As with ideas of community, public perceptions of family life highlight the extent to which change has been occurring. Usually the emphasis is on the “decline” of family values and family solidarities in comparison to some past, more stable and wholesome period. In most cases, these perceived changes are significantly exaggerated, with the past being idealized in a quite uncritical fashion. Under more rigorous examination, family relationships in the past can be recognized as somewhat less rosy than popular imagination usually supposes (Gillis 1997). However, there is one sphere of family life in which there has undoubtedly been real – and significant – change occurring. This concerns the patterning of partnership and household formation and dissolution, and more specifically the relationships between marriage, sex, and childbirth. Importantly, these changes have been occurring, albeit at different speeds, across a wide range of economically advanced societies especially in Europe and North America.
The changes there have been in these patterns have been radical, certainly in comparison to the trends that were dominant for much of the twentieth century. Each country is different; each has its distinct social and cultural influences; each develops its own legislative principles and welfare traditions which influence the dominant organization of sexual, domestic, and familial relations within the society. Nonetheless, for much of the twentieth century there was a very clear relationship in different European and North American societies between marriage, sex, and childbirth. In effect, they formed a strong trilogy, certainly ideologically, but also behaviorally. In other words, for the first two thirds of the twentieth century, sex was only really considered legitimate within the relationship of marriage, as, both legally and socially, was childbirth.
Of course, sex occurred outside marriage, both before and during, and children were born outside wedlock. However, unmarried sex was typically furtive and covert, while illegitimate births brought shame and disapproval. Moreover, to live in a sexual relationship outside marriage was to ”live in sin” – a powerful symbol of the moral significance of marriage. Indeed, marriage came to be seen as increasingly central within the individual’s life course. For women especially, it was often the reason for leaving the parental home and thus symbolized independence and adulthood. Over this period of the twentieth century marriage rates steadily increased, while marriage age typically dropped. For example, in Britain women’s rates of marriage by age 30 rose from 60 percent in 1900 to over 90 percent in 1970, while median age at first marriage fell for women from 25 in 1900 to 21 in 1970.
However, since the early 1970s the connections between marriage, sex, and childbirth have altered quite dramatically. The component elements are no longer linked as strongly as they were. Certainly there continues to be an overlap between the three, but they are not bound as tightly to each other in the ways they were. Thus, counter to the trends dominant throughout most of the twentieth century, rates of marriage have fallen substantially, marriage age has increased, and many more people now cohabit outside marriage. Again drawing on Britain as an example, by 2002 fewer than 50 percent of women had married by age 30; median age at marriage for women had risen to 28, and nearly 30 percent of all non-married women aged 18-49 were cohabiting. At the same time, separation and divorce increased so that lifelong partnership became a less realistic expectation. Instead there has been a normalization of varied transitions over the life course in an individual’s domestic and sexual arrangements. Indeed, especially where there are no young children involved, these issues are increasingly seen as matters of personal choice rather than ones requiring social sanction, control, or regulation.
This is evident in the rapid growth there has been in cohabitation over the last generation. From being a mode of partnership and domestic organization largely limited to those who were divorced, over the last 25 years it has become an entirely normal and acceptable practice throughout much of the western world. In the 1980s, cohabitation tended to occur for a period prior to marriage. It was, in other words, seen by many as a form of engagement through which the strength and suitability of the partnership could be tested. This trend has continued: cohabitation prior to marriage is increasingly normative. In addition, though, many couples cohabit without defining this as necessarily a prelude to marriage. Cohabitation has in this sense become simply another lifestyle option, through which couples come to choose how they pattern their sexual and domestic partnerships. There continue to be religious and ethnic differences in the social acceptability of cohabitation, but clearly the social and moral judgments made of this arrangement have changed significantly from the mid part of the twentieth century.
Not surprisingly given these other changes, the link between marriage and childbirth is also now nowhere near as strong as it was in previous generations. For most of the twentieth century, births outside marriage were highly stigmatized. When women became pregnant outside wed lock, the most appropriate ”solution” socially was for them to marry the father of the child. Often where this did not happen, the mother was sent away to give birth, with the child then being offered for adoption. Cultural reactions are quite different now, as the statistics on births in and out of marriage indicate. Once more drawing on Britain as an example, in the 1970s fewer than 10 percent of births were outside marriage, whereas by 2001, 40 percent were. Even more dramatically, the proportion of teen age births outside marriage rose to 90 percent by 2003 from less than 10 percent in 1976. Of course, changes in partnership behavior are also relevant here. Often births registered as outside marriage involve cohabitation – in Britain currently over 80 percent do. Not all of these will be ”marriage like” in terms of partnership commitment, but many are. However, even where there is no committed partner, it is evident that moral disapproval of births outside wedlock is far more limited than it was. In general, and again allowing for ethnic and religious differences, it seems largely to be restricted to concern over young mothers who, despite experiencing poverty, are perceived by some to be abusing the welfare system.
