancy could be nothing but alarmist moralizing by the Dan Quayles of the world, would actually urge their teenage daughters (or anyone else's) to go out and have a baby? Certainly not Margaret Simms, the Rohde group's principal black activist, who viewed the controversy "with amazement" and cited studies showing that completing high school doubled one's earnings, and completing college almost doubled them again (1993, pp. 242, 250). But there are several grains of truth in the revisionist case which need to be considered.
For one thing, if the NHSLS is right, the "moral collapse" interpretation gives an exaggerated impression of the growth in teenage sexual license since the 1950's. As we have seen, the NHSLS did show a revolutionary-looking rise through the 1970's in the percentage of Americans who had had premarital sex, but a much less revolutionary-looking rise in the median number of partners, the latter showing some promiscuity differences between different generations, and between blacks and whites of the same generation, but nothing like the differences that one finds, say, between white males and white females of any given generation, or between homosexual and heterosexual males of any given color. Sexual initiation, on average, comes a year or so earlier now than it did in the 1950's, but, again, the change does not seem revolutionary. The mean age at first sexual intercourse -- about 19 for white females, 18 for white males born in the 1940's, 17 for black females, and 16 for black males -- converged to about 18 for white males and females born in the 1960's, stayed at 17 for black females, and declined moderately to 15+ for black males. This led Laumann et al. to declare: "If one looks to figure 9.1 for evidence of ... a sexual revolution, it will not be found (Laumann et al., 1994, p. 325, emphasis original)."
By the same token, U.S. teenage pregnancy rates, though the highest in the developed world (twice as high as the runner-up U.K.), and slightly higher in the 1990's than they were in the 1980's, were nonetheless almost 40 percent lower in the 1990's than they were at the peak of the baby boom in 1957, before teen pregnancy had come to be seen as a national crisis. Similarly, illegitimacy ratios have risen vertiginously since 1960, from 5 percent total to 31 percent total in 1993; from 2 percent to 24 percent for whites; and from about 26 percent for blacks to 69 percent. But rates of illegitimate births per thousand women of childbearing age have risen more slowly. While the overall ratio of illegitimate births to legitimate increased about sixfold (from 5 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 1993) the overall rate of illegitimate births per never-married woman merely doubled, from 21.6 per thousand to 45.3 per thousand. While the white illegitimacy ratio increased more than tenfold, from 2.3 percent in 1960 to 24 percent in 1993, the white illegitimacy rate "only" quadrupled, from 9.2 per thousand to 35.9 per thousand never-married white women. The black illegitimacy ratio increased 2.6-fold, from 26 percent to an astonishing 69 percent; the black illegitimacy rate has fluctuated roughly between 80 and 100 per thousand never-married black women since 1970 and is currently below its 1970 level. Teen mothers' percentage of all illegitimate births has dropped 40 percent since 1970, from half of all illegitimate births in 1970 to only 30 percent in the 1990's.
The problem is not so much that teenagers are more promiscuous or more likely to get pregnant than they were in the 1950's as that they are much less likely to get married, especially if they are poor, black, Hispanic, or inner-city, than they once were. Besides their growing avoidance of marriage in the first place, Americans also have the highest divorce rates in the world, half again as high as the UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden.
The net results, even after much discounting and viewing from whatever less harsh perspectives one can think up, are still grim, especially for blacks and Hispanics. It is true, in a sense, that divorce over decades may not have done much more than offset death as a family disrupter. Thanks to declining death rates, 50-year-old ever-married women were only five percent less likely to be living with their first husbands in 1980 than they were in 1910; 60-year-old women were seven percent more likely to be living with their first husbands (Nock, 1987, p. 77). But the fraction of their lives that women can expect to live married or remarried has declined seriously for whites and more than seriously for blacks. At 1945-1950 rates, white women could expect to spend 54 percent of their lives in an intact marriage or remarriage; at 1795-1980 rates, the married percentage was only 43 percent. For black women, the respective married percentages were 40 and 22, the latter about equal to the percentage that a college-educated person spends in school (Cherlin, 1992, p. 95).
