The Future of American Sexuality and Family: Five Key Trends

We find ourselves in a liminal spot, one between long-taken-for-granted traditional relationships anchored in marriage and the future relationship system characterized more consistently by “confluent love.” There will not be two dominant systems.

The tenth anniversary of Public Discourse makes for a good opportunity to take stock of what has happened in the past decade in the domains of sexuality and family. One would think that ten years is not a very long time to measure change in such timeless matters as family and sexuality. But these are not ordinary times.

The gap between 2008 and 2018 has been far more dynamic than most decades. As a sociologist, my specialty is behavior, so that will be my main focus. Here are five noteworthy narratives from the past decade. Each story constitutes a profound change, or reflects changes occurring within our most intimate relationships.

  1. Same-sex marriage becomes law in all fifty states.

This is the easiest to identify, and arguably most significant, shift in the marital landscape. Around two out of every three Americans approve of same-sex marriage today.

How many Americans have entered into civil same-sex marriages? It’s hard to say, since same-sex households themselves have never been simple to count. The Treasury Department, leaning on tax returns, identified about 250,000 same-sex marriages (filing jointly) in 2015, a figure that characterizes just under one-half of one percent of married tax filers in the United States. The Census Bureau estimates that the true figure is about 60 percent higher, and the Williams Institute thinks it’s higher still.

What are these couples like? Their tax returns suggest they’re generally younger and less likely to have dependent children—especially the men. They are also well-to-do. The average adjusted gross income of male couples was nearly $166,000, a number well above the $118,000 for female couples and the $115,000 for different-sex couples. What is more striking is the income reported by male couples with dependent children, clocking in at an average of $264,000. This is more than double what opposite-sex married couples with children tend to report ($122,000). Such couples tend to congregate in major coastal metropolitan areas. But even there we tend to overestimate the presence of married same-sex couples. In San Francisco, for instance, same-sex couples comprise only about 1.5 percent of all marriages, in a city not known for its embrace of matrimony. And that’s the highest rate among American cities.

Will same-sex marriage rates increase? As I wrote in Cheap Sex, I doubt it. Gallup data reveals a modest uptick in Americans reporting being married to someone of the same sex—six-tenths of one percentage point—between the first and second years after Obergefell. That’s not exactly the outcome you’d expect from pent-up demand. Some hold that the Obergefell case is enabling yet further changes in American family and sexual behavior. Toward that end, there is evidence of rising same-sex sexual behavior at levels outpacing that of growth in the share of Americans who identify as gay or lesbian.

  1. Transgender is trending.

If there was an immediate legacy of the Obergefell case—a cause célèbre birthed by the legal success of same-sex marriage—it is the transgender movement. Unlike marriage, which managed to unite gay and lesbian Americans, the support base for the transgender issue seems to have emerged from somewhat different corners.

Unlike homosexuality, which is often publicly undiscerned and privately unrevealed until late adolescence or early adulthood, the transgender moment seems to hinge more directly on children, teenagers, and supportive parents. Moreover, transgender matters entail “transition” decisions to be made about the body—ones that can have irreversible effects. Hormonal treatments to delay or prevent puberty or menarche, for example, can prompt permanent infertility, while surgeries replace functional (but unwanted) organs with sculpted substitutes. Adolescent and youth transgender claims are nevertheless surging, creating conflicts over pronouns, bathrooms, and sports teams, to name just three domains.

So just how many transgender minors are there? It’s a moving target. The Williams Institute thinks it’s 0.7 percent, but a new study in the journal Pediatrics reveals a statewide survey in Minnesota estimates it at just under 3 percent—a number that’s four times as large. Who’s right? Who knows. The terrain is unstable—and treacherous to map. Brown University professor Lisa Littman, writing in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS One, documented the reality of the rapid onset of gender dysphoria (ROGD) in adolescents. By “rapid” she means that it happens suddenly either during or after puberty among teenagers who displayed no indications of such tendency in their childhood. The teens’ parents tended to note that ROGD occurred in groups of friends and alongside a surge in the kids’ internet or social media use. In fact, only 13 percent of parents noted no evidence of a “social influence.” Critics, concerned that the transgender moment might unravel, pounced. Littman maintains she saw what she saw.

  1. “Queer” has gone mainstream.

Most of the growth in non-heterosexual self-identification nevertheless has come in the form of bisexuality. This is also true of behavior. In the past twenty-five years, in fact, most of the growth in same-sex sexual activity has come from those who report both men and women as partners. The share of the population that reports at least one partner of the same-sex has grown from 3.6 to 8.7 percent of women and from 4.5 to 8.2 percent of men.

Yet we shouldn’t read too much into long-term bisexuality. When such young adults marry, they still tend to do so with someone of the opposite sex. While that could be a matter of simple numbers—there are more heterosexual options—it’s also a reflection of what economists call observed preferences.

