Let us now return to the discussion of myths and sexuality. Please forgive my somewhat long and perhaps tedious recounting of events from so long ago, but an understanding of them is crucial to recognizing the fact that many of our concepts of love, sexuality, and marriage are not derived from some “universal man” concept. Indeed, the universal man – one set of “normal” ideals for manhood, and one for womanhood, was a 17th century invention.
We must now make a jump forward in time and examine our current conceptions of love, sex, and family. There is a common misconception among many, even those who clearly understand the origins of our cultural sexual identity. It is based in our love for dichotomy, or rather, for clear-cut, right and wrong, good and evil answers. There are many who believe that despite the somewhat spurious origins of our myths, they are still inherently superior. After all, they will opine, it’s patently obvious that families are better off with a man, a woman, and children. This arrangement encourages close familial bonds, and is the foundation of everything American! It allows freedom of the individual. We are no longer tied to our tribes or extended families. We can marry whomever we wish, regardless of social status, finances, or family obligation.
Alas, it simply isn’t so. Stephanie Coontz, the preeminent social scientist, has written an intensely researched and meticulously documented account of America’s obsession with the nostalgia of yesteryear and the myth of the American family. (The Way We Never Were, 1992, Basic Books) For anyone wishing to rid themselves of the baggage of American Christian ideology, it is an indispensable tool. I cannot hope to do justice to the work in such a short space, but I will point out the most applicable misconceptions, and hopefully, we can start to see a pattern emerge – one that will stretch back to the original land grab, and the drastic break from previous tradition.
The first thing that we must do is identify what Coontz has called the Nostalgia Trap. There are several beliefs inherent in this. The first, and most pervasive, is the idea that America has at some point in history been made up of mostly “traditional families.” By traditional family, I mean a rather Rockwellian image of mother, father, son and daughter sitting around the Christmas tree with Grandma and Grandpa and even some aunts, uncles, and cousins. In this family, the father worked, the mother tended the house and the children, and the elders were available for counsel and help with babysitting. Each member of the family was an individual, but held firmly to their family bonds, forging their way forward, working during the day, and then leaving the cold, hard world for the warmth and security of their family at night.
As an extension of this image of the perfect family, we have quite a few cultural attitudes that can rightly be called myths themselves. For instance, men who have reached successful business age are often looked at as overly immature for not having married. Single mothers are viewed as a plague to be eradicated by the renewal of “old fashioned family values.” Women who put off marriage, or “play the field” are considered sexually immoral. Women who decided not to have children were until very recently considered by the mainstream medical profession to suffer from a form of insanity.
In examining the roles of husbands and wives in American history, we must remember that through the majority of colonial history, women and children had virtually no rights, and were treated (if not legally designated) as property of their husband. The patriarchal traditions from two thousand years before were still strong. Even so, the family was far from stable. The average length of marriage was less than a dozen years, due mainly to high mortality rates. One third to one half of all children lost at least one parent. Particularly in the south, orphans were common. Over one half of all southern children under the age of thirteen had lost at least one parent.
Contrary to popular belief, colonial America was remarkably open about sexuality, even in front of children. “Fornication” was a common four syllable word in grammar classes, and preachers went on in surprisingly frank detail about various sexual indiscretions and the consequences of engaging in them. In households where large families lived in very small houses, breast-feeding was hardly noticed, and it would be foolish to presume that children were unaware of their parents’ sexual activity. The current American obsession with protecting children from any exposure to sexuality would, ironically, seem rather puritanical to the Puritans.
The common image of a man working the fields while his wife tended the children and the chores is also not founded in reality. Single family income was reserved for the middle class and up, as poor families often had to put even their very young children to work in household businesses, or worse, in service to more wealthy families. This practice was not too unlike child slavery, but it was the only option available to most poor families. In the mid 1800s, entire families worked in factories, usually eighteen hours a day. When you consider that food preparation and household cleaning were still highly labor intensive, it’s easy to see that most families hardly had time to wish each other goodnight before going to sleep.
