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Sex and the real city

A new sociological study suggests that urban America is hardly a swinger's paradise

POLLING PEOPLE ABOUT their political views is one thing. Asking them about their sex lives is another. Think about it: If a polite young grad student came knocking on your door, brandishing a survey, would you come clean about your career between the sheets? Or would you edit, exaggerate, and prevaricate -- or just slam the door?

Sociologists at the University of Chicago have been risking those slammed doors for over a decade now. In the early 1990s, they managed to talk to enough Americans aged 18 to 59 -- more than 3,400 of them -- to compile what they called "a definitive survey" of sex in America, the conclusions of which were bruited on the cover of Time Magazine in 1994. In contrast to the beneath-the-radar-screen kinkiness uncovered by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s -- not to mention what you'd guess about Americans' sex lives from watching MTV -- the Chicago survey found American sexuality to be ordinary, even a tad dull. More than half of those polled claimed three or fewer partners in their lifetime. It was not swingers but married couples who reported the happiest sex lives -- and they were having intercourse only seven times a month. Additionally, homosexuality was discovered to be less prevalent than often claimed by activists, with a mere 2.7 percent of men and 1.3 percent of women identifying themselves as gay.

In short, hardly what Jesse Helms was expecting when he earlier tried to kill the study by withdrawing federal funding on the grounds that it would encourage sexual perversity.

Not everyone, however, was convinced by the Chicago data. Harvard biologist Richard C. Lewontin slammed the study in The New York Review of Books, calling the researchers "deaf and dumb" for accepting, for example, the claim thatnearly half of all men in their early 80s are still sexually active. Others cited not just their gullibility but the flatfooted "literal-mindedness" of the "orgasm-counting game," as one critic put it.

Now the Chicago crew is back with a sequel, just published under the title "The Sexual Organization of the City" (University of Chicago Press). It's billed as a sort of academic "Sex and the City" -- though one that examines a more diverse slice of metropolitan life. Over three years, sociologist Edward O. Laumann and his colleagues questioned 2,114 people in four Chicago neighborhoods on everything from how many partners they'd had in their lives and where they met them to whether they were cheating. The scholars supplemented the data with observations on community sexual behavior from 160 local leaders and social-service workers.

The result is yet another glimpse of American sexual paradoxes. If the first book highlighted conventional sexual behavior, the new one focuses on the confusing "sexual market" that now exists for single adults. Few people can negotiate that market with ease. For example, the researchers found that roughly one-third of the men and women in Cook County (which includes Chicago) have been in a relationship in which their partner is juggling a second lover, increasing the risk of both disease and unhappiness. In one poor African-American neighborhood, rates of male sexual two-timing are so high that "polygamy," as the authors put it, can safely be called "the dominant structure." What's more, rates of domestic violence are depressingly high throughout the city: Twenty-nine percent of women and 22 percent of men report at least some violence, and at least 14 percent of women say that they have been forced sexually in their lifetimes. Seventeen percent of the men and women surveyed had had a sexually transmitted disease.

"We're holding up a mirror," says Laumann, the study's lead author. "Some people have pretty good perceptions as social observers and have made these observations before. We're putting some numbers on them."

And while it's Chicago that's in the mirror, the results no doubt reflect what's going on in most big American cities, the authors say. One of the most common terms in "Sexual Organization of the City" -- a book brimming with jargon that no one would ever mistake for pillow talk -- is "social embeddedness." Their point is that despite the seemingly limitless possibilities of a big city, our existing and relatively narrow social networks are more important in finding a mate than we think.

Male Chicagoans, for example, are twice as likely to meet their sexual partners at a friend's or family member's house (30 percent) as at a bar (13 percent); the figures for women are similar. What's more, those who know each other's family and friends before their first encounter are far more likely to marry, and stay married, than couples who come from different social orbits.

The authors focused on four Chicago neighborhoods representing four different sexual "ecosystems" of particular interest to health experts: Mexican-American "Westside"; mixed Latino "Erlinda"; predominantly white and substantially gay "Shoreland"; and African-American "Southtown." (All are pseudonyms.) The interviews were conducted from 1995-97, with a response rate ranging from 60 percent (African-American Southtown) to 78 percent (Latino Erlinda). To encourage frankness, the trained interviewers who visited people's homes (matched by race with their interviewees) sometimes let people type their answers directly onto a laptop.

The results showed that, as one might expect, socioeconomic mobility generally translates into sexual mobility. In largely Latino Westside, only 14 percent of men and 6 percent of women reported leaving their neighborhood in search of dates (and more). In black Southtown, also poor but with a higher unemployment rate, 39 percent of men and 17 percent of women did so. In white and significantly gay Shoreland, in contrast, 43 percent of men and 39 percent of women looked for love or pleasure beyond their immediate borders.

