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Cross-cultural Variations

Social norms and practices related to love, sex, and marriage vary across cultures. A valuable reference is The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Vols. 1–4, edited by Robert Francoeur.

The role of the ideology of romantic love varies widely across societies. Love is typically the basis for the formation of long-term relationships in the United States and other Western developed societies. Love is less relevant or irrelevant to mate selection in Iran, China, and many South American and African societies (Francoeur 1997). In these societies, especially in rural areas, marriages are influenced or arranged by parents, based on the interests of families, clan, and class. This variation has been interpreted as reflecting an independence-interdependence dimension. Cultures that emphasize the individual and his/her goals encourage mate selection based on individual attraction and love, whereas cultures that emphasize the person's dependence on the collective or family will encourage arranged marriages (Hatfield and Rapson 1996). Societies experiencing westernization, such as Russia and urban areas of China, appear to accord increasing emphasis on love. The acceptance of romantic love as a basis for mate selection appears to be associated with greater sexual permissiveness, the acceptance of sexual intimacy before marriage, and with a single standard for the sexual behavior of both men and women.

The meaning of sexual behavior also varies across societies. The dominant discourse in some societies defines sexual activity as an important means of fulfilling the person's emotional and physical needs. This perspective places great value on the person's sexual satisfaction. This leads in turn to a concern with foreplay and the occurrence of orgasm for both parties. In such societies, there will be a concern with sexual technique, and perhaps the development of goods and services to enhance sexual pleasure. This pattern is observed, for example, in the United States, Sweden, Mexico, and urban areas of Russia. In other societies, such as China and Iran, the discourse that defines sex as procreative persists. Sexual behavior is primarily vaginal intercourse, often with little or no foreplay, and perhaps therefore painful for the female.

Finally, there is variation across societies in the social organization of long-term relationships, especially in whether lifestyles other than marriage are accepted. In some societies, the only acceptable arrangement is marriage. In Iran, for example, most young people live at home until they marry, and mothers of the bride and groom live with the newly married couple, exercising continuing surveillance over their behavior. This leads to infrequent and hurried sexual interactions. (Drew 1997). In other societies, cohabitation is accepted as a prelude to marriage; these are societies, like the United States, where couples can be economically independent and have access to housing. In Sweden, most couples live together before marriage, and most marry. There seems to be great flexibility in Mexico, where marriage may be civil, religious, or both, cohabiting is an alternative to marriage for some couples, and men with sufficient economic resources may have a second family, supporting a second woman and their children.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Health IssuesSexuality - Cross-cultural Variations, The Ideology Of Romantic Love In The West, Changing Views Of Sex