We must also remember that divorce was not the only option for leaving a spouse or family. Before the social security system made it easy to identify people, the most common form of divorce was abandonment. When a man found that he could no longer support his family, he simply left to find work in another city, perhaps under a different name, although that was hardly necessary if the distance was great enough. Looking at divorce statistics is hardly helpful when we consider that the real solidarity of the family depended very little on such legal distinctions.
In reading the journals and letters from this period, it becomes obvious that colonial Americans, like their modern day descendants, lamented the days when parents raised their children to be good citizens, and when families held together like they used to. Sermons are rife with references to the untamed youth running wild in the streets and causing mayhem. Wealthy citizens complained of the profusion of the poor and lawless masses, untempered by moral instruction or restraint.
At the turn of the century, things were no better. Child labor was rampant as industrialization took over. In major cities in 1904, children made up 23 percent of the textile workers. Even children as young as five or six were regularly put to work for fourteen to sixteen hours a day, sometimes more. By the 1920s, reports of the breakdown of the “traditional family” were rampant, and the primary source of blame was Irish immigrants. During the depression, even those who had been sheltered from the normal “work week” were forced to enlist their whole families in the effort to keep food on the table. The two World Wars disrupted families even further, leaving many widows and many more orphans. In short, from colonial times to the Second World War, there simply was not a time when even a significant portion of American society was characterized by the “traditional nuclear family.”
From political pundits to parents to grandparents to Hollywood, everyone seems to be in agreement that the fifties were a swell time to be an American. Proponents of the Traditional Nuclear Family myth are particularly enamored of the decade, and at first glance, it appears that there’s very good reason for this. For the first time in the 20th Century, divorce and illegitimate births dropped sharply. For comparison, both were less than half that of the 1990s. Gang violence, drugs, and teenage rebellion were not yet considered to be social problems. School discipline was strict, and students were getting good educations, going to college, getting married, and starting families. From 1945 to 1960, the Gross National Product rose 250%. There were record numbers of housing starts. In 1954, the words “Under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. For the first time in the collective memory, upward mobility was a real possibility for almost everybody. On all counts, the 50’s seemed to be a utopia of family values and morals.
Unfortunately, all of these statistics are grossly misleading. Though they are all essentially true, they mask a much less pristine reality. The fifties were a time of great social upheaval, widespread discontent, and the beginnings of heavy handed government intrusion into private lives. The prominence of the nuclear family was not so much due to the collective desire of individuals to form such bonds, but on the social, political, and legislative lack of other viable options.
Much like the nostalgic memories of colonial American life, our memories of the 50s are colored by our collective amnesia. During the 50s, twenty five percent of Americans – between 40 and 50 million people – were living below the poverty line. There were no food stamps, and very few options for low cost housing. Compared with the poverty in later decades, the fifties were intensely difficult for those below the line. Sixty percent of the elderly were poor. A staggering number of blacks and hispanics lived in squalor. Like every generation before, the poor had to work very long hours at the most undesirable jobs, and there was virtually no such thing as a nuclear minority family.
Things were not all rosy for the middle class whites, either. After World War II, a great many women lost the jobs they had entered while all the men were away. If they were not outright fired, they were forced into menial jobs with terrible pay. The reality for women was that they could either get married or starve. While television celebrated core families like the Cleavers, and Ozzie and Harriett, the real middle class women were being herded into marriage, motherhood, and domestic duty, whether they wanted it or not. Popular medical wisdom said that any woman who did not desire motherhood and family domesticity was neurotic, unstable, or worse, morally loose. There was a very common cure espoused by the medical community: Shock treatment. (If it sounds to you like women were tortured if they failed to conform to social expectations, you’re not alone in that assessment.)
The general consensus among psychologists of the day was that women were essentially untrustworthy, and capable of little more than housework. While previous generations of middle class women were at least able to hire out their housework to lower class servants, the 50s generation was ridiculed, shunned, and often medicated if they didn’t love to stay home and do the housework themselves. Consequently, even with the availability of modern appliances, the amount of housework for the average wife increased drastically.
Not surprisingly, women were not always as happy as the media portrayed them. Though there were shockingly few divorces in the fifties, approximately 1/3 of the marriages begun in that decade were dissolved by the seventies. In what is considered the definitive social survey of the decade, less than 33% of women indicated that they were either “happily married” or “very happily married.” Over 20% indicated that they were “unhappily married.”
