Sex in the city. The words conjure up a flurry of images: smoky bars, one-night-stands, eager women exposing all manner of cleavage and prowling Casanovas drenched in bad cologne. In this hot-and-bothered depiction, everyone, it seems, is doing a little dance, making a little love and living out a freewheeling existence in the liberated aftermath of the Sexual Revolution.
The idea of the teeming metropolis as a place where sexuality has been freed from the constraints of family, religion and traditional mores presents a titillating picture that is continuously reinforced and reinterpreted throughout pop culture, from Playboy magazine to HBO's sitcom "Sex and the City."
Even the fear factor thrown into the equation by AIDS and other STDs has had little effect on this perception. The notion endures that the city is a great hub of carnal freedom, home to every sexual activity and proclivity.
But the truth is more elusive. Sex in a city like Chicago-and sex in general-is a far more complicated phenomenon than any single storyline can suggest. There are certainly bedhopping twentysomethings out there (not to mention adulterous fortysomethings), but there are also thousands of people who hook up through the decidedly old-fashioned auspices of church groups and social networks. For every whip-wielding dominatrix and Internet tryst, there are cocktail nights at the Museum of Contemporary Art and health clubs offering yoga classes for singles.
Thanks to biologist Alfred C. Kinsey's research in the early 1950s, our initial-and, in hindsight, rather flawed-understanding of sexual behavior was focused on the human being as a biological entity. The unit of analysis for Kinsey was the orgasm. He wanted to quantify all the occasions when men and women had the opportunity to have one. Of less concern was whom it was with and how they met.
Kinsey's mystique remains so strong 48 years after his death that he is the subject of a widely heralded, eponymous movie that opens nationwide this week and a just-released novel, "The Inner Circle," by T. C. Boyle.
And the orgasm is still an area of keen interest. Men have one 75 percent of the time, women 26 percent. For what it's worth, 45 percent of men think that women always have one.
But beyond Kinsey and his interest in quantifying carnal delights, longstanding societal givens-that cities are basically fleshpots, that marriage is the natural human state, and that matrimony acts as a stabilizing counterweight in people's lives-are being reexamined at the University of Chicago, among other institutions. In a quiet corner office in the sociology department, professor Edward O. Laumann has become one of the nation's leading thinkers on the topic of sex.
Unlike Kinsey, Laumann is less interested in biology and more concerned with sociology-who is having sexual relations with whom and how they arrive at those relations. To Laumann, sex is the result of careful and deliberate negotiations within a highly structured social order, not some wild bathhouse of free love.
His research raises some interesting questions: What will the future in a city like Chicago look like if, as Laumann contends, "the incentives to marry are going to hell"? How does the large influx of women into the workforce affect society's sexual dynamics? And what does it mean if, as the data suggest, people are spending more of their lives essentially alone?
Besides sociologists like Laumann, there are now economists, mathematicians and brain researchers poking around our bedrooms. In answering the question "How many partners should I have before I settle down?" Clio Cresswell, author of "Mathematics and Sex," proffers "The Rule of 12 Bonks." Based on findings by mathematician Peter Todd from the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Germany, she recommends testing a sample of 12 partners. After the 12th, she advises, continue testing but take the next best partner that comes along. This will give you a 75 percent chance of finding Mr. or Ms. Right.
In a paper published in May called "Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study," David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick in England cross the economic with the erotic in contending that upping the frequency of sexual intercourse from once a month to at least once a week provided the equivalent of $50,000 worth of happiness. And they give two thumbs up for matrimony: A lasting marriage offers about $100,000 worth of happiness a year, while divorce imposes an emotional toll of about $66,000 a year, depending on individual circumstances.
Meanwhile, a study recently conducted by researchers at Emory University looked for the areas of the brain that play a role in sexual arousal. MRI scans of men's and women's brains while they're looking at sexually explicit material--or, in the case of the control group, nonsexual material--revealed that the explicit material stimulated much higher levels of activity in men's amygdala, a part of the brain associated with processing emotions and assessing threats.
