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Evolving Marriage: The New
Sexualities in Perspective

RAYMOND J. NOONAN


Copyright © 1979, 1999 Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D.

Paper presented at the IV World Congress of Sexology in the Symposium, “The Validity of Marriage,” on December 17, 1979, 2 p.m., at the Centro Medico Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico.


Marriage today is an intricate mix of past values and contemporary changes. For in the West, and particularly in the United States, we find a vast array of sexual choices available to individuals that only fifteen years ago would have been considered scandalous. Yet, still, most people cling to the elusive ideals of traditional marriage.

What are the factors we find juxtaposed with these ideals that are creating this presumably transitional contradictory state of affairs? Also, what are some of the choices that people are considering, and what implications do they have for public policy and for us as professionals?


According to traditional Judeo-Christian precepts, all sexual expression must be contained within a duly sanctified marriage between a man and a woman. Further, it has to assume that conception might occur. As such, procreation, up until recently, has been considered the only purpose of sex, and sexual activity that did not contribute to this end was called “unnatural.” This extension of the so-called “Natural Law Doctrine” is based on a mythical worldview that human actions and laws are derived directly from divine nature and that somehow all actions take on a value with regard to human endeavors. For example, it rains not because of factors of evaporation and condensation, but rather as a punishment or prize for humanity’s behavior.

With the advent of the scientific method and its application to the observation of nature, this essentially religious doctrine began to lose considerable ground. The psychological revolutions of the humanists and the existentialists have today served the same function. We are beginning to realize that nature has no intrinsic moral purpose, but that it exists in its own right. We are discovering that human beings have to take full responsibility for their sexual actions and their sexual values. We are even beginning to argue that violations against individual rights to sexual expression are, themselves, crimes against human nature. Of course, nature itself cannot be violated, but the trend is indeed toward an expansion of human freedom.

The most notable example of this trend is the profound impact of contraceptive technology on contemporary mores. No longer must there be unwanted or “illegitimate” pregnancies, for it is within the grasp of each person to control the outcome of sexual activity. The same is true for VD, the other major practical weapon against unsanctioned sexual activity. One visionary scientist estimated that within ten years, we will have the technology to more or less completely control fertility, and within fifty years to virtually eliminate the venereal diseases, or the “sexually transmitted diseases,” as they are now called.

It is up to us, as professionals and as knowledgeable agents of change, to catalyze this progress. As these dreams become reality, the effectiveness of these controls over sexual behavior, which were never truly effective, will be further diminished.


Not all forces are acting passively, however. One of the most powerful of the social movements, the tidal wave of the future, is the grassroots, and now scientific, push toward women’s liberation from past stereotypes. Ironically, the most significant aspect of this revolution may be the psychological release of millions of men from the chains of their own stereotyped masculinity. Nevertheless, women are actively redefining themselves and their sexuality on their own terms. In the process, they are recognizing that they, too, like men, are sexual beings with a right to sexual expression. Also on the grassroots level, we find that many individuals are experimenting with bisexuality, as it becomes more evident that sexual preferences appear to be a function of past conditioning and acculturation. As these trends continue, the definitions of sexuality will no longer be exclusively male, but both female and male.

In fact, what we see developing today is a synthesis of both worlds. We find coalescing a psychology and a sociology of androgyny, or integrated femininity and masculinity. Women are independent and logical, while men are intuitive and nurturing. Social scientists are finally admitting that most individuals are masculine and feminine, that the bipolar “either/or” dichotomy is largely a figment of society’s imagination. Accepting this thesis—and it’s far from being universally accepted—a whole new set of guidelines has to be developed to deal with androgynous individuals in everyday situations and real-life relationships. In practical terms, we need to further the work that has been done to create a less restrictive concept of mental health, one that is free from culturally imposed definitions of femininity and masculinity. We also need to pressure public officials and agencies in all nations to put these ideas into our public-policy goals; otherwise we are a revolution in a vacuum. In the United States, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which sought to constitutionally guarantee that rights not be abridged on account of sex, was an important first step in what will be a long journey, [as evidenced by the fact that the ERA failed to be ratified]. But that must be only the beginning. Public money must be spent on research and training as well.


Bisexual exploration, women’s self-determination, advances in contraceptive technology, the scientific revolution as a whole—all have contributed to the spectrum of today’s committed relationships. No longer is sex tied only to traditional marriage, and neither are certain other concepts long associated with it. The behavior patterns of vast numbers of people are forcing scientists and laypeople alike to re-examine long-held tenets regarding jealousy, sexual exclusivity, and the idea of possession of sexual mates. The idea that jealousy is the surest sign of love is only one example of a once strongly held principle that is falling into disrepute.

When we shift our attention to sexual expression in same-sex associations, we find that, here too, our attitudes are evolving with the contemporary shift in mores. The same is true of intimate play involving the entire body, and group and multilateral sexual experiences. Even the definition of marriage is being called into question with attempts to subject it to periodic redefinition—or to replace it entirely with cohabitation arrangements, with contracts detailing everything from who decides where to live to who uses birth control devices to how to arrange outside sexual relationships.