Sexual battery, though largely unreported, appears to have been rampant. The medical community generally regarded sexual assault within the marriage as a female problem. If only the woman would be more sexually responsive, they said, things like that wouldn’t happen. The problem of “female frigidity” was discussed much more than female repression or unhappiness. (It’s worth noting that the cure for sexual frigidity, i.e. males sexually abusing their wives, was also shock treatment.) Similarly, battered children were quite common, and though it’s difficult to get exact percentages, the evidence clearly shows that incest and sexual abuse of minors was at the least not uncommon.
Predictably, drug and alcohol abuse by women skyrocketed. Although much of it was hidden (specifically, in a flask underneath the unmentionables), there is clear evidence that alcohol abuse was at record highs. Also, a little known fact about the pharmaceutical industry is that tranquilizers were developed and marketed specifically as a solution to “the female problems.” Millions upon millions of prescriptions were filled for women unable to cope with the happiness gained from their traditional family.
By 1960, the problem was clear. Redbook magazine ran an ad soliciting stories explaining “Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped.” The editors received over twenty four thousand entries. Even in 1949, Life Magazine had reported that young wives “suddenly and for no plain reason [have been] seized with an eerie restlessness.” Obviously, there was a lot more going on in this decade, and the emergence of the core family did not solve any problems, at least not without creating significantly more problems.
Although things were significantly better for men, they were not great. The same pressure that women were put under, to marry and reproduce, were felt by men as well. There are volumes of anecdotes about men who were passed over for promotions because they were not married. Bachelors in the fifties were regarded as reckless, deviant, and morally depraved. Men were expected to get married, buy a house, and start a family as soon as they finished school. If they didn’t, there were sometimes very severe social repercussions.
Perhaps worse than the social consequences of bachelorhood were the potential political repercussions. Most of us are familiar with the Red Scare and McCarthyism, but what is not as well known was that sexual deviance was also considered potentially seditious. Gay bashing was almost as common as Commie bashing, though it was not flaunted publicly. Particularly in larger cities, an unmarried man was open to suspicion of sexual sedition. Whether the speculation was that he was gay, or that he was simply too undisciplined and deviant to have a respectable family life, the consequences were very real. Thousands of men lost their jobs and families due to the intrusive Big Brother tactics of overzealous communist hunters.
Lastly, one of the most commonly flaunted statistics from the 50s is the dramatic drop in teen pregnancy and illegitimate births. Again, however, these statistics, while technically accurate, are not reflective of reality. The most obvious reason is that with the emphasis on early marriage, women were simply getting married earlier, and thus reducing the number of unwed mothers. With more careful scrutiny, it becomes obvious that more teenage girls were having babies in the fifties, but because they were married, the statistics for teen pregnancy went down. Married women, after all, were not teens anymore, regardless of their age.
Another major contributor to this deceptive statistic is the way illegitimate births were reported. Due to an archaic quirk in the census data, no matter what age a girl conceived, if she was living with her parents, it was not reported as a single mother. In addition, babies that were born in wedlock were not counted, regardless of when they had been conceived. There was intense social pressure to marry if a girl was found to be pregnant. Specifically, the number of pregnant brides doubled!
Yet another factor must be considered. The sexual rules for women were changing drastically. Whereas in previous generations, men had been responsible for respecting the purity of women, teenage girls in the fifties found themselves on the other end of the stick, so to speak. Men were seen as actively pursuing women, and it was entirely up to the woman to protect her own virtue. In the interest of finding the right man, girls were constantly encouraged by their peers to engage in heavy petting, but they were considered loose if they allowed any penetration. (The question of how many teen pregnancies were the result of heavy petting gone too far – with or without the girl’s consent – is another matter, but you can probably make an educated guess.)
The cold, hard facts belie the apparent bliss of the fifties. The “traditional core family” has never existed on its own, and for the one decade that it was forced, and enforced, the results were not nearly as wonderful as they were popularly portrayed. The Cleavers are a product of wishful thinking. The fifties were a failed experiment in social engineering. They were a last ditch effort by those who believed they could enforce happiness through conformation.*
One of the myths that permeates human society in almost all cultures is the belief that humans are special or different in kind from other animals. We believe that our intelligence (or worse, our “soul”) makes us separate from – and higher than – the animals. In fact, the very language we use betrays our belief that we are better than them. We say that someone is acting like an animal, and we don’t mean it in a good way. We urge our fellow humans to give up the base animal instincts and pursue something higher. In so many religions, we hear admonitions against giving in to our “base instincts.” By this, most religions mean lust, sex, and desire.
