By Shervert H. Frazier, published on January 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Where are we going and what kind of people are we becoming?
Herewith, a roadmap to the defining trends in sexuality, family, and
relationships for the coming millenium as charted by the former chair of
Harvard's psychiatry department. From the still-rollicking sexual
revolution tothe painful battle for sexual equality to the reorginization
of the family, America is in for some rather interesting times
Has the sexual revolution been sidetracked by AIDS, and the return
to traditional values we keep hearing about? In a word, no. The forces
that originally fuelled the revolution are still in place and, if
anything, are intensifying: mobility, democritization, urbanization,
women in the workplace, birth control, abortion and other reproductive
interventions, and media proliferation of sexual images, ideas, and
Sexuality has moved for many citizens from church- and
state-regulated behavior to a medical and self-regulated behavior.
Population pressures and other economic factors continue to diminish the
size of the American family. Marriage is in sharp decline, cohabitation
is growing, traditional family values are on the endangerd list, and the
single-person household is the wave of the future.
AIDS has generated a great deal of heat in the media but appears to
have done little, so far, to turn down the heat in the bedroom. It is
true that in some surveys people claimed to have made drastic changes in
behavior--but most telling are the statistics relating to marriage,
divorce, cohabitation, teen sex, out-of-wedlock births, sexually
transmitted diseases (STDs), contraception, and adultery. These are far
more revealing of what we do than what we say we do. And those tell a
tale of what has been called a "postmarital society, in continued pursuit
of sexual individuality and freedom.
Arguably there are, due to AIDS, fewer visible sexual "excesses"
today than there were in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, but those
excesses (such as sex clubs, bathhouses, backrooms, swinging singles,
group sex, public sex acts, etc.) were never truly reflective of norms
and were, in any case, greatly inflated in the media. Meanwhile, quietly
and without fanfare, the public, even in the face of the AIDS threat, has
continued to expand its interest in sex and in increased, rather than
decreased, sexual expression.
Numerous studies reveal that women are more sexual now than at any
time in the century. Whereas sex counselors used to deal with men's
complaints about their wives' lack of "receptivity," it is now more often
the women complaining about the men. And women, in this "postfeminist"
era, are doing things they never used to believe were "proper." Fellatio,
for example, was seldom practiced (or admitted to) when Kinsey conducted
his famous sex research several decades ago. Since that time, according
to studies at UCLA and elsewhere, this activity has gained acceptance
among women, with some researchers reporting that nearly all young women
now practice fellatio.
Women's images of themselves have also changed dramatically in the
past two decades, due, in large part, to their movement into the
workplace and roles previously filled exclusively by men. As Lilian
Rubin, psychologist at the University of California Institute for the
Study of Social Change and author of Intimate Strangers, puts it, "Women
feel empowered sexually in a way they never did in the past."
Meanwhile, the singles scene, far from fading away (the media just
lost its fixation on this subject), continues to grow. James Bennet,
writing in The New Republic, characterizes this growing population of
no-reproducers thusly: "Single adults in America display a remarkable
tendency to multiply without being fruitful "
Their libidos are the target of million-dollar advertising budgets
and entrepreneurial pursuits that seek to put those sex drives on line in
the information age. From video dating to computer coupling to erotic
taxing, it's now "love at first byte," as one commentator put it. One
thing is certain: the computer is doing as much today to promote the
sexual revolution as the automobile did at the dawn of that
Political ideologies, buttressed by economic adversities, can
temporarily retard the sexual revolution, as can sexually transmitted
diseases. But ultimately the forces propelling this revolution are
unstoppable. And ironically, AIDS itself is probably doing more to
promote than impede this movement. It has forced the nation to confront a
number of sexual issues with greater frankness than ever before. While
some conservatives and many religious groups have argued for abstinence
as the only moral response to AIDS, others have lobbied for wider
dissemination of sexual information, beginning in grade schools. A number
of school districts are now making condoms available to students--a
development that would have been unthinkable before the outbreak of
Despite all these gains (or losses, depending upon your outlook)
the revolution is far from over. The openness that it has fostered is
healthy, but Americans are still ignorant about many aspects of human
sexuality. Sexual research is needed to help us deal with teen sexuality
and pregnancies, AIDS, and a number of emotional issues related to
sexuality. Suffice it to say for now that there is still plenty of room
for the sexual revolution to proceed--and its greatest benefits have yet
to be realized.
THE REVOLUTION AND RELATIONSHIPS
The idea that the Sexual Revolution is at odds with romance (not to
mention tradition) is one that is widely held, even by some of those who
endorse many of the revolution's apparent objectives. But there is
nothing in our findings to indicate that romance and the sexual
revolution are inimical--unless one's defense of romance disguises an
agenda of traditional male dominance and the courtly illusion of intimacy
and communication between the sexes.
The trend now, as we shall see, is away from illusion and
toward--in transition, at least--a sometimes painful reality in which the
sexes are finally making an honest effort to understand one
But to some, it may seem that the sexes are farther apart today
than they ever have been. The real gender gap, they say, is a
communications gap so cavernous that only the most intrepid or foolhardy
dare try to bridge it. Many look back at the Anita Hill affair and say
that was the open declaration of war between the sexes.
The mistake many make, however, is saying that there has been a
recent breakdown in those communications, hence all this new discontent.
This conclusion usually goes unchallenged, but there is nothing in the
data we have seen from past decades to indicate that sexual- and
gender-related communication were ever better than they are today. On the
contrary, a more thoughtful analysis makes it very clear they have always
What has changed is our consciousness about this issue. Problems in
communication between the sexes have been masked for decades by a rigid
social code that strictly prescribes other behavior. Communication
between the sexes has long been preprogrammed by this code to produce an
exchange that has been as superficial as it is oppressive. As this
process begins to be exposed by its own inadequacies in a rapidly
changing world, we suddenly discover that we have a problem. But, of
course, that problem was there for a long time, and the discovery does
not mean a decline in communication between the sexes but, rather,
provides us with the potential for better relationships in the long
Thus what we call a "breakdown" in communications might more aptly
be called a breakthrough.
Seymour Parker, of the University of Utah, demonstrated that men
who are the most mannerly with women, those who adhere most strictly to
the "code" discussed above, are those who most firmly believe,
consciously or unconsciously, that women are "both physically and
psychologically weaker (i.e., less capable) than men." What has long
passed for male "respect" toward women in our society is, arguably,
Yet what has been learned can be unlearned--especially if women
force the issue, which is precisely what is happening now. Women's views
of themselves are changing and that, more than anything, is working to
eliminate many of the stereotypes that supported the image of women as
weak and inferior. Women, far from letting men continue to dictate to
them, are making it clear they want more real respect from men and will
accept nothing less. They want a genuine dialogue; they want men to
recognize that they speak with a distinct and equal voice, not one that
is merely ancillary to the male voice.
The sexual revolution made possible a serious inquiry into the ways
that men and women are alike and the ways that each is unique. This
revolutionary development promises to narrow the gender gap as nothing
else can, for only by understanding the differences that make
communication so complex do we stand any chance of mastering those
Greater Equality Between the Sexes
Despite talk in the late 1980s and early 1990s of the decline of
feminism and declarations that women, as a social and political force,
are waning, equality between the sexes is closer to becoming a reality
than ever before. Women command a greater presence in the workforce and
wield greater political power than they have ever done. They are assuming
positions in both public and private sectors that their mothers and
grandmothers believed were unattainable (and their fathers and
grandfathers thought were inappropriate) for women. Nonetheless, much
remains to be achieved before women attain complete equality--but
movement in that direction will continue at a pace that will surprise
many over the next two decades.
Women voters, for example, who have long outnumbered male voters,
are collectively a sleeping giant whose slumber many say was abruptly
interrupted during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in 1991. The
spectacle of a political "boy's club" raking the dignified Hill over the
coals of sexual harassment galvanized the entire nation for days.
On another front, even though women have a long way to go to match
men in terms of equal pay for equal work, as well as in equal
opportunity, there is a definite research trend that shows women can
match men in the skills needed to succeed in business. This growing body
of data will make it more difficult for businesses to check the rise of
women into the upper echelons of management and gradually help to change
the corporate consciousness that still heavily favors male
As for feminism, many a conservative wrote its obituary in the
1980s, only to find it risen from the dead in the 1990s. Actually, its
demise was always imaginary. Movements make headway only in a context of
dissatisfaction. And, clearly, there is still plenty for women to be
dissatisfied about, particularly in the wake of a decade that tried to
stifle meaningful change.
The "new feminism," as some call it, is less doctrinaire than the
old, less extreme in the sense that it no longer has to be outrageous in
order to call attention to itself. The movement today is less
introspective, more goal oriented and pragmatic. Demands for liberation
are superseded--and subsumed--by a well-organized quest for power. Women
no longer want to burn bras, they want to manufacture and market
The New Masculinity
To say that the men's movement today is confused is to understate
mercifully. Many men say they want to be more "sensitive" but also "less
emasculated," "more open," yet "less vulnerable." While the early flux of
this movement is often so extreme that it cannot but evoke guffaws, there
is, nonetheless, something in it that commands some respect--for, in
contrast with earlier generations of males, this one is making a real
effort to examine and redefine itself. The movement, in a word, is
Innumerable studies and surveys find men dissatisfied with
themselves and their roles in society. Part of this, undoubtedly, is the
result of the displacement men are experiencing in a culture where women
are so successfully transforming themselves. There is evidence, too, that
men are dissatisfied because their own fathers were so unsuccessful in
their emotional lives and were thus unable to impart to their sons a
sense of love, belonging, and security that an increasing number of men
say they sorely miss.
The trend has nothing to do with beating drums or becoming a
"warrior." It relates to the human desire for connection, and this, in
the long run, can only bode well for communications between humans in
general and between the sexes in particular. Many psychologists believe
men, in the next two decades, will be less emotionally closed than at any
time in American history.
More (and Better) Senior Sex
People used to talk about sex after 40 as if it were some kind of
novelty. Now it's sex after 60 and it's considered not only commonplace
Some fear that expectations among the aged may outrun physiological
ability and that exaggerated hopes, in some cases, will lead to new
frustrations--or that improved health into old age will put pressure on
seniors to remain sexually active beyond any "decent" desire to do
But most seem to welcome the trend toward extended sexuality. In
fact, the desire for sex in later decades of life is heightened, studies
suggest, by society's growing awareness and acceptance of sexual activity
in later life.
Diversity of Sexual Expression
As sex shifts from its traditional reproductive role to one that is
psychological, it increasingly serves the needs of the individual. In
this context, forms of sexual expression that were previously proscribed
are now tolerated and are, in some cases, increasingly viewed as no more
nor less healthy than long-accepted forms of sexual behavior.
Homosexuality, for example, has attained a level of acceptance
unprecedented in our national history.
More Contraception, Less Abortion
Though abortion will remain legal under varying conditions in most,
if not all, states, its use will continue to decline over the next two
decades as more--and better--contraceptives become available. After a
period of more than two decades in which drug companies shied away from
contraceptive research, interest in this field is again growing. AIDS, a
changed political climate, and renewed fears about the population
explosion are all contributing to this change.
Additionally, scientific advances now point the way to safer, more
effective, more convenient contraceptives. A male contraceptive that will
be relatively side-effect free is finally within reach and should be
achieved within the next decade, certainly the next two decades. Even
more revolutionary in concept and probable impact is a vaccine, already
tested in animals, that some predict will be available within 10 years--a
vaccine that safely stops ovum maturation and thus makes conception
Religion and Sex: A More Forgiving Attitude
Just a couple of decades ago mainstream religion was monolithic in
its condemnation of sex outside of marriage. Today the situation is quite
different as major denominations across the land struggle with issues
they previously wouldn't have touched, issues related to adultery,
premarital sex, homosexuality, and so on.
A Special Committee on Human Sexuality, convened by the General
Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, surprised many
when it issued a report highly critical of the traditional "patriarchal
structure of sexual relations," a structure the committee believes
contributes, because of its repressiveness, to the proliferation of
pornography and sexual violence.
The same sort of thing has been happening in most other major
denominations. It is safe to say that major changes are coming.
Mainstream religion is beginning to perceive that the sexual revolution
must be acknowledged and, to a significant degree, accommodated with new
policies if these denominations are to remain in touch with present-day
Expanding Sexual Entertainment
The use of sex to sell products, as well as to entertain, is
increasing and can be expected to do so. The concept that "sex sells" is
so well established that we need not belabor the point here. The
explicitness of sexual advertising, however, may be curbed by recent
research finding that highly explicit sexual content is so diverting that
the viewer or reader tends to overlook the product entirely.
Sexual stereotyping will also be less prevalent in advertising in
years to come. All this means, however, is that women will not be singled
out as sex objects; they'll have plenty of male company, as is already
the case. The female "bimbo" is now joined by the male "bimbo" in
ever-increasing numbers. Sexist advertising is still prevalent (e.g.,
male-oriented beer commercials) but should diminish as women gain in
social and political power.
There's no doubt that films and TV have become more sexually
permissive in the last two decades and are likely to continue in that
direction for some time to come. But all this will surely pale alongside
the brave (or brazen) new world of "cybersex" and virtual reality, the
first erotic emanations of which may well be experienced by Americans in
the coming two decades. Virtual reality aims to be just that--artificial,
electronically induced experiences that are virtually indistinguishable
from the real thing.
The sexual revolution, far from over, is in for some new, hightech
FROM BIOLOGY TO PSYCHOLOGY: THE NEW FAMILY OF THE MIND
Despite recent pronouncements that the traditional family is making
a comeback, the evidence suggests that over the next two decades the
nuclear family will share the same future as nuclear arms: there will be
fewer of them, but those that remain will be better cared for.
Demographers now believe that the number of families consisting of
married couples with children will dwindle by yet another 12 percent by
the year 2000. Meanwhile, single-parent households will continue to
increase (up 41 percent over the past decade.) And household size will
continue to decline (2.63 people in 1990 versus 3.14 in 1970). The number
of households maintained by women, with no males present, has increased
300 percent since 1950 and will continue to rise into the 21st
Particularly alarming to some is the fact that an increasing number
of people are choosing never to marry. And, throughout the developed
world, the one-person household is now the fastest growing household
category. To the traditionalists, this trend seems insidious--more than
25 percent of all households in the United States now consist of just one
There can be no doubt: the nuclear family has been vastly
diminished, and it will continue to decline for some years, but at a more
gradual pace. Indeed, there is a good chance that it will enjoy more
stability in the next two decades than it did in the last two. Many of
the very forces that were said to be weakening the traditional family may
now make it stronger, though not more prevalent. Developing social
changes have made traditional marriage more elective today, so that those
who choose it may, increasingly, some psychologists believe, represent a
subpopulation better suited to the institution and thus more likely to
make a go of it.
As we try to understand new forms of family, we need to realize
that the "traditional" family is not particularly traditional. Neither is
it necessarily the healthiest form of family. The nuclear family has
existed for only a brief moment in human history. Moreover, most people
don't realize that no sooner had the nuclear family form peaked around
the turn of the last century than erosion set in, which has continued
ever since. For the past hundred years, reality has chipped away at this
social icon, with increasing divorce and the movement of more women into
the labor force. Yet our need for nurturance, security, and connectedness
continues and, if anything, grows more acute as our illusions about the
traditional family dissipate.
Our longing for more satisfying sources of nurturance has led us to
virtually redefine the family, in terms of behavior, language, and law.
These dramatic changes will intensify over the next two decades. The
politics of family will be entirely transformed in that period. The
process will not be without interruptions or setbacks. Some lower-court
rulings may be overturned by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, the
traditional family will be revived in the headline from time to time, but
the economic and psychological forces that for decades have been shaping
these changes toward a more diverse family will continue to do so.
Deceptively Declining Divorce Rate
The "good news" is largely illusory. Our prodigious national
divorce rate, which more than doubled in one recent 10-year period, now
shows signs of stabilization or even decline. Still, 50 percent of all
marriages will break up in the next several years. And the leveling of
the divorce rate is not due to stronger marriage but to less marriage.
More people are skipping marriage altogether and are cohabiting
The slight dip in the divorce rate in recent years has caused some
prognosticators to predict that younger people, particularly those who've
experienced the pain of growing up in broken homes, are increasingly
committed to making marriage stick. Others, more persuasively, predict
the opposite, that the present lull precedes a storm in which the divorce
rate will soar to 60 percent or higher.
The rate of cohabitation--living together without legal
marriage--has been growing since 1970 and will accelerate in the next two
decades. There were under half a million cohabiting couple in 1970; today
there are more than 2.5. The trend for the postindustrial world is very
clear: less marriage, more cohabitation, easier and--if Sweden is any
indication--less stressful separation. Those who divorce will be less
likely to remarry, more likely to cohabit. And in the United States,
cohabitation will increasingly gather about it both the cultural
acceptance and the legal protection now afforded marriage.
More Single-Parent Families and Planned Single Parenthood
The United States has one of the highest proportions of children
growing up in single-parent families. More than one in five births in the
United States is outside of marriage--and three quarters of those births
are to women who are not in consensual unions.
What is significant about the singleparent trend is the finding
that many single women with children now prefer to remain single. The
rush to the altar of unwed mothers, so much a part of American life in
earlier decades, is now, if anything, a slow and grudging shuffle. The
stigma of single parenthood is largely a thing of the past--and the
economic realities, unsatisfactory though they are, sometimes favor
single parenthood. In any case, women have more choices today than they
had even 10 years ago; they are choosing the psychological freedom of
single parenthood over the financial security (increasingly illusory, in
any event) of marriage.
More Couples Childless by Choice
In the topsy-turvy 1990s, with more single people wanting children,
it shouldn't surprise us that more married couples don't want children.
What the trend really comes down to is increased freedom of choice. One
reason for increasing childlessness among couples has to do with the
aging of the population, but many of the reasons are more purely
With a strong trend toward later marriage, many couples feel they
are "too old" to have children. Others admit they like the economic
advantages and relative freedom of being childless. Often both have
careers they do not want to jeopardize by having children. In addition, a
growing number of couples cite the need for lower population density,
crime rates, and environmental concerns as reasons for not wanting
children. The old idea that "there must be something wrong with them" if
a couple does not reproduce is fast waning.
The One-Person Household
This is the fastest growing household category in the Western
world. It has grown in the United States from about 10 percent in the
1950s to more than 25 percent of all households today. This is a trend
that still has a long way to go. In Sweden, nearly 40 percent of all
households are now single person.
"Mr. Mom" a Reality at Last?
When women began pouring into the work force in the late 1970s,
expectations were high that a real equality of the sexes was at hand and
that men, at last, would begin to shoulder more of the household duties,
including spending more time at home taking care of the kids. Many women
now regard the concept of "Mr. Mom" as a cruel hoax; but, in fact, Mr.
Mom is slowly emerging.
Men are showing more interest in the home and in parenting. Surveys
make clear there is a continuing trend in that direction. Granted, part
of the impetus for this is not so much a love of domestic work as it is a
distaste for work outside the home. But there is also, among many men, a
genuine desire to play a larger role in the lives of their children.
These men say they feel " cheated" by having to work outside the home so
much, cheated of the experience of seeing their children grow up.
As the trend toward more equal pay for women creeps along, gender
roles in the home can be expected to undergo further change. Men will
feel less pressure to take on more work and will feel more freedom to
spend increased time with their families.
More Interracial Families
There are now about 600,000 interracial marriages annually in the
United States, a third of these are black-white, nearly triple the number
in 1970, when 40 percent of the white population was of the opinion that
such marriages should be illegal. Today 20 percent hold that belief.
There is every reason to expect that both the acceptance of and the
number of interracial unions will continue to increase into the
Recognition of Same-Sex Families
Family formation by gay and lesbian couples, with or without
children, is often referenced by the media as a leading-edge signifier of
just how far society has moved in the direction of diversity and
individual choice in the family realm. The number of same-sex couples has
steadily increased and now stands at 1.6 million such couples. There are
an estimated 2 million gay parents in the Unites States.
And while most of these children were had in heterosexual
relationships or marriages prior to "coming out:" a significant number of
gay and lesbian couples are having children through adoption, cooperative
parenting arrangements, and artificial insemination. Within the next two
decades, gays and lesbians will not only win the right to marry but will,
like newly arrived immigrants, be some of the strongest proponents of
traditional family values.
The Rise of Fictive Kinships
Multiadult households, typically consisting of unrelated singles,
have been increasing in number for some years and are expected to
continue to do so in coming years. For many, "roommates" are increasingly
permanent fixtures in daily life.
In fact housemates are becoming what some sociologist and
psychologists call "fictive kin." Whole "fictive families" are being
generated in many of these situations, with some housemates even
assigning roles ("brother," "sister," "cousin", " aunt," "mom," "dad,"
and so on) to one another. Fictive families are springing up among young
people, old people, disabled people, homeless people, and may well define
one of the ultimate evolutions of the family concept, maximizing, as they
do, the opportunities for fulfillment of specific social and economic
needs outside the constraints of biological relatedness.
THE BREAKUP OF THE NUCLEAR FAMILY
It's hard to tell how many times we've heard even well-informed
health professionals blithely opine that "the breakup of the family is at
the root of most of our problems." The facts disagree with this
conclusion. Most of the social problems attributed to the dissolution of
the "traditional" family (which, in reality, is not so traditional) are
the product of other forces. Indeed, as we have seen, the nuclear family
has itself created a number of economic, social, and psychological
problems. To try to perpetuate a manifestly transient social institution
beyond its usefulness is folly.
What can we do to save the nuclear family? Very little.
What should we do? Very little. Our concern should not be the
maintenance of the nuclear family as a moral unit (which seems to be one
of the priorities of the more ardent conservative "family values"
forces), encompassing the special interests and values of a minority,
but, rather, the strengthening of those social contracts that ensure the
health, well-being, and freedom of individuals.
PHOTO: Refrigerator with built-in television
PHOTO: Bag of computer chips
PHOTO: Knife and toast with multi-colored butter
Excerpted from Psychotrends: What Kind of People Are We Becoming?
(Simon & Schuster) by Shervert H. Frazier, M.D. Copyright 1994 by
Shervert H. Frazier, M.D.