But as deeply as these issues cut to the heart of human relationships, there is another issue that descends even further, for it has been connected to the survival of the human race in every culture since the beginning of time. The choice of whether to remain childfree or to have children was once a de facto decision that came along with the decision to marry. In the eighties, as we realize more and more our planet’s limits to human exploitation of its resources, couples will choose to “stop at two” or to have no children at all. The rest of us will understand, for the future calls for interdependence, both between individuals and between nations.


What is the future of marriage and the family? As I see it, it’s a combination of several trends. The primary focus will be on a collective effort to solve some of the enormous problems facing all of us—in all nations—in the years and decades ahead. Microcosmically, that points to each of us as individuals to work to improve our own private worlds. What began in the 1960s as a new tribalism, perhaps best symbolized by the Broadway musical Hair, is beginning to bear fruit. For everyone knew, one person could not do much alone. If you added another person you could do more, and when you added a third, you could do still more. The concept of synergy, that one plus one plus one is greater than three, began to be applied to friendship networks and later to marriage in the forms of “group marriage” and in what the O’Neills called “open marriage.”

Open marriage, and more broadly, open relationships, were based on the philosophy that individuals who interact with others outside the original pair-bond bring something more to the original relationship and thus expand the horizons of the couple while strengthening the primary pair-bond. The popularized form of open marriage became the “sexually open marriage,” which usually lacked many of the antecedents the O’Neills described for strengthening the original bond. Much research is being conducted currently on such relationships and the controversy over their viability will be with us for some time. The impact, however, of open marriage is unmistakable, and it is clear that some form of open marriage, even if it is monogamous, will be the norm of the future.

The impact of the open marriage on the future of the family has only recently been felt because the principles of open marriage, when applied more broadly to family units, has been a more recent phenomenon. Thus one sees developing today “intentional expanded families” and “expanded family networks” paralleling the pre-industrial extended family of yesteryear. At this point, I return to the beginning of this segment on the future and suggest that the expanded family network may be humanity’s hope for solving its collective challenges ahead.


A final word on “alternative lifestyles.” We scientists should drop the term completely. It has been promoted so broadly by reason and rhetoric that it means very little, particularly when scientifically referring to sexual relationship patterns. We also need to reconceptualize what we mean when we do use the phrase. For too many, professional and non-professional alike, it has a heterosexual connotation, with the activity of “swinging,” or mate-swapping, as the primary image. The fact is, we cannot speak of homosexuality or heterosexuality as being lifestyles at all. These terms refer to rather specific sexual relationships and, as all of us know, refer (rather fleetingly at that) to a relative handful of people who practice them exclusively.

Rather, lifestyles are modes of living we all go through at various stages in our life. And they are all alternatives. Some of the major lifestyle choices include the decisions of whether to remain or become single or married, whether to remain childfree or to have children, whether to pursue a career inside or outside the home, and whether to relate sexually with only one person or many and with one or both sexes. Of course, the entire concept of “alternative lifestyles” grew out of a response to the societal and parental pressures many feel toward getting married, having children, getting a job for men, and making a home for women. I suspect all the experimentation and turmoil in lifestyles, and in marriage and family in particular, are positive responses to these expectations, and what comes out of the protests is sure to be beneficial for the family of the future.

The transition, however, will not be without its tragedies for those of us who are forced to live through it. Countless people, in countless relationships have experienced the pain of the “ruptured bond.” We sometimes don’t realize that for every current working relationship, there are dozens of “failures” or “missed chances.” They all take their toll on human happiness.

But what of satisfaction in living? Certainly through the ages there has been little consideration for whether or not individuals were happy in their marriages and relationships. The elderly and the physically challenged or handicapped have been particularly hit hard. We in the present, though, like to stress the importance of happiness in whatever relationships one chooses. But the needs of people in relationships—among them privacy, intimacy, communication, love, acceptance of self and others—are complex, and they transcend all intimate committed relationships.

 

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 Click on the amazon.com button to buy it!  Click here to buy it! Two articles in Robert T. Francoeur’s International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, published in August 1997 by Continuum Publishing Co.: “The Impact of AIDS on Our Perception of Sexuality” and “Sex Surrogates: The Continuing Controversy” in the United States chapter in volume 3, and additional comments (with Sandra Almeida) in the chapter on Brazil in volume 1. Encourage your library to purchase this three-volume, 1737-page set—the most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of sexuality in 33 countries ever published. Order from amazon.com.


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 Click on the amazon.com button to buy it!  Click here to buy it! The third edition of the book, Does Anyone Still Remember When Sex Was Fun? Positive Sexuality in the Age of AIDS, 3rd edition, edited by Peter B. Anderson, Diane de Mauro, & Raymond J. Noonan, published by Kendall/Hunt in September 1996. Click here for more information about the book.

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