For millennia, our ideas about extramarital sex, the double standard, and single parenthood have been inflexible moral judgements. All of those have changed rapidly because of modern wealth and technology. So do our morals necessarily address good and evil directly, or do they also address our situation?
This is a serialization from my book, Happiness: A Physician/Biologist Looks at Life. To see the Table of Contents and the dust jacket blurb, click here; to start from the beginning, click here; to read the previous post, click here.
The Two Parent Household
Consider pregnancy and marriage from the standpoint of survival in our not-too-distant past. If a daughter comes home with a husband, then we can estimate that the two of them can provide for roughly twice as many children as a mother without a husband.
Actually, they can probably raise more than twice as many children. Raising and supervising children, particularly small children, makes any other sustained, intensive work very difficult. So a daughter who is married is in a much better situation to provide sustenance for herself and her children.
The Single Mother
But a daughter who comes home pregnant without a husband puts her relations in a bind. If they abandon her, they not only lose her, they also lose her children, who are equally their relatives regardless of their legitimacy. But if they keep her in the family, then often her parents, siblings, and everyone else will have to sacrifice some of their resources to help support her. For those groups who lived in situations where resources were extremely limited, this extra burden could have proven catastrophic.
So we can see a pragmatic (i.e., survival) reason for some of our sexual mores. Whether or not those mores are moral, they have definitely been practical. And as the practical reasons change, we need to be able to recognize those changes and when necessary, respond accordingly.
The Double Standard
There are a couple of other aspects about our sexual conduct that further illustrate how our situation can change, and how our strategies may need to change with them. First of all, there is the chronic problem of the double standard: extramarital sex has historically been less shameful for men than women. A possible explanation for that is also given above. If a daughter comes home with illegitimate children, then there is an extra burden for her family. But this is not true for the son who fathers those children. Without strong legal or social penalties, a son who impregnates a woman can escape her burden. And even with legal obligations such as we have in this country (e.g., child support) there is no doubt that a single mother still inherits a much heavier burden than the independent father, and some of this burden will often be assumed by her relations.
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The double standard, too, has begun disappearing. It still exists, but there is no doubt that the gap between the two standards has narrowed greatly. Part of that, again, is because we can now control pregnancy much better. But in addition, there is another reason that also allows another shift in attitudes: our resources are not as constrained as they once were.
Our modern excess in resources allows a shift in our attitudes about single parenthood. As I noted above, at one time a single parent could raise a family only at great difficulty, and often only through sacrifices from friends and relations. As such, single parenthood, with or without illegitimacy, has been historically considered highly undesirable by many cultures.
Today although many people would contend that single parenthood is certainly not ideal, there is no doubt that it is much easier. With an increase in resources, we have also seen a dramatic increase in single-parent homes. So if a daughter comes home pregnant today, it is generally seen as a headache, not a disaster.
Here we see three very recent, very rapid shifts in attitudes, in an aspect of human behavior that was inflexible for millennia. Extramarital sex, the double standard, and single parenthood previously represented large problems, carrying with them social censure, abandonment, or even death. But with effective methods of controlling pregnancy, and with the excess of material resources in the west, these three have quickly become lesser problems, that do little more than raise eyebrows in the community.
Picture by Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” courtesy of Wikipedia. Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”