American Demographics and a Sketch of Diversity, Change, and Social Conflict

A. A Demographic Overview

In one sense, great diversity is virtually guaranteed by the sheer size of the United States. The U.S.A. is a union of fifty participating states. It is one of the larger nations in the world, with the forty-eight contiguous states spanning more than three thousand miles across the North American continent, from its eastern shores on the Atlantic Ocean to its western shores on the Pacific Ocean, and more than two thousand miles from its northern border with Canada to its southern border with Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the state of Alaska, itself a large landmass covering thousands of square miles in the northwest corner of North America, and the state of Hawaii, a collection of islands in the mid-Pacific Ocean, are part of the union.

The U.S.A. has a population of more than 260 million racially and ethnically heterogeneous people (Wilkinson 1987; World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1993). A majority, about 161 million or two thirds, are white descendants of immigrants from the European continent, with sizable groups from Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Poland. The second-largest group, roughly 29 million or 12 percent, is African-American, most of whose ancestors were brought to North America as slaves before the twentieth century. The third-largest group, 22 million or 9 percent, is comprised of Hispanic-Americans, whose ancestors emigrated from such places as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, as well as other Central and South American nations. Hispanics represent the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S.A.. There are also more than two million Native Americans - Eskimos, Aleuts, and those mistakenly at one time called Indians - whose ancestors have occupied North America for thousands of years, and whose residence within the boundaries of what is now the U.S.A. predates all of the other groups mentioned.

Another group experiencing rapid growth in recent decades is Asian-Americans; there are now more than three million residents of Asian heritage. Substantial populations of Japanese and Chinese immigrants have been in the U.S.A. since the nineteenth century. More recently, there has been an increase from such nations as India, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Finally, there are smaller groups of immigrants from virtually every nation, with growing numbers of Moslems in recent decades. The size of the various nonwhite minority groups has been increasing in the last thirty years, both in terms of real numbers and as a percentage of the total U.S.A. population (Wilkinson 1987; World Almanac 1993).

It is fair to conclude that the U.S.A. is generally a nation of former immigrants. Moreover, one continuing feature of American history has been the successive immigration of different groups at different points in time (Wells 1985).

Approximately two thirds of the population lives within one hundred miles of one of the coastal shorelines. Most of the largest metropolitan areas lie within these coastal areas, and it is worth noting that most sexologists in the U.S.A. also reside in these same areas.

The U.S.A. is somewhat unique among the world's economies in that it is simultaneously one of the largest agricultural producers as well as one of the largest industrialized nations, exporting manufactured goods and technology to the rest of the world. Historically, the northeast and upper midwest have been the principal industrial centers, and the southeast and the central Great Plains have been the agricultural centers.

One of the economically richest nations in the world, America, nevertheless, has an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 individuals and 125,000 to 150,000 families homeless on any night. Overall, 15 percent of Americans - 30 percent of the poor - are without health insurance. Infant-mortality rates and life-expectancy rates vary widely, depending on socioeconomic status and residence in urban, suburban, or rural settings. Fifty-two million American married couples are paralleled by 2.8 million unmarried households and close to 8 million single-parent families.

In summarizing aspects of sexuality in America, it is helpful to keep in mind that the United States of the twenty-first century will look profoundly different from the nation described in this chapter. Four major trends for the future have been detailed in Population Profile of the United States (1995), published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

· The average life expectancy for an American in 1900 was 47 years. An American born in 1970 had a life expectancy of 70.8 years. This rose to 76 years in 1993 and is projected to reach 82.6 years by 2050.

· The median age of Americans is currently 34; early in the next century, it will be 39. There are currently 33 million Americans over 65; this number will more than double to 80 million in 2050.

· America's ethnic minorities will continue to grow far more quickly than the majority white population, due to immigration and higher birthrates. In 1994, for the first time, more Hispanics than whites were added to the population. If current trends hold, the percentage of white Americans will decline from 73.7 percent in 1995 to 52.5 percent in 2050.

· In 1994, 24 percent of all children under age 18 (18.6 million) lived with a single parent, double the percent in 1970. Of these single parents, 36 percent had never been married, up 50 percent from 1985. Meanwhile, the number of unmarried cohabiting couples increased 700 percent in the past decade.

There is also great diversity in religious affiliation in the U.S.A. (Marciano 1987; see Section 2A). To a considerable degree, the choice of religious denomination is directly related to the ethnic patterns previously described. The overwhelming majority of Americans represent the Judeo-Christian heritage, but that statement is potentially misleading. Within the Judeo-Christian heritage, there are substantial populations of Roman Catholics, mainstream Protestants (Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, and others), and a growing number of fundamentalist Christians. There is no great uniformity in religious practice or sexual mores shared by these various groups. In addition, there is a relatively small percentage of Americans who are Jewish and range from ultra-orthodox to conservative, reformed, and liberal. In recent decades, as immigration from Asia has increased, there has been a corresponding growth in the Moslem and Hindu faiths.