In reality, if we are to have a chance of truly understanding ourselves, we must dispense with this belief. From early childhood, we are told that we are special. We are told that god, or the universe, or karma has some “special plan” for us. When we become adults, we build immense monuments and fight wars and bulldoze forests in the name of human supremacy. Despite all this, we are not different from animals. We are animals.
Unfortunately, this is where a lot of non-critical thinkers stop. Often, they are stopped by their own conscience, but if they are not, it’s almost certain that a friend or immediate family member will do their best to talk them out of such nonsense. After all, they will argue, it’s obvious that humans are different than animals. Why, we build hospitals and make music and art! We love, and are loved in return. We tell our grandchildren about how our grandfathers fought in the War to End All Wars, and how they knew that there was something bigger than themselves, so they did what they had to do.
This response, and the seemingly inevitable defeat of anyone who tries to argue against it, is clear evidence of just how strongly our myths can take hold, and how much of an impediment to critical thinking they can be. Once we examine what it is to be an animal, and how animals differ from each other, I believe we will see that it’s not only possible to be an animal and experience love, honor, duty, and beauty, it’s actually impossible to think of it any other way. We must be animals if we are to experience the intricate and noble culture we have created.
Before I continue, I must caution against all-or-nothing thinking. Though we are animals, and are not different in kind from other animals, it does not follow that we are not different in degree. Only a fool would argue such a thing, though it is amazing how many theists and bad critical thinkers will argue vehemently against this position, as if defeating such a pitiful argument makes them right. This, by the way, is called a strawman argument. Whenever someone portrays their opponent as making a ridiculous argument, only to argue against it (even though the opponent never actually made the argument in the first place), we say that they have created a strawman.
One of the most essential differences between humans and other animals is our brains. We are among only a handful of creatures on earth who are capable of language, and our capacity for abstract thought is unrivaled. Nevertheless, this difference is a difference of degree. Our ape-like ancestor was smart enough to use tools, and may have possessed some rudimentary language skills, as do modern day chimps and apes. Dolphins and whales communicate through clicks and songs, respectively. Our intellect and capacity for language have allowed us to make incredible leaps in the last hundred millenia, much greater leaps than any other creatures, but we are not the only intelligent creatures on earth.
Another difference between humans and other mammals is female sexuality. Unlike most animals, human females do not experience estrous. In most animals, female sexual response is governed by the four phases of estrous. During Proestrus, one or more follicles in the ovary begin to grow. This can last for one day, or as long as three weeks or more. The lining of the uterus starts to develop. (Incidentally, there is sometimes vaginal discharge that is mistaken for menstruation.) During proestrus, females are not sexually receptive.
Estrus, often called, “in heat,” is when the female becomes sexually receptive, and is often accompanied by outward physical changes and involuntary or reflexive sexual behaviors, most notably the lordosis behavior, in which the hindquarters are elevated and the spine undergoes ventral arching. In some animals, there is an intermediate phase, known as inerestrus, after which estrus resumes again if copulation has not occurred.
During Metestrus, the signs of estrogen stimulation subside, and the uterine lining begins to break down. Finally, during Diestrus, the lining of the uterus is absorbed into the body and reorganized for the next estrus phase. After the entire estrous cycle is complete, there is usually a period of inactivity known as Anestrus. There is no sexual receptivity in females during this period. The duration varies greatly, but is usually based on seasons. Some animals go into heat several times a year, while others only get one or two chances.
