If present trends continue, it seems that Americans currently face the prospect of spending nearly half of their adult life between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine single (with no particular sex partner) or in dating relationships. The age at first marriage is rising, divorce is increasingly likely, and the rates of remarriage are declining.1 While cohabitation is much more common than in the past, less than a quarter of Whites who list themselves as never married or single also report having had such a living situation. A slightly higher fraction, approximately one-third, of African Americans and Hispanics in the same category also have had such relationships. In both groups, more than half who had done so married the person with whom they had cohabited. Some of those who did not marry their cohabitation partner may have married or cohabited with others, but data on this specific category is not now available.
Still, by any measurement, singleness is growing, although men and women have different trajectories. While women are catching up with men in engaging in sexual intercourse with partners they do not intend to marry, women are much more likely than men to spend longer periods of time in the single status, especially after the age of forty. Fewer women are stay-at-home mothers, but either because of economic necessity or personal preference, they have jobs or careers.
At the same time the kinds of relationships people enter into are also changing. Some indication of this public acceptance of change is the willingness of newspapers such as the New York Times to record same-sex compacts (marriages, if you will). There has also been an increase in the number of gays and lesbians who have entered into such relationships, as the nature of the gay community also changes. The UnitarianUniversalist General Assembly, held in Quebec in June, included a workshop featuring the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA for short). Polyamory was defined as “the philosophy and practice of loving or relating intimately to more than one person at a time with honesty and integrity.” This is part of a movement known as Alternate Lifestyles, which has also been growing—though the UU group sought to distinguish itself from what they dismissed as the “swinging” or “cheating” relationships they felt were part of such lifestyles, claiming that their activities involve intentional, open, long-term, loving relationships. This is what traditionally is called “polygyny,” since either sex could have more than one partner. Other groups with different agendas in the Alternate Lifestyle movement would reject the Unitarian-Universalist classification of their activity as cheating, since it usually involves both partners in the relationship.
The UU group emphasized heterosexuality, but there are also organized bisexual groups in the United States with like agendas. Multiple sexual-part-ner relationships were much more common in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the herpes and AIDS epidemics cut down the number of willing participants in the 1980s and 1990s. (Currently, however, the number is on the rise again.) Adding to the picture is the appearance of new groups. For example, there has been an increase in visibility for transgendered individuals who, following in the steps of gay activism, are willing to “come out” into the larger world. Transsexuals, most of whom in the past tried to fade away into the woodwork, are speaking out as individuals as they strive to enter the mainstream. Even the more furtive transvestites have been willing to appear in public as both their feminine and masculine selves.
What does all this mean for humanists? As far as I know, there is no organized group of single humanists, divorced humanists, gay and lesbian humanists (although there is in Europe), transgender humanists, or alternative lifestyle humanists. It might be that there is no need for such specialized groups or subgroups, that humanists by definition are simply all inclusive. Even if this is the case, there might well be separate subgroups that form to better serve their own needs. Moreover, the nature of marriage and family itself is changing. Families are smaller, the stay-at-home mom is becoming scarce, two-career marriages are almost the norm, and there are happily married couples who prefer to remain childless. There is also an increasing number of aging widows and widowers.
How should humanism respond to all of this change? One approach is to oppose and denounce such developments, as the Family Life Council does. I do not think that is the humanist way. Another route is to ignore the shifts in society. This is a viable alternative, but one I would not advocate since it isolates us from reality. Still another alternative is to recognize diversity and take a leadership role in defining the family with a broader brush than has been used before. Humanists by definition are people-centered. We believe and act as if humans can solve life’s crises and problems. Our task somehow is to integrate all of these different lifestyles into the humanist movement as an alternative to orthodoxy and hostility. The world is changing, and we also need to change, to broaden our perspectives, and to recognize and even develop programs to help serve the needs of these newly emerging groups. This is one of the major challenges to humanism in the first part of the twenty-first century. How successful we are will determine our future as a movement.
1. All statistics is this article are from Edward O. Lauman, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality (Chicago: Uni-versity of Chicago Press, 1994). The data in the book is updated annually by the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Vern Bullough is a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.