How has the sexual revolution reshaped our understanding of relationships and family? After the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s began upending traditional norms, Americans started seeing greater personal freedoms and a more flexible understanding of relationships, sexuality, and family roles.
One lasting impact is that marriage is now based primarily on choice rather than societal expectations, and men are no longer always expected to be the head of the household.
But despite the clear benefits of increased egalitarianism and personal liberty, the sexual revolution arguably came with trade-offs. As journalist Louise Perry notes, one example is that far more children are being raised in broken homes today than they were decades ago, even though nearly every conceivable metric shows that it’s better for children to have married parents.
In this Big Think video, we explore the sexual revolution and its impacts on romantic relationships, families, and children in the modern world.
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HELEN FISHER: We're finally at a time in humanity when we can choose what we want for companionship. We're no longer virgins at marriage. Man is no longer the head of the household. It's who we love, who we choose, how we partner, and how we raise our babies as a team.
LOUISE PERRY: There's a theory among anthropologists, this question of the puzzle of monogamous marriage. Why on Earth would monogamous marriage have come to be so widely adopted by some of these extraordinarily successful civilizations? And the answer seems to be because monogamy makes societies more stable, more peaceful, more prosperous; monogamous societies have lower levels of child abuse, have lower levels of domestic abuse.
RICHARD REEVES: What matters is parenting. What matters is how we raise our kids. And I do think that there it's quite possible to imagine a renewed future for marriage based around egalitarianism between men and women, but a shared commitment to kids.
FRANS DE WAAL: We, adults, we think we socialize our children but our children actually looking around and socializing themselves according to the norms that they see around them. Our children watch for models. And so in that sense, they learn how to act according to their society, so to speak.
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PERRY: I think that the real losers from the sexual revolution are children; there is so much copious evidence to show that children who grew up in an intact household with two married parents 'cause married people are more likely to stay together after they have children than unmarried people are. Boys are less likely to commit crime and antisocial behavior. Girls are less likely to get pregnant as teenagers. Both sexes do better academically. Almost every possible metric you can imagine is better for children to have married parents.
REEVES: There's the growth in what you might call the 'dad deficit' or fatherlessness, because of a real shift in the shape of families. A danger frankly, that we're just benching dads, if they don't fit the traditional model of what it used to mean to be a father, to be a breadwinner and a provider, then the danger is that they feel benched as a result, and that they get benched by societies, benched by families.
And when 4 in 10 children are born outside marriage and most children to less-educated parents are born outside marriage, then we have to reinvent what it means to be a "father." Because right now, men are still being held to an old standard of what it meant to be a successful father in a world where that is neither possible for many of them or even desirable because what we've seen is as women have grown in economic power and economic independence, then of course they're going to choose to be with a man rather than being forced to as in the old days. This is probably the greatest liberation in human history, honestly, that women can now choose, whether to be with a man or not. But it does pose some really sharp questions about what fathers are for.
And until we escape the obsolete model of the breadwinner father, then we will continue to see more and more men being left out of family life. And the kicker is that boys in families that don't have a father presence suffer much more than girls. And so then what happens is that male disadvantage can become intergenerational because if the fathers are struggling and therefore not really involved in their kids' lives, then the boys are the ones who suffer most, who will then go on to struggle themselves in education, in the labor market
DE WAAL: I usually speak of potentials. Potential behavior is behavior that we normally don't get to see, but the individuals are capable of it. The best example I can think of is male caretaking potential.
Adult males do very little. For example, let's take chimpanzees and bonobos. It's the females who carry the kids, they feed them, they protect them. The males do extremely little, but sometimes a female dies. So now all of a sudden we have an orphan in the group and the orphan is usually not adopted by females because the females have their own children.
The orphan is adopted by an adult male and sometimes it's the alpha male. So an adult male picks up the kid starts carrying it, not just for a few days but sometimes for two years, up to five years I've heard, they become basically the father figure for their child, even though their child is often not their own child but they pick it up and they start to take care of it, and they wait for it, and they protect it, and so on.
So males have this care-taking potential that we normally don't get to see but it's very highly developed actually in them. I think for human society, this is an interesting observation because we are in a phase where men are taking more care of children at the moment and some people will say that that's an unnatural thing, that a female job, so to speak, is not a male job.
But if you look at the other primates we see that they have that potential, clearly, the males do have that potential to do that. And our species, we evolved over time, nuclear families in which men were more involved in childcare anyway. So I think our species has that potential even more than the other primates.
JUDITH BUTLER: I mean, as a parent myself, there were certain forms of doing harm that I certainly prohibited, but I also talked about. My own kid is a 28-year-old cis heterosexual who is very possibly more adamantly anti-homophobic than I am. I mean, I will make jokes that he will not accept as jokes so I'm not responsible for that. He grew up in a culture and became part of a world that's very mindful about what is hurtful and what is not. And it could very well be that as much as I have fought homophobia my whole life, that I have more to learn from a younger generation than I have to teach a younger generation.