Impacts on children have been especially grim. Where in 1959 almost 80 percent of young (under six) black children grew up with two parents, close to 60 percent in the 1990's were being raised by only one parent (Bronfenbrenner et al., p. 96). The corresponding increase of young white children in single-parent households has been less steep, roughly doubling since 1959, but the absolute numbers of young, single-parented white children -- 3.9 million in 1994 -- equalled that of young, single-parented black and Hispanic children combined (2.5 and 1.2 million, respectively; see Bronfenbrenner, et al., 1996, p. 97).
A final discount takes its cue from one of Procter Thomson's laws "Nothing is either good or bad but alternatives make it so." The revisionists ask, in effect, "terrible compared to what?" Have social critics, by choosing an abstemious, perhaps atypical 19th-century Victorian baseline (rather than a self-indulgent Georgian one) by which to judge 20th-century trends in premarital sex, or a low, 1950's baseline (rather than a high 1940's one) to judge divorce trends? Or a low, 1980's-level teenage birthrate, rather than a high, 1950's-level one? In each of these cases, often more because of easy data availability than from any desire to mislead, the past may have been made to look more like a golden age than it actually was, and the present more degraded by comparison. Liberal feminists like Stephanie Coontz (1988, 1992), Arline Skolnick (1991), and Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg (1988) tend to look on the Victorian era and the 1950's as aberrational, mythical "nostalgia traps," which in reality were more abusive, confining, and oppressive of women than one might think from memories of Mom, Dad, Grandma, and the Ozzie and Harriet show.
Even not-so-liberal, not-so-feminist observers have to be impressed by the extent to which prostitution, or "commercial sex work," as it is now politely called, has dropped from sight. In its heyday(s) it must have had many of the same epidemiological features for heterosexual males and their partners that have made HIV a scourge for gay males since the 1960's: high-activity urban cores, bridges, multiple, concurrent, transitory contacts, high-risk behaviors, and so on (Rotello, 1997, ch. 3). Experts then blamed it (probably correctly) for millions more cases of gonorrhea and syphilis than the gay fast lane could possibly be producing today. But it gave way, not so much to episodic public-health and public-morality crusades against red-light districts (though there were plenty of these) as to the sexual revolution and its attendant, pre-emptive tide of companionate, amateur competition (see Brandt, 1988, ch. 2-5, esp. pp. 167-78). By the 1940's, Kinsey was reporting 69 percent of American males as having found sexual "outlet" with prostitutes at some point in their lives by age 45 (1948, p. 598), yet only 3-4 percent of reported heterosexual male coitus was with prostitutes (1948, p. 489). By the late 1980's, contacts with prostitutes, while still important enough to show up in the tabloids, had gotten so rare that major sex surveys (for example, Michael et al., 1988, Klassen, et al., 1989, Laumann et al., 1994) stopped counting them separately. Not a single one of Michael's 1,481 NORC respondents (1988) reported any sexual partnerships for pay during the previous year (1987). If Potterat et al. (1990, p. 241) are right in estimating that only about one woman in 260 was a prostitute in 1986 -- that is, about half as many prostitutes as there were psychologists at the time to study and counsel them -- this is not a surprising result. Good data on prostitution is hard to get these days, partly because it is clandestine, but perhaps partly because it is rarer now than it was in the good old days. Social historians and social scientists guess that prostitutes are much less legally tolerated, concentrated, and visible than they once were (Miller et al., 1993); and that they may be catering to a narrower, kinkier clientele (Posner, 1992, pp. 130-32). Maybe it's just a sign, to invoke the quaint cost calculations of Kinsey's sensualist male respondents, that the public could now afford to move upscale with its sex partnerships, replacing low-cost, no-maintenance, performance-guaranteed market liaisons with higher-cost, higher-maintenance personal ones with no guarantee of a coital quo for all the suitor's costly quids. If so, one might wonder fleetingly, if Kinsey's respondents had the costs and benefits figured right, why males were willing to make such a costly change-- and then to wonder whether anyone would consider the change damaging, on balance, to the public's health or morals?
