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The Ideology Of Romantic Love In The West

The understanding of contemporary sexuality is enhanced by reviewing the changes that have occurred in views of sexuality, love, and marriage in Western developed societies since the Victorian era. In the 1800s, sexuality, love, and marriage were seen as distinct and separable experiences. Between 1880 and 1940, they came to be defined as integrated, with the emphasis on marriage. Since 1940, sexuality has gradually been separated from marriage.

Sexuality was severely repressed in the West during the Victorian era. Both sexual behavior and public discussion of topics related to sexuality were suppressed. Women were thought to have no sexual desire. The only legitimate reason for engaging in sexual behavior was to reproduce, and the only acceptable behavior was heterosexual vaginal intercourse, because only that behavior can result in conception. Furthermore, reproduction was to be limited to married couples; the only acceptable partner was one's spouse. Thus, sexuality was tied to the family, a system of marriage, kinship, and inheritance. Nonprocreative sexual activity was prohibited (Foucault 1978).

One of the first empirical studies of sexuality was carried out between 1885 and 1915 by Clelia Mosher ( Jacob 1981). Contrary to the discourse of the time, most of the forty-seven women who completed her questionnaire reported that they experienced sexual desire and orgasm. Mosher's research shows that sexual behavior may deviate from social norms. Much information about sexuality in the past is from written documents, which tend to reflect norms and not necessarily behavior.

A new construction of love, the romantic love ideal, gained currency in the West during the nineteenth century (Lantz, Keyes, and Schultz 1975). This ideal includes five beliefs: (1) love at first sight; (2) there is one "true love" for each person; (3) love conquers all; (4) the beloved is (nearly) perfect; and (5) one should marry for love. The growth of this ideal can be seen in the increased number of references to it in popular magazines from 1740 to 1865. This ideal encourages people to marry for love.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, another change in construction occurred, the sexualization of love. Eroticism came to be seen as an appropriate basis for or component of love. People who were in love were expected to be sexually attracted to each other (and people who were sexually attracted to each other were expected to be in love). Sexual gratification became a goal of romantic relationships. "Mutual sexual fulfillment was intended to enhance intimate solidarity in a social context where other unifying forces (e.g., kinship, patriarchy, economic dependency) were losing their power" (Seidman 1991, p. 2).

These changes reshaped marriage. "Duty, moral character, personal sacrifice, and spiritual union were fast losing their appeal as the defining characteristics of . . . the conjugal relationship" (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988, p. 265). Instead, men and women sought happiness and mutual sexual gratification. Closely related was the gradual acceptance of sexual interest and motivation in women, at least within the marital relationship. The effect of these changes was to increase the expectations of and the demands made on marriage.

During the 1920s, numerous social changes occurred in the United States that both reflected and encouraged these new constructions of love and sexuality. The pursuit of love became a major theme in popular culture, especially in magazines and films. Young people gained autonomy and financial independence, which they used to create their own culture. Erotic themes and expression in art, music, and film created a new, more open public discourse. A popular, if minority, view uncoupled sexual behavior from marriage. Sexual expression was seen as legitimate in its own right. This view led to the creation of new types of relationships and lifestyles. These changes were not universally accepted; there was and is continuing support for the old discourse that limits sexual behavior to marriage.

The institution of dating was established during the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, primarily by white, middle-class youths in cities (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). Large numbers of these people came together at work, in schools and colleges, and in leisure settings. With help from advice columns, they developed norms about various aspects of these interactions, especially the extent to which sexual intimacy was appropriate. Necking and petting were generally accepted and practiced. Some observers believe that up to 50 percent of young men and women engaged in intercourse (Smith 1973), although most women had intercourse only with the man they expected to marry (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). Dating and sexual intimacy gradually diffused to high-schoolage and lower-class youths in cities.

Literature giving advice regarding sexuality, much of it by physicians, has been available since the early 1800s in the United States. In the 1920s, this literature extolled physical pleasure as the goal of marital sexual expression. It provided elaborate instruction in sexual technique (Seidman 1991). Male sexuality was portrayed as quickly aroused and physical in nature, whereas female sexuality was slowly aroused and diffuse. Since simultaneous orgasm was the goal, the male was instructed to exert self-control and engage in the elaborate foreplay necessary to arouse his wife. If a couple did not experience mutual fulfillment, this was attributed to poor technique, and at least implicitly was the man's responsibility. This demonstrates the effect of beliefs about gender on public discourse about sex within marriage.

These major changes in the construction of marriage, love, and sex in the United States from 1850 to 1940 increased the demands on the marital relationship; in addition to the traditional expectations, husbands and wives were now expected to love each other and to provide mutual sexual gratification. Falling out of love or failing to experience sexual gratification were defined as problems. These problems became the bases for seeking help (from books, marriage counselors, or sex therapists) or for divorce.

Additional topics

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