Contrast this with humans, who undergo menstrual cycles. Instead of reabsorbing the uterine lining, humans experience eumenorrhea, which is the regular discharge of the uterine lining, sometimes with the endometrium lining. You know this as the menstrual cycle. There is not a clear answer to the question of why humans evolved differently than almost every other mammal. It has been suggested that the energy cost of absorbing and then reforming the uterine lining is more than that of simply creating a new one. Also, it is possible that the discharge of the uterine lining also cleanses the body of sperm-borne pathogens. Finally, it has been theorized that menstrual synchrony, or the tendency of cohabiting females’ periods to align, was beneficial to societies in which the hunters went out on long expeditions, leaving the women alone and sexually unresponsive, only to have the best chance of receptivity and ovulation when the entire group returned.
Human females have varying degrees of sexual receptivity during all stages of menstrual cycle. Though many women are most receptive to sexual intercourse while they are most fertile, some level of sexual interest is maintained for virtually the entire cycle. However this evolved, it was clearly one of the catalysts for the development of human culture as we know it. Human sexuality is not simply reproductive. In fact, considering the fact that women are fertile only a few days a month, but can have sexual intercourse multiple times per day virtually every day of the year (Yes. I know. Make your own joke here.), it would be incredibly surprising if non-reproductive sex wasn’t a big part of our culture.
As we developed language and began to form complex relationships, we naturally began to make long term predictions which were impossible for other, less intelligent animals. Men recognized that repeated sexual advance was more successful with females who had already consented once. They learned the value of impressing women. Women learned that men had learned the value of impressing them. The snowball was rolling downhill. More intelligent men found clever ways to impress women. The women liked it, and the resulting children tended to be more intelligent. Men and women recognized the fact that sexual intercourse felt good. Those whose brains released more endorphins found that it was beneficial to return to the same mate often. Other people noticed. Jealousy was born. The snowball was getting huge. Culture was inevitable.
In any case, this is one very important way in which humans are quite different from other animals. Whether we learn the exact evolutionary path we took to get here, we must look at this difference critically if we are to understand our own sexuality. In fact, it is this very thing – our ability and desire to have sexual intercourse outside of procreation – which makes us different from animals. Contrary to the common conception, our sex drive is not similar to those of the lower animals. It is substantially different, and might just be the catalyst for our entire culture! When we describe sexuality as a base, animalistic drive, we don’t recognize the irony, for we misunderstand the simple truth: Our sexuality is what makes us human!
If you will forgive me a bit of wild speculation, it is not difficult to imagine an early religion forming around the mystery of the female. They regularly bled, and always with the tides and the moon. They did not suffer as men when they bled. Before man had discovered the link between sexual intercourse and babies, it must have been even more miraculous! Women had the power to make life, and they pulled from their bodies both men and women. It would not have been lost on them that all these abilities seemed to coincide with the passing of the moon and the movement of the water. Any wonder that they made idols of women, and that many of the most ancient relics of long forgotten civilizations indicate female worship?
By now, you should be seeing a disturbing trend with regard to the idea of Western sexual and familial values. At each turn, the social norms were not the result of a “natural state” of human sexuality. Rather, they were the product of an intricate web of social, political, and religious circumstances that seldom had very much to do with creating human happiness in marriage. In fact, it would not be difficult to argue for the opposite: The institutions and conventions surrounding human sexuality have been designed to work towards political and socio-economic ends, regardless of the consequences for individuals or families, and without regard for personal happiness.
I have tried to focus on the periods in Western History that have been, in my opinion, most relevant to the topic. Rest assured that for any period, from the Middle Ages to Victorian to Post-modern, there are always pointed examples of social engineering of sexual and family arrangements. This article is not intended to be comprehensive. It is only meant to demonstrate that our beliefs about human sexuality are not based on some overarching concept of right and wrong. Rather, they are based on the myths that we live by, and the history that created the myths, whether purposefully or through blind chance. We will now examine some of the notions we still hold today, and examine them in the harsh light of evidence.
I Am a Rock. I Am an Island
One particularly odd notion we hold in the west is that of independence as a virtue. Americans regard dependency as a weakness. We are encouraged to owe nothing to anyone, to settle our debts, and to always get what we pay for. When we watch movies about the Old West, the heroes are inevitably loners. They are men who are rugged, hardened, and emotionally unattached. They survive on their own in the wilderness, only occasionally dropping their guard long enough to have a passing romance with a ravishing young woman.