VIII. Earlier Times Compared
How do these practices and trends compare to those of earlier centuries? We hardly know. Modern surveys may be thinner and more challengeable than we might wish, but they are orders of magnitude better than the bits and scraps we have of what went before: an nth-degree grab sample of parish records and old writings. But at least we can say that there are two schools of thought on the "modern, nuclear, companionate family." The first, represented by historians Lawrence Stone and Edward Shorter, sees it as a fleeting historical curiosity, a "most restricted and unusual phenomenon" which arrived in Western Europe and North America in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, perhaps as an effect of "capitalism," perhaps as a cause, flourished for a while, but now seems to be "crumbling" and giving way to something new (Stone, 1979, p. 428; Shorter, 1975, p. 273). The second school, represented by historians Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, by social commentator Ferdinand Mount (1992), and supported by many lesser-known history specialists, is more inclined to see the nuclear, companionate family as a universal social unit, present in all known societies, prevalent in about half, and predominant in Western Europe since long before the Industrial Revolution (Laslett, ed., 1972, esp. pp. 8-9). <Distinguish 19th-c concept of breadwinner H, housewife W, Skolnick, Kingley Davis*> Much of the detailed evidence seems more favorable to the "universal social unit" school, but few people seem to think it has been definitively resolved, or will be soon -- in part, perhaps, because the sweeping "historical curiosity" version is easier to follow. If the "modern" family is as old, persistent, and widespread as the "universal social unit" school would have it, it might well be less in a crumbling state than the "historical curiosity" school would have it. <Give more detailed description of differences between "modern" and "premodern" families?*>
Regardless of which school is right about the age and persistence of the "modern family," one can find a lot of overlap between their estimated trends in premarital conceptions and illegitimacy in the last four centuries, and perhaps make some guesses from it as to how "revolutionized" we are compared to our less immediate ancestors. In England around 1600, about 30 percent of births were conceived before marriage, and two or three percent were illegitimate. These fell to 16 percent and one percent, respectively, by 1660, then rose to 37 percent and six percent by 1850 (Laslett, et al., 1980, pp. 16-24). Other European countries seem to have followed the same upward path in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Laslett et al., 1980, p. 26), though some, such as Iceland and Austria, wound up with much higher illegitimacy ratios than others, such as England and Ireland (Laslett et al., 1980, p. 12). Shorter, relying primarily on French records and social commentaries, likewise found a rising trend in these measures of premarital and unmarried sex. He furnished a schematized -- but not quantified -- chart similar to Laslett's of the ups and downs of sexual indulgence, so measured, from 1550 to 1975 (1977, Ch. 3; see Figure 3-1, p. 81). He concluded from it that a "First Sexual Revolution" took place in Europe after 1750. Ordinary people, who (in the "historical novelty" version) had theretofore known little sex outside of marriage, and only a rather joyless, perfunctory version of it in dreary, arranged marriages, must suddenly have gotten with it and discovered the joys of sexual indulgence, romantic love, and companionate, nuclear families. No matter how prudish Victorians might seem to us today, Shorter's and Laslett's figures suggest, more of them showed signs of sexual license than was true of their notorious, rakehell, Restoration predecessor generations. <* drop? recheck? Lawrence Stone argues a more cyclical course for England, generally repressive from 1530 to 1670, permissive from 1670 to 1790, and turning repressive again after 1790 (Stone, 1979, Ch. 11, 12, see summary, p. 422).> Though Laslett's English illegitimacy ratios seemed to rise and fall together with his premarital-conceptions ratios, and though they showed a rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries much like Shorter's in France, Laslett warned that they constituted a "very shaky foundation" for estimating trends in extramarital sex, since they could be produced by "something like a subpopulation of the illegitimacy-prone," whose size or behavior might have changed independently of the general population. Laslett considered Shorter's arguments that illegitimacy or premarital conception records showed a sexual revolution "ambitious but unpersuasive" (1977, pp. 106, 113).