Several trends related to the practice of religion in the U.S.A. have become a source of recent social concern. These trends include: the declining attendance at the traditional Protestant and Catholic churches, in what has been labeled the growing “secularization” of American culture; the “religious revivalism” reflected by the growth of fundamentalist churches; the growth of religious cults (e.g., Hare Krishna and the Unification Church); the growing power of the conservative Christian Coalition; and the emergence of the “Electronic Church” (religious broadcasting) (Marciano 1987). Throughout the history of this nation, diversity of religious beliefs and the separation of church and state have been central elements in conflicts over sexual morality.

The subcultures and peoples of the United States are as varied, diverse, and complex as any other large nation. The unique feature of sexuality in the United States is that we have far more information and data on American sexual attitudes, values, and behaviors than is available for any other country.

B. A Sketch of Recent Diversity, Change, and Social Conflict

A few examples will illustrate some of the issues that have been affected by this complex of influences.

· Dr. Joycelyn Elders was fired in late 1994 as the Surgeon General of the United States for saying that children perhaps should be taught in school about masturbation. Elders, who was called the “Condom Queen” by conservatives in the United States, had become what the press described as a “political liability” to President Bill Clinton for expressing her views on controversial social issues, such as abortion, condom education for youth, and drug legalization (Cohn 1994). However, her firing was a direct reaction to comments she made about including masturbation as a part of sex-education programs for children. Elders made her comments on December 1, 1994, in an address to a World AIDS Day conference in New York City. In response to a question from the audience about her views on masturbation, Elders said, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the very basics.” She added, “I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time, and it's time we try education” (Hunt 1994). In announcing her dismissal, the Clinton administration pointedly indicated that the President disagreed with her views.

· After decades of explicitly banning homosexuals from the military, President Clinton proposed ending the ban shortly after he assumed office. Eventually, the policy put into place, popularly known as “Don't ask, don't tell,” was one in which the military agreed that they would stop asking recruits to report their sexual orientation. However, gays and lesbians can only serve in the armed forces if they keep their orientation private (Newsweek 1993, 6). In 1996, with the state of Hawaii on the verge of granting legal status to same-sex unions, several states moved quickly to enact laws banning the legal recognition of such unions, despite the Constitutional requirement that all states reciprocally recognize the legal acts of other states. In June 1996, a House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would absolve individual states from recognizing same-sex marriages if legalized in another state. The bill would also bar Federal recognition of such marriages in procedures involving taxes, pensions, and other benefits. Despite emotional debate in Congress, the measure cleared both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Although the President signed the bill into law, this debate remained a lightening-rod issue (Schmitt 1996).

· In late 1993, the book, Private Parts, by radio disc-jockey Howard Stern (1993), the inventor of “Shock Rock” radio, was published. Stern's radio shows had had a large audience across the U.S.A. for more than a decade. He had been strongly condemned by some for the sexual explicitness of his shows and criticized by others for the sexist nature of those same shows. On several occasions, his shows had been investigated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Private Parts, a lurid account of Stern's shows and his sexual fantasies, was roundly criticized. However, it was also the best-selling book in the U.S.A. in 1993 (Adler 1994).

· In 1993, the state of Idaho passed a law banning thong bikinis at exotic-dancing establishments (topless dancing had already been outlawed). One result was a series of protests outside the state legislature (Newsweek 1993, 6).

· There is a growing wave of censorship being engineered by grassroots far-right organizations targeting, in particular, sexuality-education textbooks and programs in local school districts throughout the country. Fear of personal attacks, disruption, controversy, and costly lawsuits have resulted in more teachers, administrators, and school boards yielding to the demands of vocal minority groups. In more than a third of documented incidents, challenged materials and programs were either removed, canceled, or replaced with abstinence-only material or curricula (Sedway 1992). In mid-1996, a three-judge federal panel declared unconstitutional major parts of a new law intended to regulate “indecent” and “patently offensive” speech on the Internet, including information on abortion. Even as the judges described attempts to regulate content on the Internet as a “profoundly repugnant” affront to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, the government planned an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both the Senate and House of Representatives had overwhelmingly passed the bill that included the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and the President signed it into law. As of March 1997, the CDA is going to the Supreme Court, with a decision expected in June.