"There is an advantage for males in quickly recognizing and responding to receptive females through visual cues," explains Dr. Stephan Hamann, one of the Emory scientists. "This allows them to maximize their mating opportunities, which increases their chances for passing on their genes."
Laumann, whose approach is less lab-coat, came somewhat late to the study of sex. His early work, including "Chicago Lawyers: The Structure of the Bar" (1982), examined the sociology of elites.
Then in the second half of the 1980s, just as the AIDS epidemic was starting to surge, Laumann and some associates decided that something like a "Manhattan Project" was needed to understand sexual practices in the U.S. and essentially "do Kinsey right," Laumann says. The absence of reliable data "completely hamstrung people" trying to understand the spread of STDs and the attitudes Americans have toward sex in general.
"I feel strongly that sexual health is very important in society," says Laumann. "It's very important in maintaining relationships."
Despite the vociferous grumbling of Jesse Helms and other conservative senators, the Laumann group's groundbreaking study, the "National Health and Social Life Survey," was one of the largest overviews of sexual attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. since the Kinsey Reports emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The survey looked at more than 3,400 Americans aged 18 to 59 and the results were shocking in their orthodoxy.
More than half the people polled said they'd had three or fewer sex partners over the course of a lifetime, married couples reported the highest levels of sexual satisfaction, and survey results showed that homosexuals did not represent 10 percent of the population, as Kinsey had suggested, but more like 2.7 percent of males and 1.3 percent of females.
Laumann's most recent survey, based on a new set of interviews with 2,114 people conducted in the mid-1990s was published last April in a book called "The Sexual Organization of the City." The metropolis whose sexual practices were put under the microscope was Chicago.
"We can look at the larger cities and show that the patterns manifested in Chicago are found in L.A. and elsewhere," says Laumann. "Seventy percent of us live in urban scenes, and people living in rural areas often move to the city, so the city is at some point in everybody's scope."
In what is believed to be the first survey ever undertaken of the sexual behavior of an individual urban area, Laumann and his coauthors challenge longstanding notions about Chicagoans'-and by extension Americans'-sexuality and relationships.
Noting that sexual activity has long since ceased to be associated mainly with marriage, Laumann observes that it now occurs "in a variety of patterns, potentially involving any [combination] of types of sexual relationships and numbers of partners . . . ."
Moreover, an increase in delayed marriages, a high divorce rate and a decline in the frequency of remarriage means Americans are spending a larger proportion of their lives as singles than at any other time in the past 100 years, complicating the notion of one partner for life.
In 1950, males were married, on average, at 22 years of age, with 20 the average age for females. According to 2000 census data, those ages have risen to 27 and 25, respectively. Also, the tendency among previous generations was to marry soon after entering the workforce and remain married to the same partner. By contrast, today's marriages happen later and are substantially shorter.
The timeline, Laumann's research shows, plays out this way: Between the ages of 18 and 59, people are married for an average of about 18 years; for another 3.7 years they cohabit with one or more romantic partners; and for about 20 years they are either dating or completely unattached.
"This is a major change in the way social life is organized in this country, and as ongoing relationships constitute a smaller percentage of your life, people are spending more time on the market or forming new relationships," Laumann says.
ATTORNEY CHRISTINE CHASE, 33, knows about the dating market. When she hit the social scene after three consecutive long-term relationships, she did what a lot of people do these days: She went online to match.com, an Internet dating service.
"My single friends and I talked about it like it was shoe-shopping," she says. "You can look at a bunch of boys and pick out which ones might fit you and you e-mail and see what happens."
But not much did. Online profiles tended to be more fiction than fact: One guy who said he looked like Dean Cain, the hunk from the TV show "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," more closely resembled Garth Brooks, right down to the cowboy boots.
So she turned the computer off and started hitting the town. That yielded mixed results. "Chicago is designed for people to meet people," Chase says. "I would say the opportunity is there. But the fact that there are so many singles in the city makes it hard to meet a man who wants to settle down."
The problem with an increase in footloose singles, the Chicago data says, is that noncommittal relationships are less likely than long-term ones to be truly satisfying.
