1. Basic Sexological Premises

This overall theme of social change occurring in a process of conflict between diverse groups is woven throughout the history of the U.S.A. itself. There are at least two ways in which a study of history is important to an understanding of contemporary sexological premises and sexual patterns in the U.S.A. First, there is a specific history of sexual norms and customs changing over time. To the extent that sexual attitudes and practices are shared by the members of a social group or population in a particular time period, they can be viewed as social institutions. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult to describe such sexual institutions in the U.S.A. prior to the twentieth century, because there are few reliable empirical data sets available for that period. To a large extent, we have to rely on records of what people said about their own or others' sexual attitudes and practices, and such statements may be suspect. Still, it seems reasonable to suggest that current sexual norms and customs have been shaped, at least in part, by earlier patterns.

In addition, there is a second way in which the general social history of the U.S.A. is important to understanding changing sexual institutions. Sexuality, like other social institutions, does not operate in a vacuum. It is related to and influenced by other social institutions, such as the economy, government, marriage and the family, religion, and education, as well as social patterns such as age distributions and gender ratios. As we will discuss in Section 2, a good deal of research evidence indicates that such social institutions are often related to various sexual variables. Researchers have not consistently tested these associations, but the point is a crucial one theoretically for explaining the dynamics of sexual processes in a culture as large and diverse as the U.S.A.

A. From Colonial Times to the Industrial Revolution

In 1776, at the time of the War for American Independence, the U.S.A. became a nation of thirteen states located along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the inhabitants of the former British colonies were of English descent, and they tended to be Protestant. Although the first Africans had been brought to America as indentured servants as early as 1620, the practice of slavery quickly evolved. By the time of independence, an active slave trade involving hundreds of thousands of Africans and Caribbeans was well established. Of course, the Africans and Caribbeans brought their own customs with them, although they were frequently prevented from practicing them. West of the thirteen original states, the remainder of the North American continent within the area now constituting the nation was inhabited by several million Native Americans representing hundreds of tribes, each with its own set of customs.

At its birth, the U.S.A. was essentially an agrarian society. More than 90 percent of the population were farmers. There were few cities with as many as 5,000 residents. Boston was the largest city with 16,000, and New York was the second largest with 13,000 (Reiss 1980). The Industrial Revolution had yet to begin. Few men, and virtually no women, were employed outside the family home. Although it has become common to think of the twentieth-century pattern of role specialization, with the man serving as the family provider and the woman as the housekeeper and child-care provider, as the traditional American pattern, it did not characterize this early-American agrarian family. Family tasks tended to be performed out of necessity, with both men and women making direct and important contributions to the economic welfare of their families. Sexual norms and practices in early America arose in this social context.

The images of early-American sexuality in folklore are those of antihedonistic Puritanism and sexually repressed Victorianism. In popular culture, these terms have come to be associated with sexual prudishness. This view is oversimplistic and potentially misleading. Recent scholars (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Robinson 1976; Seidman 1991) tend to agree that sexuality was valued by the eighteenth-century Puritans and nineteenth-century Victorians within the context of marriage. To the Puritans, marriage was viewed as a spiritual union, and one that tended to emphasize the duties associated with commitment to that union. Marriage involved mutual affection and respect, and the couple was viewed as a primary social unit. Spouses were expected to fulfill reciprocal duties. One of these was sexual expression. No marriage was considered complete unless it was consummated sexually. The Puritans accepted erotic pleasure, as long as it promoted the mutual comfort and affection of the conjugal pair. The reciprocal duties of marital sexuality were justified, because they were seen as preventing individuals from becoming preoccupied with carnal desires and the temptation to practice improper sex outside of marriage (Seidman 1991). Of course, one of the principal functions of marital sex was reproduction. Pleasure alone did not justify sexual union. Instead, the regulation of sexual behavior reinforced the primacy of marital reproductive sex and the need for children (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988).

