The Future of Sexuality: A Sociologist’s View
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1981
Dealing in futures is always a risky business. Is it safe to extrapolate from present trends and predict incremental changes? Or will unforeseen events cause their reversal? Conceivably, cataclysmic change could transmute the sexual scene in unimaginable ways. I have no recourse but to take the first option and base my projections on discussion in my sexuality courses over the past five years. From this perspective I see two themes gaining greater force in the next decade or so.
The first is a growing convergence in the attitudes and behaviors of females and males. As they achieve economic, political, and social parity with men, women will be no more—and no less—merchants of sex than men. The old adage that girls trade sex for love and boys trade love for sex is rapidly becoming obsolete. Young women today are being socialized by their peers, if not by their parents and teachers, to acknowledge their sexual desires as fully and as frankly as young men. They feel free to pursue men openly and to take the initiative in arranging sexual encounters. They have no need to hoard sex, lest it be squandered or extorted. Marriage is no longer viewed as the only avenue to financial, emotional, and social security as young women increasingly become as serious in their occupational commitments as young men.
Partly in response to the changing status of women and partly arising from their own redefinitions of the masculine role, men, on their side, are being relieved of the necessity for sexual conquest and from regarding sexual inexperience as an asset in women they respect. As the sexual economy becomes one of abundance rather than of scarcity, men do not feel constrained to seize every sexual opportunity. Moreover, they are learning, as women always have, how to say “no” in a nice way. Also, like women, they are developing greater sensitivity in their “sex-making” in an effort to please both themselves and their partners.
An important aspect of this new tendency towards androgyny is an ethic of openness and full communication between partners. In ranking a series of vignettes presented on the first day of class, over the years students explained their choices in terms of honesty rather than the degree of conformity to traditional mores. For example, a homosexual pair living together openly was more approved than a secret adulterer. Parenthetically, I may add that changing the sex of the protagonist in these stories caused little change in the ratings—i.e., the double standard seems to be on the wane. Commitment, though not necessarily sexual exclusivity, will continue to be valued, and as much by men as by women. This attitude also enters into student downgrading of adultery in comparison to mate swapping.
The second main current I wish to discuss is a revaluation of sexuality itself. Paradoxically, I feel that sexual expression will be both more important and less important than it has been in the past. I intend “less” in the sense of being less sacred and not ideally confined to monogamous relationships—that is, sex may be savored as a fillip to friendship. On the other hand, sex will become more prominent as a mode of self-expression and intercommunication in “vital” and “total” dyadic relationships and be increasingly prized in a depersonalized and bureaucratic world as one means of overcoming alienation. In short, I foresee a wide spectrum of sexual experiences ranging from the anonymous and casual to the intimate and enduring.
It may be surmised from the foregoing that sexual morality as such will disappear. Sexual behavior will be governed by the same ethics of ego control, generosity, and concern for the welfare of others that should mark all human dealings. One qualification, however, must be made. The attitudes I have described, which now characterize the vanguard, will no doubt diffuse widely, even into the blue-collar class. It is probable, however, that a large segment of the population will continue to adhere to traditional gender roles and sexual mores, including the double standard of greater permissiveness for men.