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Three Conflicting Pursuits: Sex, Romance and Marriage

In pre-modern marriage, people are looking to choose in a class of people that is fairly similar to theirs.  They also look in a spatial geographical area that is relatively close to their own.  So we’re talking about a mode of selection that’s fairly horizontal.  And because it is economic they also tend to settle on the first good-enough choice.

It doesn’t mean, by the way, that they’re necessarily without sentiments, but it means that in the hierarchy between emotions and economic rationality, people often know to hierarchize between the two.  They know to say, "Even though I love this person I cannot marry them."  So Jean Austen, for example, did not marry and could not marry Tom Lafroy.

Jane Austen, who obviously wrote so beautifully about disinterested love, in fact, was herself a victim of that system which she denounced.  So that's one way in which you meet someone.  And in that mode of selection of a partner, you are not necessarily looking for someone who is beautiful, handsome, sexually attractive - although these may play a role - but they are not foregrounded in any way.  What was foregrounded was good character, which meant something very different from what we mean today.  Having a good character is to display some broad virtues that are actually quite well known and well accepted by most people.

People want the same thing in a partner: somebody who would be comfortable and who would be gentle and who would be good-hearted, and who would follow some well-known virtues.

In the 20th century, that system of selection of a mate changes dramatically.  It changes dramatically, I would say, all throughout the 20th century but most significantly after the 1960s with what we have come to call the sexual revolution, with the invention of the contraceptive pill and with the rise of the feminist movement.

Here's what changed. 

One, sexuality becomes totally and legitimately allowed before marriage so that there is a whole segment of life now that is devoted to accumulating sexual experience.  Even the concept of sexual experience would have been such an unknown to middle-class, genteel 19th century people.  It would have been unknown.  Whereas we consider this as a positive thing to experience, they would have viewed it as a mark of a depraved, weak soul.

So we now separate very clearly sexuality from the rest.  We not only separate it from marriage but we separate it even from sentiments and romantic love.  And we consider sexuality as an experience to acquire and to explore for its own sake, a domain of knowledge.  That’s the first thing that happened.

The second thing that happened is that through consumer culture and media, sexuality - the sexual body as such - became the object of self-fashioning.  People became very conscious of their appearance.  And they became very conscious of their appearance not only in terms of beauty and youth, but I would say mostly in terms of the sexual appeal they are able to exert.

So that's how the notion of sexiness comes about.  It could be that people acted on sexiness before but they were not aware of it.  And as a cultural sociologist, I'm interested in those categories that people become aware of.  So what people become aware of is of the fact that they should carry their body in a way that is able to elicit the sexual desire of someone else.  And this is what we call sexiness.

So to be sexy, when you think about it, it means an incredible enlargement of the population that can be attractive, because beauty actually is an unequal concept.  You know, you have only a few people who are beautiful because they conform to some well-known ideals of how a face should look, or what a body should look like.  But sexiness is something more vague and it is something that can be worked on.  And therefore it’s much wider.

So sexiness is the thing that people are now trying to get in their relationships.  That’s the second change that happened.  Sexiness became a very important element in meeting another and in selecting others, so much so that people would feel that something quite important would be missing if they chose a partner that would not be sexy enough for them.

And the third thing that happened is that in opening up the field of encounters to sexuality, we really now have a market of sexual encounters where people meet each other for sex.  And that market, to speak like an economist, sometimes overlaps with and sometimes interferes with, romantic markets, namely the desire to meet someone in order to live with them and pull resources and raise children together.

So we have now, if you want, three domains that are quite distinct, the sexual, the romantic, and the marriage market.  They may overlap but often they may conflict with each other.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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