Behind these changes lies a fundamental shift in the ways in which sexual expression and behavior are culturally understood. As discussed above, the cultural ”blueprint” governing legitimate sexual activities has been transformed over the last 30 years in most western societies. The limits that were placed around full sexual activity in the early and mid-twentieth century no longer carry weight with the majority of people. Instead, individuals now have far greater freedom to express their sexuality and engage in sexual relationships outside marriage than was the case in previous generations. Most noticeably, with the exception of some of those who hold strong religious beliefs, virginity is no longer something to be valued in the way it was. Instead, the cultural perception is that individuals – both male and female -should gain sexual experience prior to ”settling down” in a marriage or a marriage like relationship. Similarly, while infidelity within a committed relationship is rarely condoned (Duncombe et al. 2004), there is no moral disapproval of sexual relationships among the non-married, be they single, separated, divorced, or widowed. As above, these issues are seen as essentially a private matter of choice rather than a public issue requiring social sanction.
The reasons for this greater cultural acceptance of sexual activity outside marriage are numerous. Among the most important are cumulative changes in ideas of femininity and citizen ship, and changes in the availability of effective contraception. Ideas about femininity and appropriate behavior for women have clearly altered since the 1970s. The rise of second wave feminism in particular marked the development of different understandings of womanhood and changed representations of ”feminine.” Linked to this were changes in education and employment which enabled women to be less dependent on marriage and male patronage and thus less bound by domestic responsibility. These changes were also facilitated by developing ideas of citizenship. Over the last 30 years, women’s citizen ship rights in all western societies have been redefined and protected through legislation which attempts to outlaw discrimination, in public arenas at least, on the grounds of gender, sexuality, or partnership status. And quite crucial to these changes has been the ability of women -married and unmarried – to control their fertility. Symbolized by the development of the birth control pill, the reduction of the risk of pregnancy meant that women felt able to engage far more freely than previously in full sexual relationships outside marriage. In turn, for many, concerns about protecting and controlling daughters’ sexuality became more muted as the moral climate changed.
These changes are in line with other transitions that social theorists have argued are having an impact on personal relationships in late modernity. In particular, the idea that sexual behavior and sexual identities are personal rather than public issues is clearly compatible with the growth of individualization in society as well as with changing expectations about the nature and permanency of committed relationships. The evidence of increasing divorce rates has played a symbolically important role in this. Not only were divorced couples at the forefront of changes in cohabitation, they also challenged traditional ideas about sexual abstinence outside marriage. Moreover, if marriage is no longer considered as necessarily a permanent union, then the idea of a single lifelong partner is undermined. If this is so, then so too the idea that individuals should ”save” themselves sexually for that one partner also becomes questionable. In this context, gaining sexual experience prior to marriage comes to be valued rather than condemned.
Overall, there can be no doubt that the relationship between marriage, sex, and childbirth has altered quite dramatically over the last 30 years across different western societies. These shifts are having a clear impact on the nature of “family” and on our understandings of family solidarities. Yet while the patterns are clear, more detailed information is needed on how different people are making decisions about these matters and what influences them in these. Of course, it is also unclear what the longer term implications of these trends are, especially with regard to parenting and the future of marriage as a regulatory institution. Already welfare systems are having to address the issue of non-custodial parents’ responsibilities to children. In the coming years, governments will also have to consider more fully how issues of property division, including pensions, are resolved legally when the relationships in question are premised on informal rather than formal commitments.
- Beck, U. & Beck-Gernsteim, E. (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Sage, London.
- Duncan, S. & Edwards, R. (Eds.) (1997) Single Mothers in an International Context: Mothers or Workers? UCL Press, London.
- Duncombe, J., Harrison, K., Allan, G., & Marsden, D. (Eds.) (2004) The State of Affairs: Explorations in Infidelity and Commitment. Lawrence Erlbaum,
- Mahwah, NJ. Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Gillis, J. (1997) A World of Their Own Making. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Hawkes, G. (1996) A Sociology of Sex and Sexuality. Open University Press, Buckingham.
- Heuveline, P. & Timberlake, J. (2004) The Role of Cohabitation in Family Formation: The United States in Comparative Perspective. Journal of Marriage and the Family 65: 1214-30.
- Jamieson, L. (1998) Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Lewis, J. (2001) The End of Marriage? Individualism and Intimate Relations. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.
- Rowlingson, K. & McKay, S. (2002) Lone Parent Families: Gender, Class, and State. Pearson Education, Harlow.
- Sassler, S. (2004) The Process of Entering into Cohabiting Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 491-505.