Within this context, it is certainly true that the early English settlers tried to regulate nonmarital forms of sexual expression. However, even this point can be exaggerated. Reiss (1980) has noted that Americans have always had a courtship system where individuals were free to select partners of their own choice. To some extent, this may have been due to necessities imposed by immigration to frontier territories, but it also was a consequence of the freedom settlers had from the institutions of social control found in Europe. Elsewhere, Reiss (1960; 1967) has maintained that such autonomy in courtship is associated with greater premarital sexual permissiveness.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the settlers in New England developed the practice of bundling as a form of courtship. In colonial New England, settlers faced harsh winters. They commonly faced fuel shortages, and mechanized transportation forms had yet to be developed. Single men would travel miles to visit the home of an eligible female. Typically, they would spend the night before returning home the next day. Few New England homes of the period had multiple rooms for housing a guest, and few could heat the house for an entire twenty-four-hour day. At night, the woman's family would bundle the man and the woman separately in blankets, and they would spend the night together talking to each other as they shared the same bed. It is worth noting that the practice of bundling was restricted to winters. Reiss (1980) has argued that the implicit understanding that the couple would avoid a sexual encounter was not always honored. In fact, a study of marriages in Groton, Massachusetts, from 1761 to 1775 found that one third of the women were pregnant at the time of their weddings (cited in Reiss 1980). This system was acceptable because betrothals were rarely broken at the time and because it served to produce the marital unions the Puritans valued so highly. Eventually, bundling was replaced by visits in the sitting parlors of nineteenth-century homes and by the practice of dating outside parental supervision in the twentieth century (Reiss 1980).

Around 1800, the Industrial Revolution began changing this world, albeit gradually. In the two centuries since, virtually every aspect of American life has been transformed. The nineteenth century was marked by social turmoil, a frontier mentality open to radical change, and a resulting patchquilt of conflicting trends and values. Among the events that left their mark on American culture in the nineteenth century were the following:

· The century started with 16 states and ended with 45 states; the 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled the country's size. Victory in the War of 1812 with England and a war with Mexico also added territory.

· A Victorian ethic dominated the country. Preachers and health advocates, like Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg, promoted a fear of sexual excesses, such as sex before age 30 or more than once in three years, and a paranoia about the dangers of masturbation.

· Despite a dominant conservative trend and three major economic depressions, small religious groups pioneered a variety of marital and communal lifestyles, and had an influence far beyond their tiny numbers. The Perfectionist Methodists of the Oneida Community (1831-1881) endorsed women's rights and group marriage; the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) practiced polygyny; Protestant Hutterites celebrated the communal life; and the Shakers and Harmony Community promoted a celibate lifestyle.

· In 1837, the first colleges for women opened.

· In 1848, the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York.

· A midcentury California gold rush and completion of the transcontinental railroad opened the west to an explosive growth. San Francisco, for example, doubled its population from 400 to 810 between 1847 and 1857; four years later, its population was 25,000. A major shortage of women led to importing thousands of women from Mexico, Chile, China, and the Pacific islands, with widespread prostitution.

· In 1861-1865, a devastating Civil War led to the abolition of slavery, as well as to new opportunities for employment, such as secretaries using the new mass-produced typewriters, and nurses using the skills they developed when they took care of the wounded in the Civil War.

· In 1869, the Territory of Wyoming gave women the vote.

· In 1873, the Comstock Law prohibited mailing obscene literature, including information about marital sex and contraception; it was finally declared unconstitutional a century later.

· In the latter part of the 1800s, a few thousand Americans were part of an influential “free love” movement, which advocated sexual freedom for women, the separation of sex and reproduction, the intellectual equality of women and men, self-health and knowledge of one's own body and its functions, and women's right to the vote, to enjoy sex, and to obtain a divorce.

Pankhurst and Houseknecht (1983) have identified five major trends that they maintain began to change and shape the modern institutions of marriage and the family in the nineteenth century and have continued to impact American culture in the twentieth century. The author of this section suggests that they have had a similar influence on sexual institutions. These trends are:
1. Industrialization, with its consequent process of urbanization and the eventual emergence of suburbs surrounding metropolitan areas;

2. A shift in the family from an economic-producing unit to that of a consumer;

3. The entry of men, and later of women, into the paid labor force;

4. The elongation and expansion of formal education, especially among women and minorities; and

5. Technological change.

We do not have the space to explore fully the impact of each of these trends. However, relevant effects would include increased life spans, decreased maternal and infant mortality at childbirth, the development of effective contraceptives, the emergence of a consumer culture that allows families to purchase most of their goods and services, the creation of labor-saving household technologies, increased leisure time, the development of modern forms of transportation, especially automobiles and airplanes, an increasing divorce rate, the increasing entry of wives and mothers into the labor force, decreasing birthrate and family size, increasing rates of single-parent families and cohabitation, increasing percentages of adults living alone, and increasing proportions of married couples with no children currently living at home (Coontz 1992). Many of these changes have resulted in greater personal autonomy for individuals. As Reiss (1960; 1967) has argued, such autonomy may be a major factor underlying several changes in sexuality throughout American history.