In most cultures, this kind of attitude is considered immature, and even antisocial. Most social bonds involve mutual inequality – a kind of permanent state of indebtedness to all those on whom one depends for his or her life and livelihood. In fact, if you think back through history, you will find that America is rather singular in its insistence upon self reliance. What, exactly, do we expect of ourselves? Is it realistic? For that matter, is it even possible?
For one thing, we must disabuse ourselves of one prevalent notion about independence. Throughout all but the last several decades of American history, when we have spoken of self reliance, we were speaking exclusively of men. Women have always been relied upon by men, because the meals have always needed cooking, and the clothes washing, and the socks darning. Our particular brand of independence, then, relied on a separation of societal and marital expectations. When men went out into the workplace, they were the masters of their own destinies. While they were out winning the bread, the women were at home tending to the chores.
It is very telling that modern pundits, especially those on the right, continually call for a return to family values. What, exactly, are they calling for? Men have always worked. The amount of time men have spent with their children has remained remarkably stable, and remarkably small, throughout American history. Indeed, men have seldom been with their wives for their entire lives. As I mentioned earlier, though divorce rates may have been very low in the past, abandonment was not, and death during childbirth was not at all uncommon. Single parent families have always existed, and at relatively stable rates throughout the generations. The reality of the situation is disturbing, but it’s all too clear. The only thing that has changed significantly in the past century has been the level of personal and political rights enjoyed by women. Let us ask again, then: What exactly is this “return to family values” that the right desires so strongly?
The truth about independence is that it’s virtually impossible. However, the notion has been kept alive by the subtle manipulation of gender roles. Individualism was not possible until the coming of industrialization, but as any cursory reading of that period will reveal, industrialization practically enslaved those who could not afford to live above it. As with so many other “virtues”, independence was reserved for the very rich.
There is a more insidious result of the drive for individualism, particularly with regard to love and gender roles. Marriage presented unique problems for those who advocated strict independence, for if every man is an island, what is there for marriage but reproduction? The obvious answer is that love and business are separate ideals. What men lack in emotional and nurturing instincts, women have in abundance. Women and men were seen as fulfilling the needs of the other in the perfect union – the core family. The problems with this were immediate, however. Since men were socialized into the belief that they are expected to be unemotional, business savvy, and independent, and women were raised to be nurturing, docile, and dependent on their husbands for their livelihood, the result was that men and women soon had very little in common. While the interdependency of marriage (while remaining strictly individual, of course) looks good on paper, in the real world, our modern concept of love is dependent on shared interests.
As romance and love became separated from business, a new cultural myth evolved. Love was a sanctuary away from the impartial, detached world of business. Only in the home could a man experience the joy of a gift that required no repayment. Only in marriage could a woman receive all she needed to live, and owe nothing in return. Marriage was sacrosanct. It was a harbor in the cruel world of business and politics and economics. Of course, the flaw in this rationale seems obvious to us today. Marriage is not the free exchange of gifts. A woman is not free to deny her husband the satisfaction of the marital bed, nor is the husband free to abandon work, leaving his wife without support. In a thousand ways, marriage is a constant give and take, and either spouse will feel resentful and slighted if they do not receive the “gifts” to which they are entitled.
Again, I feel compelled to remind the reader that all of these facts must be understood within the context of myth. There are many cultural norms for familial and marital obligations, and all of them come with their own baggage. In Japan, it has not been uncommon, even in the recent past, for a woman to pack her husband’s travel bags, knowing full well that during the upcoming business trip, he will avail himself of the services at the local brothel. While this is unconscionable in America, it is important to remember that culture creates the myths, and people’s beliefs in the myths form the foundations for what is proper. While it is easy to sit in our armchairs and judge deviant behaviors to be morally reprehensible, we must remember that things we hold dear are considered equally repulsive by other cultures, many of them quite a bit older and more historically stable than our own.
