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ASA NEWS

August 13, 2002

Sex, Intimacy, and Family Life in the United States: A Study Examines How Intimate Relationships Are Formed

Chicago, IL – Major social changes over the past 50 years in the United States have profoundly reshaped how intimate unions are formed. As sexual ties have increasingly become decoupled from marriage, the nature and formation of relationships have taken on new forms and meaning—with significant implications for different subgroups in the population, and for the quality of life in general.

These are some of the findings from research conducted by Professor Edward O. Laumann, Jenna Mahay, and Yoosik Youm of the University of Chicago that will be presented at a session of the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago on August 16, 2002. The conclusions are drawn from analyses of data from the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) and the 1995 Chicago Health and Social Life Survey (CHSLS).

Among other study findings are these:

  • With the declining age of sexual maturation over the course of the last century, the increasing age at first marriage, the high likelihood of divorce, and the declining rates of remarriage, Americans currently face the prospect of spending nearly half of their adult life between 18 and 59 single (with no sex partner) or in noncoresidential dating relationships.
  • About one third of African Americans and Hispanics who are “Never Married, Single” have cohabited in the past, while less than one quarter of whites in this category have ever cohabited. In addition, among those who are married, 16 percent of African Americans cohabited with someone other than their spouse before they were married, compared to only 7 percent of whites and 1 percent of Hispanics.
  • Men and women experience very different trajectories with respect to various relationship statuses across the life course: While there is some indication that women are catching up with men (e.g., in terms of engaging in premarital sex with partners they do not intend to marry), women are much more likely than men to spend longer periods of time in single status, especially after the age of 40.
  • Wide variations exist in the prevalence of specific types of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) among different subgroups of the population. For example, rates of gonorrhea among African Americans are 20 to 30 times higher than for whites, while rates of viral STDs are highest among highly educated whites. In order to better understand the dynamics of how STDs are transmitted, dating and single status relationships must also be studied more systematically.

The authors argue that in order to better understand the dynamics of how relationships are formed, researchers must broaden their perspective to include singlehood status and dating relationships—an approach especially important for accounting for the growing discrepancies in the formation of unions among African Americans, Hispanics, and whites.

Laumann is the author of several major works on the subject of sex, love, and health, including a two-volume book, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, and Sex in America (both published in 1994), and coeditor with Robert T. Michael of Sex, Love, and Health in America (2000)—all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.