It should be stressed that these changes have not necessarily been linear or consistent throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution. Many began to emerge in the nineteenth century, but accelerated and became mainstream patterns only in the twentieth century. For example, as late as 1900, a majority of Americans were still farmers. The 1920 census was the first to show a majority of the population living in towns and cities. By 1980, only 4 percent of Americans still lived on farms (Reiss 1980). Similarly, women began entering the labor force in the early nineteenth century. However, it was not until 1975 that one half of married women were employed. By 1990, 70 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 44 were employed (Coontz 1992). Yet another example is provided by the divorce rate. It had been gradually increasing for decades. That rate doubled between 1965 and 1975, and for the first time, couples with children began divorcing in sizable numbers at that time (Coontz 1992; Reiss 1980; Seidman 1991).

Seidman (1991) has described the principal change in American sexuality during the nineteenth century as the “sexualization of love.” It could also be described as a shift to companionate marriage. Marriage came to be defined less as an institutional arrangement of reciprocal duties, and more as a personal relationship between the spouses. The modern concept of love as a form of companionship, intimacy, and sharing came to be seen as the primary justification for marriage. As this process continued, the erotic longings between the partners, and the sexual pleasures shared by them, became inseparable from the qualities that defined love and marriage. By the early part of the twentieth century, the desires and pleasures associated with sex came to be seen as a chief motivation and sustaining force in love and marriage (Seidman 1991). This view has come to be so dominant in the contemporary U.S.A. that few Americans today can envision any other basis for marriage.

D'Emilio and Freedman (1988) have argued that what they call the liberal sexual ethic described in the previous paragraph has been the attempt to promote this view of the erotic as the peak experience of marriage while limiting its expression elsewhere. However, as this view became the dominant American sexual ideology of the twentieth century, it also served to legitimate the erotic aspects of sexuality itself (Seidman 1991). Eventually, groups emerged which have sought to value sex for its inherent pleasure and expressive qualities, as well as for its value as a form of self-expression. In effect, as the view that sexual gratification was a critical part of happiness for married persons became the dominant sexual ideology of twentieth-century America, then it was only a matter of time until some groups began to question how it could be restricted only to married persons (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988).

B. The Twentieth Century

The social turmoil and the pace of social change that marked the nineteenth century has accelerated exponentially in the present century. American culture in the twentieth century has been increasingly complicated and changed by often-unanticipated developments in technology, communications, and medicine. Among the events that have been identified as significant in twentieth-century United States are the following:

· In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis helped trigger the emergence of a more-positive approach to sexuality, especially in recognizing the normal sexuality of women and children, and the need for sex education.

· In 1916, spurred by Havelock Ellis, Margaret Sanger, a New York nurse, launched a crusade to educate poor and immigrant women about contraception, and established the first Planned Parenthood clinics.

· World War I brought women out of their Victorian homes into the war effort and work in the factories; shorter skirts and hair styles were viewed as patriotic fashion and gave women more freedom. American soldiers encountered the more-relaxed sexual mores of France and Europe.

· The “Roarin' Twenties” were marked by the invention of cellulose sanitary napkins, the mobility of Henry Ford's affordable automobiles, new leisure and affluence, the advent of movies with female vamp stars and irresistible sex idols, and the appearance of the “Charleston,” the “flapper,” and cheek-to-cheek, body-clutching dancing.

· From 1929 to 1941, the Great Depression brought a return to sexual conservativism.

· World War II opened new opportunities for women, both at home and in the military support. Interracial marriages set the stage for revoking miscegenation laws later in 1967.

· In the 1940s, the advent of antibiotics brought cures for some sexually transmitted diseases.

· In 1948 and 1953, Alfred Kinsey and colleagues published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. They brought sexual topics into widespread public discussion.

· In the 1950s, Elvis Presley became the first major rock 'n' roll star; television became a major influence on young Americans. Senator Joseph McCarthy portrayed sex education as part of a Communist plot to take over the U.S. Coed dormitories appeared on college campuses and bikini swimsuits swept the nation. Motels became popular, providing comfort for vacationing Americans, as well as for Americans seeking privacy for sexual relations.

· In 1953, the first issue of Playboy magazine was published.

· In 1957, the Supreme Court decision in Roth v. U.S. set new criteria for obscenity that opened the door to the works of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, and other classic erotic works.

· In the 1950s and 1960s, the beatniks, hippies, flower children, and drug culture emerged.

