Gender Relations in America

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North America has undergone, over the past half a century, a tremendous shift in the values governing gender relations.

The six years, 1950-56, that I spent in the frigid climate of Ottawa, have left with me warm memories of the significance that was given then to the sanctity and inviolability of marriage, integrity of family, and to the proper upbringing of the children. Divorce was scorned at and terms such as “live-in boyfriend” and “single mother by choice” were unheard of.

America is, no doubt, the most progressive and innovative society of the world. Bulk of the inventions have taken place in this country over the past half a century, from microwave oven to atomic bombs, from Internet to space travel.

The baby-boomers of that period can justifiably claim credit for many discoveries that have added comfort, ease and speed to human life. Naturally, they have experimented with various forms of gender relations too, and their youthful progeny have added further momentum to the search for a satisfactory gender equation.

The discovery of the birth-control pill in mid-60s removed the worry of unwanted pregnancies and triggered what is now commonly referred to as ‘the sexual revolution’. This gifted to women the freedom of choice in their relationships with men.

The alluring siren song of this concept has provided the pleasures it promises as often as punishments and disasters when freedom was taken to be a license to go awry and to any extreme in the search for thrills. The percentage of disasters appears to be fast mounting going by their portrayals on radio and TV talk shows, litigation in special courts, media reports and films such as ‘American Beauty’.

A case which attracted considerable media attention, some time back, was that of a 25-year old beautician, herself quite pretty, who returned home one evening fully exhausted and in no mood for fun or frolic. Her husband, on the other hand, may have had an easier day at work and was looking forward to the thrill and excitement of love in action. He tried to bring her in the required mood and, having failed in that, imposed himself upon her, indifferent to her protests. This infuriated the young women to such an extent that, while he, exhausted, immediately went to sleep, she rushed to the kitchen, got hold of a big knife and cut out the cause of her trouble. Surgeons took five hours to sew the critical part to his body. He reported the case to the police and it was tried by a grand jury. The finding: Not Guilty. For, the man, despite being her husband, had no business to do what he did to her. It violated her freedom of choice, her freedom to say ‘no’.

Since the sexual revolution of mid-60s, the entire scenario of male-female relationship has been shifting towards libertarian values. Now even the gays and lesbians flaunt their sexual orientations. Same-sex marriages, though still rare, cause not much of a stir in social fabric. Immorality is being redefined and the social stigma that once tainted ‘living in sin’ is fast fading away.

The attitudinal change has ended the spinster era and brought in the ‘single by choice’ period. According to a survey of Time magazine some time back, 43 million women, that is more than 40% of all adult females, were living single. Fifty years back a mere 15% of women of marriageable age remained single and that too more because of circumstances than of choice.

According to the census 2000, unmarried couples made up 5 per cent of all households against 3 per cent in 1990. Fifty-two per cent of homes are still headed by married couples.

Some studies have shown that pre-marital cohabitation has served as a valuable compatibility test, while other have found that couples who lived together before marrying were more likely to get divorced.

If things keep moving in the current direction, the time is not far when marriage will be regarded as an interlude and singlehood the general state of affairs. For want of marriage, few women feel now lonely, insecure socially and financially or deprived of the physiological need of a male.

Breaking barrier after barrier, women have been climbing up in almost all fields of human endeavor. From running high-tech, multi-million dollar corporations to the monstrous 18-wheeler trucks, no job is beyond their reach or competence. Fifty years back, the work reserved for a young woman was that of a Private Secretary. No more. The computer has in any case eliminated the need of a stenographer.

The attitudinal shift is generally disliked by immigrants from the traditional societies of the East, despite the fact that those societies are themselves feeling the impact of Western values. The immigrants endeavor to bring up their young in the crucibles of their own value system. Some have, however, embraced lustily the local libertarian system and got badly entangled in its consequences.

It is but natural to ask if there is an ideal system. The basic instincts in human nature -individual’s ego and his/her gregarious impulse- pose an almost constant conflict. These two traits affect almost all human activities, including the institution of marriage. Let us see what some thinkers have to say about it.

As to marriage or celibacy, let a man take which course he will, he will be sure to repent. (Socrates)

The trouble with wedlock is, there is not enough wed and too much lock. (Christopher Morley)

The current scenario in the US accepts woman as an equal partner; but she aspires to be more equal.

Will and Ariel Durant, the famous American husband and wife team who have produced ten wrist-breaking volumes on various phases of history, have this to say in their volume on ‘The Lessons of History’:

“Individualism will diminish in America and England as geographical protection ceases. Sexual license may cure itself through its own excess; our unmoored children may live to see order and modesty become fashionable, clothing will be more stimulating than nudity. Meanwhile much of our moral freedom is good; it is pleasant to be relieved of theological terrors, to enjoy without qualm the pleasures that harm neither others nor ourselves, and to feel the tang of the open air upon our liberated flesh.”

The view in the second part of the above statement, in italics, is open to question. Matter of fact, the two respected historian have themselves argued a few chapters earlier in the same volume that sexual laxity destroys not only the individual and family but the society itself. They have cited the conquest of Greece by Rome and the subsequent withering away of Rome in the cess-pool of immoralities.

Immorality can hardly be upheld by invoking the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. And, no amount of casuistry can give legitimacy and respectability to a relationship held as immoral and contemptible in all culture, in all religions, throughout history.

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