The New York Times


Sex and the Cities


Published: May 1, 2004


SSex is pretty elemental. We share the same basic biology. We watch nationally broadcast TV shows and movies designed for international audiences. You'd think you'd be able to drive across a few neighborhoods in this country and come across reasonably similar sexual behavior patterns. But you'd be wrong.

Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago and several other academics have recently published a research project called "The Sexual Organization of the City." They've found that people construct highly evolved sexual marketplaces, venues where they go to find sex partners. These marketplaces, at least in cities, are incredibly localized; people are not inclined to cross ethnic, racial, sociological or geographical boundaries when looking for a bed mate. Each of these discrete marketplaces has its own rules, and the sex practices in one neighborhood may look nothing like those in the next.

The authors of the study culled data from thousands of interviews in several Chicago neighborhoods and compared behavior across the communities. For example, one of the neighborhoods they studied is a struggling African-American community they call (pseudonymously) Southtown. This area has seen its jobs disappear, its main commercial strip wither. There are more women than men. The men take advantage of their market power to become polygamous. At any moment, almost 40 percent of the men are maintaining long-term relationships with at least two sexual partners. The more educated the man is, and presumably the more desirable he is to women, the more likely he is to be juggling multiple partners.

If men can have multiple partners, they have little incentive to limit themselves; marriage rates drop. Though they face a shortage of African-American men of equal status, Southtown's women tend not to look outside black neighborhoods.

A few miles away, there is a largely Hispanic neighborhood the academics call Westside. About half the people here are foreign-born, many from rural areas of Mexico. Mores here are traditional. Sixty-four percent of single men and 57 percent of single women say men should work and women should stay home to raise the kids.

While roughly two-thirds of the non-Hispanic men in Chicago reported ever having one-night stands, very few of the men in Westside did. Half of the men and three-quarters of the women believe it is wrong to have sex without love. People here are much more likely to meet future sexual partners in a family member's home, and much less likely to talk openly about sexually transmitted diseases.

Shoreland is an affluent white neighborhood on the near northwest side. There is a large gay and lesbian population, and sex is more likely to be impersonal. About 43 percent of the gay men in Shoreland have had more than 60 partners. This neighborhood, too, has developed its own social institutions. A local softball league has become a place where lesbians can go to meet possible partners. Though people here are better educated, their social lives are still tightly bounded. Over 75 percent of the gays and lesbians interviewed said that most or all of their friends are gay, lesbian or bisexual.

When you step back from this data, you see that, first, there has been a flowering of diverse sexual zones. This spontaneous evolution is so rapid, it is very difficult for big institutions to keep up. How can the city government of Chicago design health and welfare programs for areas as different as Southtown, Westside and Shoreland? How can the churches and other moral authorities keep up?

Second, sexual marketplaces are a rapidly expanding feature of society, and they are becoming more distinct from marriage marketplaces. Furthermore, as the sex markets become bigger and more efficient, people have less incentive to get married. As the scholars Yoosik Youm and Anthony Paik write, "Opportunities in the sex market act as constraints in the marriage market."

The big problem here is that there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that marriage correlates highly with happiness. Children raised in marriages tend to have more opportunities than children raised outside marriage.

Over all, Americans are spending much less time married. They marry later and divorce at high rates, and remarry less and less. We are replacing marriage, one of our most successful institutions, with hooking up. This is a deep structural problem, and very worrying.