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City dwellers in the ‘market’ for intimacy

/ Source: The Associated Press

You could call it a real-life glimpse at sex and the city. A new survey from the University of Chicago found that typical urban dwellers spend much of their adult lives unmarried — either dating or single. And that has led to an elaborate network of “markets” in which these adults search for companionship and sex.

“On average, half your life is going to be in this single and dating state, and this is a big change from the 1950s,” says Edward Laumann, the project’s lead author and an expert in the sociology of sexuality.

The results, released Thursday, are part of the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey to be published this spring in the book “The Sexual Organization of the City.”

Laumann and his staff at the university examined how race and sexual orientation play a role in forming relationships, and how multiple sexual partners and jealousy also work into the equation.

Among other things, they found that, between the ages of 18 and 59, those surveyed cohabited an average of nearly four years and were married about 18. The rest of the time — an average of about 19 years — they were dating or alone, with no steady companion.

Researchers interviewed 2,114 people in the Chicago area between 1995 and 1997, as well as police officers, clergy and social workers. They also took an in-depth look at neighborhoods with predominantly black, Hispanic and gay populations.

A wary toe in matrimonial waters

Divorce was, of course, one of the big reasons so many people were single. But so was the fact that many young people are putting off marriage — sometimes because of school, but also because many are approaching the institution of marriage more warily.

“I think a lot of people jump into marriage before they should,” says Bagadia, who’s in pharmaceutical sales.

When looking for a partner, researchers found that people use two basic markets — “transactional” and “relational.” Bagadia prefers relational encounters, often facilitated by family, friends or even fellow churchgoers. He met his girlfriend through some of his college buddies.

Transactional relationships are relatively uncommitted and often meant to be short-term. They happen when two people who don’t know one another meet in a bar, health club or other public place.

Race, orientation play a role

Laumann and his colleagues say markets also are often defined by racial group, neighborhood and sexual orientation.

Researchers say the markets also operate differently for men and women.

Women surveyed were, for instance, less likely to meet a partner through work, church or other “embedded institutions” as they got older — making it more difficult to find someone. Laumann said that may be due, in part, to the fact that men in their 40s often sought women who were at least five to eight years younger.

Meanwhile, many gay men in the survey were largely focused on transactional relationships, while lesbians were far more interested in relational connections.

Researchers also addressed the issues of multiple partners and jealousy.

Overall, 23 percent of men and 31 percent of women said they experienced jealous conflict at some point during their relationships. And researchers found that cohabitation resulted in more jealousy — and physical violence — than it did among married couples.

Playing the field

Men were more likely than women to have more than one sexual partner.

“What’s going on now is making the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s pale in comparison,” says Eli Coleman, director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota. He called Laumann’s work the most comprehensive since that of acclaimed researcher Alfred Kinsey, who surveyed people about sex in the 1940s.

Still, Laumann and his staff found that social services, the church and law enforcement have been slow to address this latest sexual revolution.

For instance, they found no shelters in any of the studied communities for gay domestic abuse victims.

And most churches they examined were not good at “giving guidance about how you manage a stable, but non-married relationship,” Laumann says.

“It’s not approved. It’s not talked about,” he says. “Or they just look the other way.”