EDITOR'S NOTE: Donald Murray at the Boston Globe has written a bittersweet piece today about how, as we age, we grow closer to our parents and long for the answers to questions we didn't ask when they were alive.
There has been quite a discussion going on around our corner of the Web recently about sex and love. Here are some links, in order of posting, if you’d like to catch up. Be sure to read the comments too, particularly at Sex and the Single Mom:
Today’s entry was prompted by a Comment from Tim under An Old Lady’s View of Sex and Love who posits that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I partially agree.
I don't think sexual behavior has changed so much in my lifetime as has the openness of it. The controls on sexual behavior, primarily the fear of pregnancy, but social pressure too, have been removed. And, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the simultaneous development of the birth control pill, changed sexual behavior when women claimed the same rights to fool around that men had always had. Before then, only bad girls "did it" which, of course, was a false classification.
You were labeled a bad girl in my youth only if it was known you "put out" or if, god forbid, you got pregnant and went to live with Aunt Minnie in Michigan for a year. There was no legal abortion in those days and daycare in high schools could not have been imagined. One of my friends was not allowed to walk across the stage for her diploma, in 1958, because it was apparent she was in the late stage of pregnancy. That she had been married for a year made no difference to the school authorities, and this was at Tamalpais High in Mill Valley, California, which was, not too much later, in the heart of the so-called free love and crunchy granola set.
Unmarried pregnancy aside, good girl status could be maintained if she and her partner didn't tell.
In 1959, I moved into a co-ed boarding house in San Francisco that was well-known for its unique - and risqué - living arrangement. Although young men and women each had their own rooms, we were mixed together on the same floors which was forbidden in other young people's boarding houses. Whatever went on among other tenants, I don't know and I wasn't dating anyone at the boarding house, but young folks being what they are, I'm certain some people were mixing it up. I was suspect for a period for spending most evenings with my next door neighbor, Nathan, but he was teaching me how to play chess and that's all we did. It is an insight into my character, no doubt, that I enjoyed the gossip.
Our attitudes toward sex (and just about every social issue) are strongly affected these days by the media. Movies and television have been saturated for years with unmarried, unashamed sex, so how else are we to behave. By contrast, in bedroom scenes in movies and on TV in the 1950s, only single beds were shown even for married couples.
When I was 12 or 13 (in the early 1950s) - there was a watershed movie that caused a nationwide scandal. Titled The Moom is Blue and starring David Niven, William Holden and Maggie McNamara, it was about two playboys attracted to the same woman. The controversial moment of the film comes when one of the men refers to Maggie as a "professional virgin." The word "virgin" had never before been used in a movie and that veiled reference to the existence of sex caused debates in newspapers and magazines about whether that language would corrupt our youth.
Doesn't all this sound antiquated now.
When, in 1965, my about-to-be husband and I lived together out of financial expedience for a few months until the wedding, it was something that friends knew, but we were careful not to make a big deal of it. It certainly was done in those days, but not entirely in the open yet, though within a couple of years, those strictures were gone.
It is still a tenet of our time and culture that sex is better accompanied by love. I've never been sure that's true, and love - I am speaking of romantic love, not familial - is such an ineffable emotion, hard to grasp or put into words. When we are in the throes of it, we speak words like "forever" and "eternal" and "true love." But it goes away for all kinds of reasons. Anthropologists have written volumes on sexual behavior, love and the speculative genetic reasons for the attachment of men and women to one another. Personally, I've had good sex without being in love and sometimes not-so-good sex when I've believed I was in love, so what do I know. I'm back to John Lennon and "whatever gets you through the night."
The economics of marriage have changed in my lifetime too. In my youth, married women mostly did not work outside the home. Few families had clothes dryers yet and laundry hanging in the back yard was ubiquitous. Even vacuum cleaners were not commonplace. There were no microwave ovens. No frozen food. Eating out was saved for special occasions. Take-out barely existed.
Women starched and ironed all the family's clothes and there was a lot of it before modern, no-iron fabrics made their appearance and, later, wrinkled clothing became acceptable. Wives still kept kitchen gardens (left over from World War II Victory Gardens) and they canned fruits and vegetables for winter and made their own jams, jellies and pickles. Being a housewife was a full-time job and then some. The divorce rate was low because it was still shameful, because women had few business skills and men had no household skills. Couples rode out their differences.
Nowadays, a family generally cannot get by without two incomes. Modern appliances and services take up the housekeeping slack. And when a couple runs into difficulties, divorce becomes an easier solution than compromise.
Aside from food and shelter, sex is undoubtedly the most powerful of human urges. When shame - of social position and sexual activity - is removed along with possible pregnancy, we are free to indulge it at whim and the connection between love and sex seems unnecessary and becomes confused, which is what has happened over the past 50 years. The question is, was it ever a hardwired, human need or is it an artifact of times and cultural imperatives that are coming to an end?
Helen Fisher has written a fascinating book, among others, on all this titled Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray.