Where Did Gender Tolerance Come From?

In developed countries, the needle moves steadily toward sexual liberty.

Posted Jul 25, 2018

We are accustomed to worries about the decline in political tolerance in developed countries. One area where tolerance continues to advance is in regards to gender and sexuality. Why have modern societies become more accepting of sexual diversity than earlier periods?

The emergence of gay marriage is perhaps the most visible sign of greater acceptance of sexual diversity. This change occurs against a backdrop of declining restrictions on sexual behavior more generally over the past half-century or more.

There are two main approaches to this transition in the social sciences. The most widely accepted one — Modernization Theory — sees an opening up of sexuality as the inevitable consequence of rising affluence in developed countries. The other approach focuses on declining gender specialization in modern economies.

Modernization Theory

As countries develop, they become more liberal, although the road may be bumpy (1). This involves a general appreciation of the rights of others and the contribution of diversity of backgrounds and opinions to a society.

The underlying rationale is that with rising affluence, people are less concerned about satisfying basic needs and that they move on to being more interested in activities that are either intrinsically interesting, or valuable to humanity. Psychologists might say that we move up Maslow's hierarchy of needs and pursue creativity and self-actualization needs.

Whatever the rationale, this pattern is real. Developed countries are more open than societies of the past in terms of political and social life. It is true that there are apparent exceptions, from the persistence of Communism in China and Russia, to the rise of xenophobic nationalism.

Yet, it is important to realize that China is not fully developed while the quality of life inside Russia is low. Moreover, xenophobic nationalist sub populations have mostly seen a real decline in their quality of life and even temporary recessions have the effect of making countries less liberal.

Gender Specialization

In subsistence societies, there is a clear division of labor by gender. This mostly disappeared in the 20th century in developed countries as the majority of married women remained in the paid workforce. This reflected improved job opportunities for women and the rising costs of raising a family.

There have been many practical consequences for sexual behavior. Marriage was delayed as women pursued higher education and careers. This delay played a role in the rising number of women being sexually active before marriage, a trend facilitated by widespread availability, and use, of effective contraception.

Given that most single women are sexually active, women could not restrict sexual access as a way of controlling men as happens in sexually restrictive societies in which men must marry in order to enjoy sexual relations with a woman who is not a prostitute.

This means that men devote less effort to education and careers that were essential to attract a desirable bride. If single men may enjoy a satisfactory sex life without being married, they are less likely to exert themselves in academic work, which may be partly why male graduation rates are falling. Given a choice between studying and partying, many college men choose the latter. On the other hand, college women are more ambitious than ever, now earning more degrees than men.

In the process of declining gender specialization, sexuality is much less of a public matter. Instead, it is conducted according to the wishes, and needs, of the individual.

Why Sexuality Is Less of a Public Issue

Progressive increases in liberal social attitudes are a well-documented effect of economic development and increasing affluence (1). Why this happens is less clear.

We can assume that declining gender specialization in households is one major influence. As women become economically independent, and autonomous, they no longer rely on masculine investment as an existential necessity.

At the same time, widespread use of contraceptives separates sexuality from reproduction and thereby reduces the cost to women of premarital sex. Being engaged in full time paid employment, women devote far less effort to childcare because they have fewer children and because commercial daycare helps to shoulder the burden.

Given this backdrop, and an environment where marriage is comparatively weak, and premarital sexuality is common, communities acquire a much more liberal attitude to female sexual expression and accept that it is a private matter in which the society as a whole has little stake (CCR paper).

Of course, this is very different from the sexually restrictive societies of the Middle East where premarital sex is treated as a capital offense that is threatening to the entire society and requires a morals police to keep it from happening.

With the liberation of female sexuality, there is pervasive atmosphere of greater respect for sexual rights. Previously discriminated-against groups, such as homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender persons, and those who lack a gender identity or sexual proclivity acquire similar rights as those acquired by heterosexuals..

We may disagree about the underlying causes but there can be no doubt about the direction of change.


1 Inglehart, R., and Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

2 Welzel, C. (2013). Freedom rising: Human empowerment and the quest for emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

3 Barber, N. (2018). Cross-national variation in attitudes to premarital sex: Economic development, disease risk, and marriage strength. Cross-Cultural Research, 1-15. DOI: 10.1177/1069397117718143