Attitudes to sex and marriage vary widely in Chicago's diverse neighborhoods

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Sex and marriage in
the City of Chicago
A University of Chicago research study

As more people remain single for longer periods of time, or become single because of divorce, elaborate ‘markets’ to facilitate people in their search for companionship and sex have developed in major cities, according to a new study by a research team at the University of Chicago.

While people of previous generations tended to marry shortly after entering the workforce and remained married to the same partner, today’s marriages occur later in life and are often briefer, requiring a new dynamic in the ways in which people meet and form relationships, said Chicago University sociologist Professor Edward Laumann, one of America’s leading experts on the sociology of sexuality. He is the organizer of a study entitled the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey.

Professor Laumann said that between the ages 18 to 59, the age group studied, people on average were married for about 18 years. "For the rest of that time, people cohabit for 3.7 years and are either dating or unattached the rest of the time," he said.

Societal institutions hold significant power to direct and shape sexual relationships, identities and behaviors, the scholars found. “We saw this most clearly in cases in which individuals are most deeply embedded within local religious organizations, families and communities,” Professor Laumann explained.

The new sexual markets operate differently for men and women, and are defined according to racial group, neighborhood and sexual orientation, the University of Chicago team found during the three-year study. The scholars interviewed 2,114 people in the city and nearby suburbs and also talked to 160 community representatives, including police, social workers, church pastors and others. They found the traditional institutions ill-prepared to deal with the changes brought on by new sexual markets.

The study was conducted through a survey prepared by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The results will be published in 2004 in a book entitled The Sexual Organization of the City.

“Although we looked at Chicago in detail, what we found is reflected in major cities across the US,” Professor Laumann said. “Each major American city is organized much as Chicago is, with similar neighborhoods, similar people and similar institutions.”

In addition to a broader series of interviews, researchers focused on four Chicago neighborhoods for case studies: one predominantly African-American on the South Side, one Mexican-American on the West Side, one mixed but predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood on the Northwest Side and a North Side neighborhood with the largest homosexual population in the city, but which also has many upper income, young, white heterosexuals living there.

“These communities were chosen to represent various points along a continuum of perceived cohesiveness and insularity as well as to provide samples of different racial, ethnic and sexual orientation populations,” the authors wrote. The sexual markets are important means for people to organize their lives, the team found. “Sex is a powerful force in relationships. It provides fulfillment and contributes to a high quality of life,” Professor Laumann observed.

The researchers found that at the most fundamental level, people negotiate partnering in two kinds of sexual markets: one transactional and the other relational.

The transactional market consists of encounters primarily for the purposes of a short-term relationship. Transactional marketplaces are located in bars, health clubs and other venues where people who don’t previously know each other can meet to form relatively uncommitted relationships.

The relational market functions in a more complicated way and is often guided by friends and family. People they know introduce people with common interests and common backgrounds. “People in this market determine who gets in. People know more about the two people being introduced and the arrangement that develops is meant to be a long-term one,” Professor Laumann said. Churches sometimes provide settings where the relational marketplace works as well, he added.

Women become disadvantaged in sexual markets as they age compared with men, who typically choose younger women as they grow older. “A man in his 40s will seek a woman who is five to eight years younger than he is,” Professor Laumann commented. Besides ageing, which makes women less physically attractive, single women who are mothers bring extra ‘costs’ to a relationship because men are often uninterested in dealing with another man’s children.

In addition to the market distinctions between men and women, neighborhoods and culture also exert limitations on the way people find sexual partners.

In Chicago’s South Side African-American community, few people seek sex partners among African-Americans on the West Side, for instance, researchers found. The community also discourages homosexuality and provides few places where homosexuals can gather.

Members of the South Side community, like some people in other neighborhoods, also take part in a “hybrid” strategy in seeking partners somewhere between the transactional and the relational strategies. In the hybrid strategy, people choose to have short-term transactional partnerships, for instance, while maintaining a long-term relationship, or maintain several relationships as long-term polygamy.

African-American men are much more likely than white or Hispanic men to engage in polygamous relationships, the scholars found. About 21 per cent of the African-American men had at least two partners at the time of the survey, compared with six per cent of men overall in Chicago’s Cook County.

Furthermore, the researchers found that polygamy is more common among better educated black men, who presumably have more income. As a result, the number of men available for stable marriages in the African-American community is reduced, leading to the large differences in marriage rates between African-Americans and whites, the researchers pointed out. About 57 per cent of black men have been married, compared with about 72 per cent of white men, according to census figures.

Hispanic neighborhoods are traditional in their sexual attitudes, with Catholic beliefs being an important guide. Homosexuality is discouraged. The market in the Mexican neighborhood is highly organized by family, the church and neighborhood social networks.

The Chicago North Side gay neighborhood has its own set of rules as well. There, the transactional market is very important for gay men but not important for lesbians, who favor the relational market. The community also discourages African-Americans from participating in its activities by such measures as triple carding African-American bar patrons. Lesbians also find it difficult to find places to gather in the neighborhood because of male dominance, researchers found.

In the gay community, the failure of institutions to deal with sexuality plays out in a variety of ways. Churches in the neighborhood provide an ambivalent resource by being open to gay people on the one hand, but also respectful of denominational perspectives that might not be open to gay marriage, for instance. The community also has no refuges for gay men and women who have suffered domestic violence.

Among heterosexuals, institutional response to sexuality is also problematic. Police largely limit their interventions to potentially criminal issues, churches often ignore the issue of sexuality, and health care agencies treat sexuality as a medical problem and avoid a more holistic approach, Professor Laumann and his team contend.

But the need for an institutional response is growing because of changes in sexual customs, he added. More cohabitation, for instance, has increased the incidences of jealousy and violence, which are more common among those who co-habit than people who are married.

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