Both schools considered America a special case, though for different reasons. Shorter described Americans as "born modern," more companionate and sexually demonstrative (if not more permissive) than the yet-to-be-Revolutionized Europeans -- even in the days when the Americans were still burning witches, flogging and fining fornicators, threatening bastards with 20 or 30 years of forced servitude, and presuming that mothers of dead newborn bastards had murdered them (Shorter, 1977, p. 65; Wells, 1980, pp. 358-60).
Laslett collaborator Daniel Scott Smith was skeptical of Shorter's sweeping model of sexual revolution in Europe (Smith, 1980, p. 362-63), and had no need to make an exception of it for America. Smith's American records, like those for other countries, showed an eighteenth-century increase in premaritally conceived births for whites -- from eight percent before 1680 to 33 percent in 1800 -- with very wide variances, reported by David Hackett Fischer (1989, p. 813), among the four main streams of early white immigrants. Delaware Valley Quakers and New England Puritans had low rates of 5-15 percent and 10-20 percent premarital conceptions, respectively. Tidewater Virginians and Backcountry Southern Highlanders had very high respective rates of 20-40 percent and 40 percent. But, unlike other countries -- and to Shorter's disbelief -- Smith's upward eighteenth-century American trend turned down sharply in the nineteenth century, falling to thirteen percent by 1841-80 before rising again to 24 percent in 1881-1910 (Smith, 1980, p. 370). American illegitimacy ratios in the eighteenth century and after the Civil War seem to have been about one or two percent, well below the five or six percent found in England and Wales at the time(s) (Smith, 1980, p. 372; Wells, 1980, pp. 354-55; Laslett et al., 1980, p. 18) and very far below the 30-plus-percent ratios found in the U.S. in the 1990's.
If there is a discernible bottom line to all of this, it is something like this: America has not always had the highest teen pregnancy or illegitimacy rates in the world. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, its illegitimacy ratios were among the lowest in the Western world. Opinions differ as to whether the "modern" companionate, nuclear family was a historical oddity in Europe, but everyone agrees that North America had it from the Pilgrims on. Judging by "early" first births to whites, Americans have always had premarital sex, but at varying rates -- low (eight percent) in the seventeenth century, high (33 percent) by 1800, low (13 percent) by the Civil War, and middling (24 percent) by the end of the century -- the last being just about what it was in the 1960's and 1970's, despite improvements in contraceptives (Smith, 1980, p. 368). Early-birth rates for married blacks have historically been at least twice as high as for whites (Smith, 1980, pp. 367-68); historic black illegitimacy rates and ratios have also been much higher than those of whites, as they are today. But historic black marriage rates until recently have been similar to those of whites (Guttman, 1976).
Americans do more dating now than they did a century ago; they have more premarital sex, more cohabitation; their first sexual intercourse is up to a year earlier than it was in the 1950's; and many more of their marriages end in divorce. But their average number of sex partners from age 18 on seems to be only about two for women, six for men, with remarkably narrow variation by income, education, religion, or race. The average white woman now spends about the same number of years with her first husband as she did in 1910, thanks to a rough balance between increasing divorce and decreasing death rates, but now, thanks in part to reduced mortality, she will spend only 43 percent of her life married. In the 1940's it was 54 percent. Black women, by contrast, spent 40 percent of their lives married in the 1940's, but only 22 percent in the 1990's. (Cherlin, 1992, p. 95; see Nock, 1987, p. 77). Prostitution lingers on, but it is too rare today to show up in sex surveys.
The most striking and significant sexual shifts are not so much the ones in the middle of the curve as the ones at the tail of the curve -- the great leap of big-city male homosexuals toward, and then back from, an unreservedly "sex-positive" lifestyle, and the wholesale abandonment of marriage by blacks, and by an alarming and growing fraction of poor whites. If the family is truly crumbling, and the life of most gay males in grave jeopardy, it is these massive revolutions among minorities, perhaps more than smaller revolutions among the majority, that are generating most of the serious impact. <say something about Defining Deviancy Down>