· The term “sexual harassment” did not appear in American culture until around 1975. In the years since, there has been a tremendous growth in research on the problem and growing social conflict over its prevalence and definition. As late as 1991, when Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, only 29 percent of Americans believed her claims (Solomon and Miller 1994). Yet the number of women filing claims doubled in the 1990s, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that harassment could be determined if a worker demonstrated that the workplace environment was “hostile” or “abusive” to a “reasonable person” (Kaplan 1993). Workers would no longer have to demonstrate that severe psychological injury had occurred as a consequence. Similar controversies over definitions, prevalence, and credibility of claims have emerged with the issues of incest, child sexual abuse, and date or acquaintance rape.

· By the middle of the 1990s, seven physicians and clinical staff members had been killed by anti-abortion activists. Over 80 percent of abortion providers in the U.S.A. have been picketed, and many have experienced other forms of harassment, including bomb and death threats, blockades, invasion of facilities, destruction of property, and assaults on patients and staff. The most recent tactic adopted by abortion opponents is to locate women who have had a bad experience with an abortion in order to persuade them to file a malpractice suit against the physician who performed the abortion.

· In mid-1995, Norma Leah McCorvey, the Jane Roe at the epicenter of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, announced she had quit her work at a Dallas, Texas, abortion clinic, had been baptized in a swimming pool by a minister of Operation Rescue, a national anti-abortion group, and would be working at the Operation Rescue office next door to the abortion clinic. Although there is “immense symbolic importance” in McCorvey's announcement, it is odd that the born-again-Christian Operation Rescue group would embrace her so enthusiastically, given her declarations that she still believes “a woman has a right to have an abortion, a safe and legal abortion, in the first trimester” of pregnancy, and that she would continue living with her lesbian partner and working for lesbian rights (Verhovek 1995). In mid-1996, abortion again emerged as a major election issue when Robert Dole, the Republican Party candidate for president, called for a statement of tolerance in the Republican platform, a move vehemently opposed by conservative Republicans. Also in mid-1996, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second largest religious denomination, called for a boycott of Walt Disney Company stores and theme parks to protest the company's “anti-Christian and anti-family trend” in extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Each of the above incidents serves as an intriguing indicator of the state of sexuality in the United States, and each also reveals much about the interaction of politics and sexual issues as we approach the end of the twentieth century. They demonstrate that, despite the immense social changes that have occurred during this century, a strong element of religious fundamentalism and conservatism remain active within the culture. In fact, a full explanation of sexuality in the United States requires an understanding of the diverse sexual, social, and political ideologies characterizing the culture, and the ongoing conflict between various groups over those ideologies.

In this respect, there is a rather schizophrenic character to sexuality in the United States. On the one hand, the U.S.A. is a country with a multi-billion-dollar-a-year erotica/pornography business; a mass-media system where movies, television, books, magazines, and popular music are saturated with sexually titillating content alongside serious educational material; a high rate of premarital sex (nearly 90 percent by the 1990s); one of the most active and open gay-rights movements in the world; and a continuing public fascination with unusual sexual practices, extramarital sex, and gender-orientation issues, including, most recently, bisexuality.

On the other hand, federal, state, and local governments have invested heavily in recent years in prosecuting businesses for obscenity, allowed discriminatory practices based on sexual orientation, largely failed to implement comprehensive sexuality-education programs in the schools, and refused to support accessibility to contraceptives for adolescents. The consequences of these failures include one of the highest teenage-pregnancy and abortion rates in the world and increasing incidents of gay-bashing that reflect the prevalence of homonegative and homophobic attitudes in the U.S.A.

These examples illustrate one of the major themes in this chapter: the changing nature of sexuality in the U.S.A. throughout the twentieth century. Although accounts of changing sexual norms and practices are frequently portrayed as occurring in a linear process, we would suggest that the more-typical pattern is one reflected by ongoing conflicts between competing groups over sexual ideology and practice. Each of the examples cited is an illustration of how those conflicts are currently manifested in the social and political arenas in the U.S.A.

A focus on the conflict between groups with contrasting ideologies and agendas over sexual issues will be a second theme of this chapter. This process of changing sexual attitudes, practices, and policies in an atmosphere that approaches “civil war” is a reflection of the tremendous diversity within American culture. In many respects, the widespread conflict over sexual issues is a direct outcome of the diversity of groups holding a vested interest in the outcomes of these conflicts, with some groups seeking to impose their beliefs on everyone.

The diversity of these groups will be the third major theme of the chapter. One example that will be apparent throughout this chapter is the question of gender. There is growing evidence that men and women in the U.S.A. tend to hold different sexual attitudes and ideologies, to exhibit different patterns of sexual behavior, and to pursue different sexual lifestyles - frequently at odds with each other (Oliver and Hyde 1993). In some ways, it may even be useful to view male and female perspectives as stemming from distinct gender cultures. In reviewing sexuality in the U.S.A., we will frequently attempt to assess how change occurs in a context of conflict between diverse social groups.