How do bisexuals differ from the other identifiers we are beginning to hear about, including pansexuals and omnisexuals? It’s a good question—and one for which an answer will have to wait. But you’re not the only one who finds the explosion in sexual self-identifiers confusing. Sexual fluidity is in. Talk of immutability remains, and was helpful in securing legal victories in Windsor and Obergefell, but the concept has not been widely accepted among scholars of sexuality for years, especially as it concerns female sexuality. Sexual plasticity among women is now conventional scholarly wisdom.

“Queer” has become mainstream, and “cisgender” and “heteronormative” are no longer terms understood by a tiny fraction of the population. The term “queer” has now become a catch-all for the panoply of non-heterosexual options available today—identities, behaviors, relationships, preferences, and speech.

  1. Married and cohabiting Americans are having less sex.

If you suspect that all this sexual fluidity, combined with the surge in approval and use of pornography, would have led to a place where the sex act had become so normal and common, like drinking a glass of water, you would be in good company. And yet mistaken.

A November 2017 article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior reported that, on average, Americans have sex about nine fewer times a year than they did in the late 1990s. And that was without the 2016 data, which revealed an additional drop in sex—a statistically significant one—in just two years. The trend, ironically, is most pronounced among younger adults. Controlling for age and time period, people born in the 1930s had the most sex, whereas those born in the 1990s are reporting the least.

Blame quickly turns to the ubiquity of smart phones, grabbing attention away from the relationship in front of us and toward the lives of those more distant. Other suspicions include the surge in antidepressant use—a drag on the libido—that now characterizes one in every eight adult Americans. An additional plausible explanation concerns the growing similarity between men and women. Difference, however, attracts.

  1. Divorce rates are dropping (because marriage rates are dropping).

One of the reasons for pessimism about the long-term uptake of same-sex marriage is because short-term interest in marriage continues to turn cold, with rates tracking downward for well over forty years. To suggest that same-sex marriage might invigorate a lagging institution, showing straight Americans how to get hitched again, is silly. People don’t work like that.

So why not try another positive angle: millennials are divorcing at rates notably lower than their parents’ generation. It’s true. While it is heartwarming to see the media get excited about one of the classic hallmarks of marriage—the idea that it should be permanent—there are better explanations for the phenomenon than millennials’ newfound commitment to something/anything.

Divorces are getting rarer precisely because marriage is getting rarer. Marriage is receding. By how much? The share of Americans in the “sweet spot” of getting married (twenty-five to thirty-four years old) who are actually married today has shrunk dramatically—dropping from 80 percent to 40 percent—since the downturn began around 1970. And the rate of decline has shown no evidence of diminishing.

What it all means is that Americans are getting pickier about marriage. It’s called selectivity, and it means that many marriages that may (or may not) have been less satisfying, or less desired, are not being entered into today. Predictably, some of those would have failed. Now they can’t, since they never happened. Marriage is, as sociologist Andrew Cherlin has explained, in the throes of “deinstitutionalization.” It is no longer a shelter to be ducked into, a way for two to construct something together out of nothing but love. And it’s no longer expected. Instead, it’s a symbol, an unnecessary but nice luxury item, a capstone of a successful young adulthood. Americans now hold out for picket fences, figuratively speaking. Why? Because they can, because they have been taught to, and—at least for men—because sex is cheap.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford this new type of marriage. Although the benefits of marriage are still—in theory—available to all, marriage is increasingly a middle- and upper-middle-class thing. As a result, income inequality—a social phenomenon often aided by getting married—is getting worse.

A Liminal Spot

There are other patterns of less clear nature, including MGTOW, Red Pill, and the #MeToo movement. Each is consequential, but far more difficult to gauge in terms of popularity, shared meaning, and what we ought to expect as a result of them. For example, the #MeToo movement has considerable name recognition, is influential in calling out (mostly) men who have capitalized on their power to coax or force sexual acts. But to identify with it on social media can mean quite different things. It can yield much, in the case of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers—who have witnessed an indictment of the man—or it can yield very little, as is the case for most women who have experienced assault, garnered the courage to talk about it publicly, and yet have witnessed little or no change in the real world. By comparison, the five patterns or social realities discussed above are not so heavily dependent on social media.

We find ourselves in a liminal spot, one between long-taken-for-granted traditional relationships anchored in marriage and the future relationship system characterized more consistently by “confluent love.” There will not be two dominant systems. Meant to be a “haven in a heartless world,” as the late social critic Christopher Lasch described it, marriage has become another tenuous social arena in competition with the economic marketplace (for our limited time and energy) and the remarriage market (for second chances and sexual variety). Marriage will not disappear, of course, but it may well become a minority practice.

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