Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 10, October 24, 2007



Since World War II , the patterns of American life have been changing at an ever-increasing pace. Economic, social, political, and cultural shifts over the past three decades have been impressive, from the still-inhibited Fifties, and the politically exploding Sixties, to the socio-sexual liberating Seventies. As we enter the decade of the Eighties, we are becoming more aware of the fact that the thrust of these changes has been an evolution from the old models of thinking, behaving, and feeling to a wider variety of socially acceptable lifestyles.

Nowhere has this process been more in evidence than in the arena of sexuality. The advent of the Pill, legalized abortion, the social and sexual liberation of women, newly emerging lifestyles, the gradual accept­ance of gay liberation, and the increasing depiction of open sexuality in the media have all combined to produce a dramatic and significant breakthrough in America's attitude toward sexuality and human relation­ships, especially traditional marriage.

No longer is the individual confined to the old norm of heterosexual monogamist sex-in-marriage. Today the choices are many, depending on the needs and attitudes of the couples and singles involved, i.e., living together, gay relationships and lifestyles, bisexuality, open marriage, swinging, triads, communal living, group marriage, intimate friendship, extended families, living alone, and of course, traditional marriage.

The appearance of the new possibilities for sexual choice has been regarded by some as an assault on the venerable institution of marriage. Steadily climbing divorce rates, the declining birth rate, and the stead­fast refusal of many to marry at all are seen as evidence of a collective fall from grace. What the statistics really do, however, is merely indicate change. They tell us that something is happening to the marriage norms of a generation ago, but not how or why.

Deciphering the meaning behind the numbers is the task of the social scientist. While moral decisions are outside his province, documenting behaviors and attitudes is well within it.Over the last twenty years, research has been conducted to unravel the mystery of marriage as it functions in America.

Attention has been paid to the changing social roles of men and women, to the new economic pattern of working wives, and to the more intimate topic of sexual relations. Among the latter is the question of coital exclusivity, or monogamy. This concept has been the keystone of the Judeo-Christian tradition of marriage, and as such, it is both an extremely important barometer of changing marriage norms, and a highly sensitive issue. Not surprisingly, research in this area has been enlightening, yet at the same time, difficult to conduct.

In the United States since 1850, the concept of monogamy in marriage has been the intertwining of two separate ideas: 1) a commitment to a contract to love and work together and 2) sexual fidelity as the ultimate expression of that commitment. The identification of both behaviors with the ideal of 'marriage' has traditionally been so automatic as to preclude discussion and, as a result, infidelity has been regarded as a serious threat to the stability of the whole marital partnership.

With the questioning of all past sexual behavior that was brought about by the sexual revolution came the desire to also reassess the role of sexual infidelity in marriage. People began to wonder if sexual exclusivity could, in fact, be separated from the steady loving, living and working together that is the other half of the marriage bond. Those couples who began experimenting sexually within marriage described their new lifestyle by various names -- 'open marriage,' 'group marriage,' and 'comarital sex,' depending on the nature of the non-monogamous behavior involved. All of these patterns can be seen however, as emerging from the same attempt to restructure the traditional equation.

Those individuals who are radically changing their marital behavior are regarded as the sexual avant-garde. While they have presented American culture with new models, the question remains how far have these ideas penetrated into the majority of the population.

In order to document the emergence and spread of new forms of marital sexual behavior, researchers such as Bartell (1972) and Gilmartin (1973) chose to focus on the incidence rate of comarital sex in middle class populations. Others such as Athanasiou (1970) and Johnson (1970) have taken a different route by postulating that a breakdown of the monogamy/committed relationship identification would lead to either a greater rate of extramarital sex for both men and women or, at least, less guilt about it.

This latter approach seems more fruitful in determining the broad impact of changing monogamy ideals, as it deals with the majority who are not prepared to go so far as to adopt totally new marriage patterns. For this reason, it is in the area of changing extramarital sexual behavior that the research herein has been conducted.

Since social change does not spread randomly through a population, the challenge for the researchers is to locate those groups who have absorbed the new ideas at any given time, and to describe them on the basis of such variables as age, sex, economic status, etc. In charting the entire history of a spreading idea, it is necessary to examine the same population at different times, as well as varied populations within the same time period. The results may then be compared, and a composite picture of who is changing when will slowly emerge.

In the investigation of the monogamy/commitment separation, as reflected by extramarital sex rates, the outlines of a pattern are only just beginning to be visible in the mosaic of published research. It is the intent here to contribute to this process by describing the monogamous/nonmonogamous practice and attitudes of one select group of Americans, the readers of Forum magazine. Via a survey, their present and past behavior and beliefs were examined and compared to determine their receptivity over time to the new forces shaping marital and nonmarital relationships today.

Brought to the interpretation of the data was extensive familiarity with the contents of hundreds of thousands of letters written to Forum by its readers during the past ten years. These letters detail the sexual beliefs, feelings, behavior and case histories of their writers, and thus form the background against which the survey results were analyzed.

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