In the West, we have created a cycle in which the myth of the core family competes against the myth of the self reliant individual. As we saw earlier, the Church itself created the cult of the individual, albeit inadvertently, by legislatively ending the precapitalist extended family/tribal model. If we look at history with that in mind, we can see that in fact, widespread calls for return to family values have usually been symptoms of dysfunction, and actual “returns to family values” have been exaccerbations, not cures.** During the fifties, the enemies of family values were perceived to be sexual liberation, delayed marriage, unwed pregnancy, and lack of proper subjugation of women to men. Ironically, industrialization was more to blame for the social ills than any nebulous lack of morality. With the ready availability of consumer goods at low prices, the birth of the mass media, and the discovery of targeted advertisement of luxury goods and services, individuals were pushed out of their homes by the lowering of individual wages combined with the increased pressure to become upwardly mobile. The supposed moral shortcomings of citizens were simply reactions to the new societal conditions. As women became less dependent on men because of their ability to enter the workforce, their need to get married decreased, and their ability to delay marriage, waiting for the best possible option, increased. The availability of easy transit made it possible for couples to be alone more easily. In every case, the new morality was not the result of a change in values. It was a reaction to the availability and desirability of previously unknown options. This is important enough to say again: Historically, we can see “changes in moral values” more properly described as “changes in the environment.”
How, then, should we view ourselves? How shall we judge our own sexual morality? If there is not a single role to be played by either men or women, what measure do we have left? Surely society cannot be asked to tolerate any sexual or familial arrangement that one deems appropriate, can it? These questions are complex, and do not have easy answers. Like all societal questions, careful study of the facts leads us to the clear conclusion that there are not completely right, or completely wrong answers. My hope is that in reading this series, the reader will have a broader understanding of how societal roles and moral values are created and shaped by cultural forces, not the other way around. Whenever you hear a pundit talking about how individual morals shape the culture, you must fight the urge to unthinkingly agree. As in all areas of morality, individuals react to their society. If revolution occurs, it is because the factors necessary for revolution were present. If moral standards change, it is not because people changed, but because circumstances changed.
The most prevalent myth shared by most Americans is that individuals create societies, and that some constant sense of internal morality is responsible for both the decay and the advancement of civilization. The reverse is true, however. Sexuality, like all other human interactions, is judged not by an arbitrary standard, but by practical standards. This is not a sign of weakness in humans. On the contrary, it is one of our most beautiful adaptive traits. Unlike many animals, who can only mate once or twice a year, and only in certain spawning grounds, human mating rituals are incredibly adaptable. We must learn to separate the myths from the realities if we are to make personal decisions with the best possible chance of attaining our personal goals. For that matter, our best chance of discovering what, exactly, our personal goals happen to be depends on our ability and willingness to look at our deepest beliefs while recognizing the power, but not the ultimate rightness, of our own cultural myths.
* This entry is not intended as a scholarly article, and as such, is not meticulously cited and footnoted. I must give full credit where it is due for this section, though. At any given point in the section on the 1950s, if you see a statistic, you may assume that it was pulled from the pages of Stephanie Coontz’ book in my list of resources (below). I could hardly have begun to write this section without its aid, and the reader should not assume in any case that I claim any of these facts as my own research. I make mention of this particular section because unlike the others, this one felt more like a book report than an amalgamation of many sources and sciences. I cannot recommend the book highly enough and am indebted to its author.
** This idea is so startlingly true that I must make special note of it and once again give full credit to Stephanie Coontz. I cannot stress enough that the reader would be well advised to take the next available opportunity to purchase and read Coontz’ book in its entirety. I only hope that my blatant book-report style presentation of her ideas within my own thesis will be seen as the sincerest form of flattery.
Sources: (I have done my best to respect the rules of intellectual property, and have made every attempt not to represent any print as my own which was not written by me. These are the books from which the bulk of my information was gleaned. This list is comprehnsive for all 3 parts of this series.)
A Short History of Marriage, Westermarck, The Macmillan Company, 1930
The Rise of Christianity, Stark, Harper Collins, 1997
United States History from 1865, 20th Edition, Krout, HarperResource, 1991
Since Yesterday, The 1930s in America, Allen, Harper and Row, 1940
Myth and Sexuality, Highwater, Meridian, 1990
The Way We Never Were, Coontz, Basic Books, 2000
Wayward Puritans, Erikson, Macmillan, 1966
The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Ridley, Harper, 1993
Sociobiology: 25th Anniversary Edition, Wilson, Belknap Harvard, 2000
The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe, Goody, Cambridge, 1983