Each neighborhood talks about sex -- or doesn't -- in a different way, too. Despite all the new emphasis on same-sex marriage, among gay men in Shoreland "transactional" sex (that is, exchanges of pleasure) rather than "relational" sex (aimed at creating a stable relationship) is what's evoked in local ads and discussed in bars, the authors say. That's reflected in behavior: Forty-three percent of gay men there had had more than 60 partners in their lifetime.

Meanwhile, across town, the authors report, social service workers in Westside and Erlinda attribute a lack of knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases and other "sexual problems" to the "culture of silence" that surrounds sexuality in Latino communities. These neighborhoods also report lower rates of sexual activity: In Westside, only 12 percent of the men had had more than three one-night stands in their lives, compared with 31 percent of the men in Southtown. Yet rates of domestic violence are above average in both places.

Although 9 percent of Southtown men and 4 percent of Westside men say they are at least sometimes attracted to males, they have to be creative about where they satisfy their desires, as "There is no publicly defined community for gay men of color within the city of Chicago." To an even greater degree, black and Latino lesbianism takes place in private spaces.

Laumann and his coauthors have a tendency to relay controversial local theories, like the Latino "culture of silence," while declining to take a position on them. "We don't necessarily buy any of these theories," Laumann said in an interview. "They are what people locally tell each other about how things work."

But some scholars caution that focusing on neighborhoods and their folkways necessarily encourages stereotyping. "Beware of believing that gay men who live in a gay neighborhood are a representative sampling of gay men," says John D'Emilio, director of the gender and women's studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has not yet read the study. "Gay men who live in a gay neighborhood are men who may be more inclined to have multiple partners and to not settle down."

Some African-American leaders in Southtown raised the issue of stereotyping, too. According to the researchers, many were reluctant to discuss the findings, out of fear that the study was mining black Chicago for evidence of pathology.

Indeed, those leaders may not be pleased by the researchers' thesis about "polygamy." Citywide, the study found, about 5 percent of the survey subjects said they were in "concurrent" sexual relationships at the time of their interview. But in black Southtown, fully 21 percent of men said they planned to maintain sexual relations with two different women over the next few months.

Denying that his work pathologizes Southtown residents, Laumann says the explanation is largely economic. In general, black marriage rates are significantly lower than those of whites. And in Southtown, he says, "If you're talking about the ratio of marriageable men to women, that index has gone to hell in a go-cart over the last 20 years." A relatively small number of financially secure men wield immense sexual bargaining power over the area's women.

The Southtown situation, however, is merely an exaggeration of broad national trends. In nearly all population groups, the authors say, actual behavior has drifted irretrievably away from the old narrative of abstinence followed by early marriage followed by a lifelong partnership -- a story-line that was always partly fictional anyway. With the average age of marriage creeping up to 25 for women and 27 for men, and divorce prevalent, the average American will now spend half of his or her adult life as a sexually mature single person, Laumann notes.

In the book, Laumann and company adopt a staunchly non-judgmental stance toward all of this. But in an interview, Laumann expressed frustration about the "abdication" of religious, educational, and political leaders from a discussion of sexual behavior as it is -- rather than as they wish it were. "To have no commentary about how one should organize relationships in this transitional period of moving toward family roles leaves it to everyone to invent their own path," he says. "You have 20-year-olds coaching one another." Even social workers, he says, send mixed messages, blaming sexual trends on impersonal forces like unemployment while simultaneously telling individuals that they can change their own behavior.

Some on the cultural left have detected an underlying sexual conservatism in the Chicago sociologists' work. In the 1994 report, the authors stressed the connection between monogamy and happiness. In the new book, they suggest the American "disinvestment" in marriage as one explanation for domestic violence: Mere cohabitation creates more instability and more jealousy, they say.

Katha Pollitt, a feminist columnist for The Nation who wrote somewhat skeptically about the 1994 report, is dubious about the argument that cohabitation is more volatile than state-sanctioned pairing. "Do we know that there is more domestic violence in Chicago today than 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, when Americans were more `invested' in marriage?" she asks.

David Greenberg, an NYU sociologist, praises the study but raises another question: Is its seven-to-nine-year-old data already out of date? "To me, the irony of this study is that it appears at a point in time where now people are transcending the limitations of the neighborhood through things like Internet dating," he says.

But to find out if Match.com and fetish sites are changing the picture of urban sexuality, we'll have to wait for the University of Chicago folks to come knocking with a new armful of embarrassing questions.

Christopher Shea writes the biweekly "Critical Faculties" column for Ideas. E-mail: critical.faculties@verizon.net. 

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