· In the early 1960s, the hormonal contraceptive pill became available.

· In 1961, Illinois adopted the first “consenting adult” law decriminalizing sexual behavior between consenting adults.

· In 1963, Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique was published, giving voice to the modern feminist movement.

· In 1968, William Masters and Virginia Johnson published Human Sexual Response.

· Following the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riot in Greenwich Village, New York City, homosexuals rebelled against police harassment, and launched the gay-rights and gay-pride movement.

· In the 1970s, television talk shows popularized discussions of alternative lifestyles, triggered by the publication of Nena and George O'Neill's Open Marriage in 1972.

· In 1970, the White House Commission on Pornography and Obscenity found no real harm in sexually explicit material. President Richard Nixon refused to issue the report.

· In 1972, the first openly gay male was ordained to the ministry of a major Christian church.

· In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion.

· In the 1980s, openly gay legislators appeared in federal and state governments, and in professional sports.

· In 1983, AIDS was recognized, leading to a new advocacy for sex education in the schools and general public.

· In the late 1980s, conservative Christian activists, including the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and similar organizations, emerged as politically and socially powerful groups.

These and other events too numerous to list, let alone analyze here, both contributed to and reflect the tension between the two ideologies mentioned above - one viewing sex as legitimate only in marriage, but as a necessary component of marital happiness, and the other viewing sex as a valid and important experience in its own right. The attempt to reconcile them can be seen as an underlying dynamic for many sexual practices and changes in the twentieth century. These broad-based trends include:
1. The emergence in the 1920s of dating and in the 1940s of “going steady” as courtship forms (Reiss 1980);

2. The rising percentage of young people having premarital sexual experiences (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Kinsey, et al., 1948; 1953; Reiss 1980; Seidman 1991);

3. The greater equality between the genders (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Reiss 1980; Seidman 1991);

4. The eroticization of the female, including a decline in the double standard and an increased focus on female sexual satisfaction (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Seidman 1991);

5. The emergence of professions devoted to sexuality - research, education, and therapy;

6. The expansion of marital sexuality, including increases in frequency, satisfaction, and variation in behavior (Hunt 1974);

7. The emergence of a homosexual identity and subculture, including a gay-rights movement (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Seidman 1991);

8. The passage of consenting adult laws;

9. The commercialization of sex, by which we mean the appearance of an “industry” providing sexual goods and services (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Seidman 1991).

Reactions to these trends, and the continuing tension between the two major ideologies we have outlined above, lie at the very heart of the ongoing conflicts over sexual issues today. Robinson (1976) has characterized this conflict as a battle between nineteenth-century romanticism and what he calls sexual modernism. Romanticism affirmed the essential worth of the erotic, but only within the context of an intense interpersonal relationship transformed by a spiritual and physical union. Modernism reaffirms this romantic ideal, but also transforms it by acknowledging the value of “an innocent physical need” (p. 194). Although the modernist is glad to be rid of Victorian repression and anticipates the promise of a greater sexual freedom, there is a concomitant fear of a future of emotional emptiness.

Reiss (1981) has characterized this as a conflict between what he calls the traditional-romantic and modern-naturalistic ideologies. He maintains that this distinction can be used to explain current conflicts over such issues as abortion, gender roles and differences, pornography, definitions of sexual exploitation, concepts of sexual normality, and even accounts of sexual history itself. This perspective is useful in interpreting mass-media claims about sexuality in the U.S.A. Thus, Lyons (1983), reporting for The New York Times, proclaimed that the “sexual revolution” was over by the 1980s and that America was experiencing a return to traditional values and lifestyles. To support his argument, he claimed that there was a recent decrease in the number of sex partners and a shift away from indiscriminate, casual sexual behavior (Lyons 1983). In contrast, Walsh (1993), writing for Utne Reader, proclaimed that the 1990s have been characterized by a renewed sexual revolution (second-wavers), with pioneering new philosophies and techniques employing technology (latex, computer imaging, computer networks, virtual reality sex, phone sex, cathode rays, and group safe sex) to achieve sensual pleasure in a safe way.

From 1970 to 1990, as these social processes continued, Americans witnessed: (1) a decrease in the marriage rate; (2) an increase in the divorce rate; (3) an increase in the birthrate for unmarried mothers (although the overall adolescent birthrate decreased); (4) an increase in single-parent families; and (5) an increase in married couples without children at home (Ahlburg and DeVita 1992). In the next section, we consider the impact of religious, ethnic, and gender factors on such changes.