Extramarital sex refers to any sexual activity, but usually intercourse, that takes place outside of a legally sanctioned marriage. Even though general use of the term is with respect to heterosexual partnerships, it can also apply to homosexual relations when one of the individuals is in a heterosexual marriage. Furthermore, extramarital sex is a broad concept that encompasses sex that takes place in a cohabiting relationship; teenage sex; any other form of premarital sex; and adulterous sexual relations between two people, at least one of whom is married.
The 20th century witnessed increases in all the forms of extramarital sex, which eventually helped normalize sexual activity outside of marriage. A vocal group of commentators and scholars decried these increases as a sign that the American family was in decline. The 1960s, in particular, witnessed a marked increase in the rates of cohabitation, nonmarital births, and divorce. College students in the 1960s and 1970s were prime movers with respect to cohabitation and premarital/teen sex. By the 1990s most of the trends had stabilized, indicating that despite concerns, marriage remained a lasting American institution into the 21st century.
According to demographers, overall trends in extramarital sex since World War II are primarily the result of the long-term process of women’s growing employment outside the home and their better access to birth control. Social scientists also draw on shifts in social and cultural values—such as the decline in the power of religious norms to affect individual behavior and changing opinions on the permanency of marriage— to explain the increase in extramarital sex.
One of the most common forms of extramarital sex is cohabitation, the sexual union between an unmarried man and woman. Cohabiting partners share the same living quarters for a sustained period of time, though their arrangement does not normally invoke any legal rights and obligations; as such, it is less stable than marriage. In the late 1960s only 8 percent of first marriages began as cohabiting relationships, but by the 1990s that number had jumped to 56 percent. Cohabitation became commonplace during the 1970s and 1980s, as younger people began to postpone marriage but not sexual relations or life with a partner.
As with other forms of extramarital sex, cohabitation increased due to a variety of social, cultural, economic, and technological changes. These include the change in values about sexual relations outside of marriage (again, partly attributable to the weakening of religious influence on individuals’ decision making); the increased employment opportunities for women, which gave them greater bargaining power in relationships; and the development and availability of various forms of birth control that freed couples from having to get married following an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
Development of effective contraception, along with the legalization of abortion in particular, made it more likely for women to engage in extramarital sex at various points in their life course, beginning in their teen years. While there has been much hand-wringing over teenage sexual activity, mainly because of concerns over poverty and high school dropout rates, the current rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States are down from previous highs. Still, the United States has the highest incidence of teen pregnancy in the developed world; in 2004 approximately 41 out of 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 experienced pregnancy, almost always as a result of extramarital sex. Although there have been efforts, especially with teens, to sign virginity pledges promising not to have sex outside of marriage, teenage sex continues to persist. Efforts now focus on helping to prevent teenage pregnancy through the effective use of contraception—a sign of tacit acceptance that extramarital sex for teens is here to stay.
The sex lives of older adults also changed in the second half of the 20th century. Increases in extramarital sex among older men and women can be attributed to two related trends: the delay of age at first marriage and the increase in the divorce rate. As young people wait until their late 20s and into their 30s to get married for the first time, there is a subsequent rise in the incidence of extramarital sex, which in this case is defined as premarital sex.
Even though the likelihood of divorce is lower for those who marry later, divorce rates remain quite high in the United States. In many cases, divorce occurs because one or both partners engage in extramarital sex. Increases in adultery can be partially understood as a result of the same changing social and cultural values that promote the other forms of extramarital sex. A shift in views of marriage allows people to view marriage as a changeable state rather than a permanent one. This means that as soon as one person feels unhappy or attracted to another person, he or she feels able to leave the marriage or to stray sexually without concerns about social censure. Additionally, such feelings are often legitimated for people when they are protected from pregnancy and disease through contraception and prevention and when the woman can independently support herself financially. In effect, partly as a result of economic and technological changes, some see marriage less as a permanent partnership and more as the temporary union of two individuals.
Despite the seeming retreat from marriage through cohabiting relationships and sex outside of matrimony in its various forms, the institution continues to persist. One scholar has written that there is still strong sentimental strength in marriage, especially when children are involved, even though marriage may no longer be seen as an economic necessity for women or as a cultural imperative. But so long as marriage continues to be important, extramarital sexual relations will persist, for teens, single young adults, and divorces and widowers.
- Casper, Lynne M. and Suzanne M. Bianchi. 2002. Continuity and Change in the American Family. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Cherlin, Andrew J. 1992. Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Waite, Linda, ed. 2000. The Ties That Bind. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
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