Eighty-five percent or more of people in a mutually monogamous relationship are likely to describe it as extremely or very satisfying. But that number drops to 45 percent among those in more "open" situations-where one or both of the partners is concurrently seeing other people.
"You just cut it in half," says Laumann. The reality, he notes, is that the incentives for commitment, for making investments in another person when there's a very real chance that one of you might leave, diminish, meaning that people are going to be less willing to make a commitment. People are questioning or calculating the costs and benefits of their relationship, he says, rather than going with an "unquestioning, 'I'm with you for life,' " scenario.
"Men get the mindset that they can always meet somebody better," says Chase. "There's negative connotations about marriage. As guys get older, some look at it more in terms of what they're giving up than what they're getting. They'll say to themselves, 'You don't have to answer to anybody, you can live your own life and have no obligations.' That prospect is more attractive to men than women."
With 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce and remarriages faring even worse-66 percent of them fail-more people may have a cycle of several marriages over the course of their lives. It's to the point now that people almost brag that they've been married three times, says Laumann.
But it certainly isn't women who are the driving force behind most remarrying. Women at 40, Laumann reports, have a hard time finding a partner, let alone a marriageable partner, largely because men of that age are seeking younger women. By age 70, Lauman says, 70 percent of women will be without a partner, contrasted to only 35 percent of the men. "Sexual opportunity increases for men by age and decreases for women," he says.
"George," a 56-year-old marketing executive, says that when he warily started dating again a year after his marriage ended, "It was not like, 'Gee, I'd like to be in a relationship.' It was more, 'I'd like to have a social life.' "
People had told him that the ratio of single women to single men was around 60-40. "I believe that," he says, based on his experiences at functions like The Single Gourmet.
Laumann gave a talk recently at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago to a group of people in their 40s through 60s. He said attendees were, for the most part, educated, high-earning divorced people, about an equal mix of men and women.
"I suspect a very small percentage of them are Presbyterian, as such," says Laumann. "They feel this is a way of pre-selecting, a screen. Because how are you going to find a 50-year-old man who's successful and making money and lives on the lakeshore? They're not congregating like they are in, say, grad school. The question is where do you get the physical space, socially organized, with the right participants so that you can play out this mating game? As you age, those venues become problematic."
In a South Side African-American community that Laumann and his team looked at, 40 percent of the population was married, half the rate of every other ethnic group. What explains the difference? Fewer men are available for stable marriages in the African-American community, the authors say, as a result of social issues such as unemployment, and because the more educated, and presumably wealthier, African-American men choose in higher numbers to be in multiple as opposed to monogamous relationships.
That's not the only problem, says Pat Arnold, an African-American woman in her 50s who is an author and communications consultant. "Years can go by without a date," she says. "That's not atypical for professional black women."
According to Arnold, the situation is partly due to male reluctance to connect with strong women. "Bright women are said to intimidate men, but that's their problem," she says. "I have no intention of dumbing myself down. I want to spend my time with a man who appreciates me."
She says that when she goes out now, it's not to meet men. "I'm not in mating mode like a younger women. I'm not looking for that experience. If the right man comes along, great. But I've been married twice, and I've yet to have a husband," she says half-jokingly.
One of the book's key findings is that sex in the city is conducted within a wide assortment of very rigidly organized "sex markets" defined by ethnicity and sexual orientation.
There's nothing new about likening Chicago's meeting places to sexual bazaars. The idea of a saloon as a "meet market," for example, has been with us since Butch McGuire pulled his first beer. The study's authors, however, take the concept a step further and use the marketplace analogy literally, right down to such terminology as costs, benefits and negotiations.
They looked at four pseudonymous Chicago neighborhoods: Shoreland, on the city's North Side (affluent, mostly white, 35 percent homosexual); Southtown, on the South Side (black, lower- to middle-class); Westside, on the West Side (predominantly Mexican American, lower- to middle-class); and Erlinda, on the Northwest Side (mixed-Hispanic with a concentration of Puerto Ricans). They also surveyed residents of the inner suburbs, to get an overall picture of Cook County.
Asked if he had considered extending the study to the more distant suburbs, Laumann said: "You can't do everything at once. The idea was the suburbs would be a place where people have gone to settle and raise children. They're kind of outside the sexual marketplace."
Each neighborhood studied represents its own orbit of attitudes, moral frameworks and gender roles, and relies on a set of significantly different institutions as social touchstones.
"In Westside, [the institution] is the Roman Catholic church," the authors write. "In Erlinda, it is organizations that combine a particular institutional agenda with Puerto Rican nationalism; in Shoreland, it is organizations offering counseling or psychotherapy along with those religious organizations that accept gays and lesbians; in Southtown it is the black church, not only for historic reasons but also because health-care and social-service provision is not well developed."
In other words, when it comes to personal perspectives on sex, people are very much products of their environment. "It's not so much sex in the city, it's sex in all these little pockets in the city," says Laumann. "The enormous differences among these communities testify that we're not talking about one specific way of doing things; there are highly local versions and understandings of sexuality."
Laumann believes that individuals aren't necessarily making their own decisions about whom to meet, how to meet and where to meet. They are embedded in a larger group of family, friends and others who influence how they behave sexually and what the consequences are for how they play the game. Being part of a community that has common attitudes and is like-minded about the pursuit of sex, he says, boosts the chances an individual will be successful.
Male Chicagoans, the authors report, are twice as likely to meet their sexual partners at a friend's or family member's house (30 percent) as at a bar (13 percent); women fare similarly. In addition, those who know each others' families and friends before their first encounter are far more likely to marry, and stay married, than couples who come from different communities. And two-thirds of sexual partnerships are brokered by the social networks people are in. That is, it is friends, family, and workmates who introduce the couples, according to Laumann's book.
Since intimacy requires disclosing yourself to others, the argument goes, you need a basis for anticipating the way the object of your affections might think about something, and you can't acquire that by going after strangers whose folkways you haven't a clue about. For instance, a white man from Lincoln Park couldn't very well head down to a bar on the South Side and expect to form a relationship with someone, says Laumann. "Chances are you're going to make all kinds of mistakes: you're going to dress wrong, you're going to send signals that are going to be misinterpreted."
How severely do protocols differ by neighborhood, ethnicity and sexual orientation? Consider that, in the homosexual community of Shoreland, casual sex often occurs on first meeting. The rules of engagement among heterosexuals are much less liberal. Generally speaking, you have to know the person before you can hop in the sack.
African-American men are much more likely than white or Hispanic men to engage in multiple relationships, the scholars found. About 21 per cent of African-American men had at least two partners at the time of the survey, compared with 6 percent of men overall in Cook County.
Meanwhile, the sexual revolution has yet to hit places like Erlinda, the predominantly Puerto Rican community on the Northwest Side, apparently because there is a continuous supply of newly arriving immigrants to keep the more conservative, home-country traditions alive.
For Carolina, 35, a first-generation Puerto Rican interviewed for this story, coming of sexual age involved a formal courtship that placed a premium on keeping her and her sisters in check. In her household, boys would come to the house and "declare" themselves; that is, they would tell the parents that they wanted to date their daughters. Ground rules would be set: Boys were allowed to visit on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
"My sisters never dated," says Carolina, the youngest in a family of 12. "The first guy who declared himself is the guy they married. The American way, where you date different people and see who you like, wasn't an option."
Carolina and her sisters would meet boys at socially sanctioned and closely monitored places, such as church and family gatherings, not at high school.
The rules did not apply for the males in the family. Carolina says her father was something of a womanizer in Puerto Rico, and her brothers, once they moved to the U.S., were allowed to date whomever they wanted, all the while keeping a close eye on their sisters.
One reason for the restrictions is the fear of pregnancy among traditionally devout Catholic Puerto Rican families, for whom birth control and abortion are not up for discussion.
Even when it came time to go off to college, Carolina's mother was against it. "She said: 'A girl doesn't study, a girl gets married. You're going there with all those 'Americanos.' In my mothers book, they were the unknowns," says Carolina. " 'All you want to do is go have sex with boys,' she'd tell me."
These days, Carolina says she's interested in being in a relationship, but ethnicity plays less of a role. "There was a part of me that said, 'You marry your own kind.' I went to school and that changed. It became more about the person. Do I have a color? Or ethnicity? No. If it's the right fit, it doesn't matter."
But the sexual guilt hasn't necessarily gone away. Since she's not married, it's assumed among certain family members in her community that she still has her virginity. "That's how prized it [is] to this very day," she says.
THE CHANGING NATURE of female sexuality-at least in wealthier, mostly white parts of the city-was popularly exemplified on "Sex and the City." Sarah Jessica Parker's character, Carrie Bradshaw, strolls through Manhattan, pondering her sex column, quaffing martinis and comparing notes with her libidinous pals in a post-feminist variation on men's-locker-room talk. It's a world that seems gleefully footloose, shoe-obsessed and sexually liberated. And it's become something of a touchstone for women.
"In the last 5 or 10 years, you get 'Sex in the City,' or HBO's 'Real Sex.' says Searah Deysach, owner of Early to Bed, which she says is Chicago's first female-owned sex store. "People are starting to talk more about women having an orgasm and being promiscuous. These things weren't part of the sexual equation 15 years ago."
Nor were understandings of women's sexuality in general. But that's changing.
"Women are just so utterly different in the way they process sexual stimuli," says Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. Bailey and a team conducted a study recently in which they showed sexually explicit material to men and women. "A straight man, by definition, almost always is going to be aroused by women; a gay man is going to be aroused by men," Bailey says. In contrast, Bailey's research suggests that women, whether straight or lesbian, get aroused by explicit pictures of both men and women." They appear to be much more bisexual than men," he says.
According to a study presented to the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health, men experience spontaneous sexual desire nearly twice as often as women do. They also tend to fantasize about women that they don't know. Women, on the other hand, fantasize about men they know, whether sexually or not.
What men want versus what women want sexually has always been a contentious issue. In our society, Laumann says, you can't just say: " 'Here's the way I want to play, this is how I want to have my sex.' That requires somebody else to say: 'OK, I'll play that role that you want me to play.' You've got to find somebody willing to do or not do that, and it's often becoming the case that people are going to have to mutually construct the scripts and change some of their expectations."
Laumann uses oral sex as an example. Men would love to have it whenever they can get it, he notes. "They by and large give up on that after their wedding because women don't particularly care for it."
Oral sex, his statistics suggest, tends to occur in relatively short-term kinds of relationships. "That may result in your being somewhat nostalgic about being able to have that kind of opportunity, and it always acts as a little bit of a drag on your long-term relationship," Laumann says. "The guy says to himself: 'If I bail I may be able to renegotiate this with someone else.' "
The difference between men's and women's attitudes toward sex may also stem from evolutionary pressures. During most of human history, people lived in subsistence or near-starvation conditions that made the stress of pregnancy a major threat to mortality. As a result, evolutionists argue, nature has, over the generations, selected against women who are too sexually active.
"A women is going to be much more relationship-centered," Laumann says. "She wants to select a mate that's going to stand by her. She's trying to evaluate his willingness to commit, and is more orgiastic if she has a relationship with somebody she's comfortable with."
He believes the decline in marriage and the roaming band of singles will lead to the continuing emergence of "urban tribes," Laumann theorizes. The concept, based on a book by Ethan Watters, suggests that a close social circle of friends takes the place of the family. The group is not particularly sexual, but its members share common interests, spend significant time together and move in and out of the group as they begin and end romantic relationships. It's essentially the "Friends" model from television, except nobody makes a million dollars an episode.
"How are 20-year-olds going to relate to each other when they know they can't really make a marriage decision at 20 because they don't know where they're going to be in five years?" asks Laumann. "Say the man moves to Dallas for a better job. Is the woman going to pick up stakes and go with him and compromise what she's doing?"
Laumann thinks people in the future may not be able to negotiate the terms necessary for a long-term marriage with kids. That social model will become a less expected arrangement than it is today.
Whether that's a sign of a society moving forward or backward is the question that remains unanswered by the new wave of sex research.
Says Laumann: "Society has not yet caught up with how we're going to deal with it all."