Politics & Policy

Sex in Our Cities

The reality we don't see on TV.

When University of Chicago sociologists recently unveiled their mound of data on the sexual habits of Chicagoans, they gave it as snappy a title as could be expected for an academic study: The Sexual Organization of the City.

Their title echoed the immensely popular and now-retired HBO series that celebrated the sexual exploits of four Manhattan women searching for Mr. Right Now. But the study’s results painted a very different picture of sexual realities in America than Sex and the City.

In the make-believe world of Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones, bed-hopping and partner-switching are a glamorous, if exhausting, enterprise. Sex is a game, men are playthings, and women achieve liberation by acting as ruthlessly detached as men can be in their pursuit of pleasure.

The Chicago study paints a considerably grimmer picture of sex in our cities. The study, which is part of the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey published this spring in book form, includes data from interviews with more than 2,000 Chicago residents ages 18 to 59, as well as clergy, police officers, and social workers. The researchers closely examined city neighborhoods with predominantly black, Hispanic, and gay populations between 1995 and 1997. Their findings are not pretty.

Among many Chicagoans, the researchers found marriage on the decline, polygamy and domestic violence on the rise, and “transactional” sexual relationships–meaning those forged purely for pleasure–replacing “relational” ones. Perhaps most striking to feminists may be the revelation that, rather than empowering women, the rejection of traditional sexual mores seems to have limited their choices of committed partners and even endangered their welfare.

Consider the situation in the African-American community that the researchers dubbed “Southtown,” where marriage rates are low, women outnumber men, and polygamy is the norm. According to the Boston Globe, Edward Laumann, the author of the study, said Southtown’s “ratio of marriageable men to women…has gone to hell in a go-cart over the last 20 years.” More than one in five Southtown men reported that they planned to maintain ongoing sexual relationships with two different women for the next few months, as compared to only one in 20 other survey respondents.

As the Globe reported, Laumann blamed economic problems for the high rates of two-timing in Southtown, where a large number of women must compete for the attention of a small number of financially stable men.

But that explanation does not fully account for the disparity between Southtown’s rates of promiscuity and those of the nearby “Westside” community, as researchers dubbed it. While 31 percent of Southtown men reported having had more than three one-night stands, only 12 percent of Westside men said the same. Half the men and three-quarters of the women in Westside say it is wrong to have sex without love, and Westside residents are more likely to meet sexual partners in family settings. One likely explanation for their rejection of casual sex: About half of Westside’s residents are immigrants from rural Mexico, where traditional mores still hold sway.

In Westside and the other Latino neighborhood researchers surveyed, social workers blamed a Latino “culture of silence” for discouraging frank discussions about sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. But it seems that a little old-fashioned reticence might be a good thing for the women of Westside, who are less likely to wind up in transactional sexual relationships with strangers who have several other lovers on the side.

The old-fashioned custom of meeting men at family functions also seems to work in their favor. Couples who know each other’s family and friends before their first meeting have a much better chance of marrying, and staying married. And, as any single woman can tell you, meeting a man at a wedding is a much more promising scenario than meeting one in a singles bar. Unfortunately, the possibility of meeting someone at work or church or in a similarly “safe” place declines as women grow older and their male counterparts discover younger women. So it seems that the feminist ideal of postponing marriage as long as possible leaves women with fewer choices for desirable mates, or any mate at all.

The study also raises interesting questions about the relative benefits of cohabitation and marriage. Contrary to radical feminist attacks on matrimony, the study’s authors found that couples who merely lived together experienced more jealousy and physical violence than married couples. And a study 10 years ago by the same group found that married couples had more satisfying–and more frequent–sexual encounters than their unmarried counterparts.

Unfortunately, fewer are tying the knot and keeping it tied. The new survey found that on average the respondents spent nearly four years living with a sexual partner, 18 years married, and 19 years dating or alone, without a steady companion. And despite the data, the cultural myths of the miserably married and the swinging single prevail, thanks in large part to shows like Sex and the City.

It’s too bad that, unlike HBO’s starlets, the real-life women who have adopted such cavalier attitudes about casual sex cannot walk off the set after six years and into a syndicated sunset. Instead, they must linger in the purgatory of one-night stands and conditional commitments, long after the glamour of sexual liberation has faded into black.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy .

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