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Nathan Lauster defines sexual revolutionaries as women who challenge the trinity of marriage, sex and childbearing - photo by Martin Dee
Nathan Lauster defines sexual revolutionaries as women who challenge the trinity of marriage, sex and childbearing - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 2 | Feb. 1, 2007

Defying a Victorian Sexual Script

By Lorraine Chan

Love, sex, marriage and babies have shaped human lives through the ages.

But in the past century, we’ve seen huge shifts that challenge this script, says Asst. Prof. Nathan Lauster, a sociologist who teaches at the UBC School of Social Work and Family Studies.

Lauster posits that two sexual revolutions have taken place across the course of the 20th century, and we’re still living in the wake of those changes today, some countries moving more quickly than others.

In Sweden, for example, liberal sex attitudes mean that parents often permit their teenagers overnight guests. In contrast, 27 per cent of Americans believe that pre-marital sex is “always wrong,” according to a 1998 survey by National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago. Canadian views on pre-marital sex fall somewhere between those of the U.S. and Sweden, says Lauster.

A demographer, Lauster tracks the pivotal periods of sexual revolution through census data. Recently, he analyzed U.S. census figures between 1880 and 2000, specifically the marriage and childbearing statistics for young women in their 20s and early 30s.

Women who defied the mores of their time were the “revolutionaries,” says Lauster. They resisted the standards of sexual propriety used “to separate bad people from good people.

“According to the Victorian sexual script, marriage was strongly linked to procreation,” he says. “I’m looking at women who break the link between sex, marriage and childbearing and make sexual behaviour public by being wives without children or being mothers without ever marrying.”

Lauster says the first sexual revolution started during the 1920s and peaked during the 30s. “That’s when you see a strong challenge to the trinity of marriage, sexual experience and childbearing. Young married women were pushing the boundaries by taking control, by saying, ‘I’m having sex, but not having children.’”

Sifting through decades of statistics, Lauster compares metropolitan and non-metroplitan populations, black and white populations and the populations of four metropolitan areas – Boston, Richmond, VA, Indianapolis and San Francisco.

Between 1880 and 1940, census records show the proportion of married women without children nearly doubled, rising from 16 per cent to 30 per cent for white women aged 25-29. Patterns for black women during this period are broadly similar, with the proportion of married women without children more than doubling during this period, to a high of 42 per cent.

“Non-procreative sex gained more public prominence, following a rise in the acceptability of ‘companionate marriages’ especially in metropolitan areas,” says Lauster. “This makes sense for a variety of reasons. New work opportunities, new social movements and the availability of contraceptives would impact women living in large cities more than rural areas.”

And because these women were on average more educated than the rest of the population, they wielded enough power to usher in greater public acceptance of contraceptives.

He says the second and more commonly described period of sexual revolution started in the 1960s and continues into the 21st century. “This time, both the bonds between sex and childbearing and the bonds between sex and marriage are broken.”

However, the second revolution is still being contested in the U.S. “There’s a segment of the population that still believes sex should be both heterosexual and confined to marriage.”

Lauster attributes this to what is often called a “puritan strain of thought” in the U.S., most visible among conservative, religious and Republican coalitions. Because of their political clout, these voters can lobby for stricter anti-abortion laws or banning sex education in public schools.

Lauster’s next step will be to conduct a comparative study between the U.S., Canada and Sweden. “A starting point would be to look at why the sexual revolution has been so successful in its first and second waves in Sweden.”

He contends that a more open society brings benefits, such as lower rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. “One reason why the U.S. has more than double the rate of teen pregnancy of most other Western nations could be that sex is seen as something bad, so you don’t prepare teens for it.”

A 2001 study in Family Planning Perspectives journal reported that the teenage pregnancy rate in Sweden is 25 per 1,000 women (aged 15-19), in comparison to 46 in Canada and 84 in the U.S.

UBC School of Social Work and Family Studies invites you to visit its new research forum at: http://weblogs.elearning.ubc.ca/familyresearchblog.

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Last reviewed 29-Jan-2007

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