FISHER: Right now, love is changing. In the past, both men and women married in their early twenties, now they're marrying in their late twenties, this very long period of pre-commitment, 'slow love.'
They're getting to know each other very slowly. They're starting these days, "Oh, just friends, we're just friends." Then they move into friends with benefits. You learn a lot between the sheets, not just the way somebody makes love but whether they are patient, whether they're kind, whether they've got a sense of humor.
Then if that all works out, then they go out on the official first date, and tell friends and family about the relationship, and then they slowly move in together, and then they marry.
Over 95% of singles say they're looking for these five things: Somebody who respects them, somebody who they can trust and confide in, somebody who makes them laugh, somebody who makes enough time for them, and somebody who they feel physically attracted to.
What's interesting about this slow love is that the longer you court, the later you marry, the more likely you to are to remain together long term.
BUTLER: So we no longer speak about family, woman, man, desire, sex in the same way. Many people don't assume we're always in a heterosexual frame or in a binary gender frame.
Is a gay marriage really a marriage? Who's the real parent? There are responses like this that refuse to accept new social structures because they're holding to the old ones, or they think their sense of the order of the world depends on staying within an older vocabulary and an older framework.
But we have to allow ourselves to be challenged and accept the invitation to revise our ways of thinking because that's the only way of being open to people who are trying to make their claim sometimes for the very first time, to be heard, to be known, to be acknowledged.
REEVES: Only a minority of people now think that it's important to be married to have a good life. So for sure there's the romance and the love stories and so on too, but as I look at the trends, and in particular these class gaps in marriage that we see, it looks to me as if marriage has become something actually no more romantic than it was before.
So if before it was based on economic dependency, I think now it's something like a joint venture for raising kids- between more equal partners for sure, but it's really a commitment device. It's really a way of signaling: We're gonna have kids. We want to invest heavily in those kids, in time, and money and so on, so let's do it together.
And so I actually think that it's much more about parenting than it is about love, and that's certainly better than one of economic dependency. But I don't think we should get dewy-eyed and think that marriage has become this kind of wonderfully kind of romantic, expressive, individualistic thing where husbands and wives are now writing poems to each other on a daily basis. They're actually not. They're juggling childcare and figuring out who's gotta go to the parents' evening, and who's gonna pick up their kid from the baseball game, and sitting down on Sunday nights and figuring out what the week schedule looks like, which is much more egalitarian than the old model but not much more romantic.
FISHER: As a matter of fact, what we're doing now is we're moving forward to the kinds of partnerships that we had a million years ago. For millions of years, our ancestors lived in these little hunting and gathering groups. Women commuted to gather their fruits and vegetables. They came home with over 50% of the evening meal; double-income family was the rule. Women were just as powerful as men sexually, socially, and economically, and they could leave bad partnerships to make a better one.
PERRY: The institution of marriage is pretty much dead. It used to be really difficult to get a divorce. Not only was the barrier to getting a divorce really high but also the social consequences were really grave. Whereas now we have very high rates of divorce. We have no-fault divorce available, which means that everyone can pretty much just opt out of the marriage.
Clearly in the past, it was the case that people ended up stuck in wretched marriages because divorce laws made it impossible for them to get out of them. Whereas now, those people aren't stuck anymore. However, it also has changed the nature of the marriage institution completely.
REEVES: Many people have taken the risk of declaring marriage to be on its way out, to be an obsolete institution, only to find that the trends are not quite on their side. And in particular, when you see a situation where the people with the most power, most choice are still opting in huge numbers into marriage then it's way too soon to say that it's out of date. It's clearly as an institution, still doing quite a lot of work for certain people in society.
I think what we can safely say is that the model of marriage that was founded on economic dependency of women on men is completely obsolete. And so attempts to somehow bring that back to life is a sort of zombie version about how can we sort of raise it up again from the dead, are doomed to failure as well as being unfair.
Now I think we've created models of the family that are much more equal and much fairer, but maybe not quite as stable in many cases too. And so we've gone from a situation where we had quite stable but deeply unfair family structures to much fairer but quite unstable family structures- and the challenge we all face is to find ways to create more stability in our family life, but without sacrificing the goal of equality which has animated the movement over the last 50 years.
How do we have strong relationships within which people can raise kids well? And if marriage has a part to play in that, then great. But there are alternative models around civil partnerships and so on too. But I think that's for us to create, and I think we should be careful not to assume that the way to restore marriage as an institution is to bring it back to the old model. If marriage is to survive, it will be in a new model not a restoration of the old model.
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