Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Brief: Did third-wave feminism ruin Gen-X guys' sex lives?

There was a society-wide hysteria that reached a fever pitch in 1991, encompassing the rebirth of identity politics, feminism ("third-wave"), gay rights, and political correctness in general. The panic was still pretty high through 1994, although it died off afterward. Compared to second-wave feminism -- which focused more on equal pay, a lower housework burden, and so on -- third-wave feminism was much more focused on sexual harassment, rape, male libido, etc.

Was all that paranoia about all men being crypto-rapists just cheap talk, or did it have real consequences for the relation between the sexes? An easy way to test this is to look at how likely men were to remain virgins after graduating college through their 20s. I used the General Social Survey to focus on males aged 21 to 29 when they were surveyed. I grouped them into 3-year birth cohorts, except for the last one, where a tiny number of late-'80s males were lumped into the previous cohort just to make the sample sizes better.

Here is the percent of 20-something respondents who said they'd had 0 female partners since turning 18 -- which in context I take to mean 0 partners ever -- shown by the middle year of the 3-year cohort (or by 1986 for the '84-'89 cohort):

The long-term trend looks like between 6% and 7% fall into the 20-something virgin group. The early-'60s cohort is much lower, which makes sense because that cohort was completely unaffected by feminist hysteria. They were born too late to come of age during the counter-culture and too soon to come of age during the early-'90s hysteria. As I've pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the late '70s and early '80s were a remarkably non-ideological and hysteria-free period. However, those who came of age during the early-'90s hysteria show much higher rates of virginity in their 20s -- about double the long-term trend, or 5 to 6 percentage points higher. The effect even lasts through those who came of age in the mid-'90s, although their departure from the trend isn't so extreme. It isn't until those who were born in the early '80s, who came of age in the late-'90s or later, that the rate returns to the trend.

People often poo-poo the framework of generations -- there's so much variation within generations, not as much across generations, no sharp changes, etc. Well here's a very clear demonstration of an abrupt and gigantic change in a key rite of passage for males, and the timing is not mysterious given what we know about larger cultural changes afoot in the early-'90s. This also supports my approach to see generations as a cohort of vulnerable individuals who are struck by a huge but passing hysteria (a shock to the social system). There's some age range in which people are vulnerable to bearing the scars of the hysteria -- not younger or older -- and those indelibe impressions cause a lot of them to look similar to each other and different from other groups. That's why you can still tell who was coming of age during the counter-culture even though that was 40 years ago.

GSS variables used: numwomen, cohort, sex, age

No comments:

Post a Comment