Norms differ over time, across cultures

In News
Research and personal stories reveal that sexual norms are influenced by where and when you grew up.
(Cathryn Edwards / Daily Titan)

In a world where a hookup is a click away, and men are able to pre-screen their escorts on Backpage, it may not be surprising to find that contemporary culture is more sexually permissive than that of previous generations.

Still, American society, by definition, is not culturally homogeneous, and people who work alongside one another may share highly differing perspectives on this very touchy subject.

Modern American society has been widely labeled as the “hookup culture.” Recent research reports that premarital sex is at an all-time high, and sexual stigmas are at an all-time low. But that doesn’t mean stigmas are nonexistent. Wherever there is cultural traditionalism, there is sexual stigma.

Michela Santostefano, professor of Italian at CSUF, is a member of the Baby Boomer generation who grew up in the predominantly Catholic culture of 1970s Italy. She painted a picture of a typical dating situation in her home country as largely unaffected by the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“Back then, in the 1970s, in Italy, it was understood (that) you were a child until you went out and got married,” Santostefano said of her upbringing in Italy in the latter part of the ‘70s. This meant that a person’s parents had the last word on major life decisions, like who a person dated and eventually married.

When Santostefano moved to the U.S. in 1980, she said she was taken aback by the standard dating practices of her new home.

“When I moved here and was asked out by a man, my future husband, I didn’t know what to think. Where I came from, you did not just ask somebody out who you never met before. It wasn’t done,” Santostefano said.

One may think that the predominantly Catholic culture of 1970s Italy wouldn’t have much in common with the heavily Buddhist Vietnam, but Tu-Uyen Nguyen, Ph.D., assistant professor of Asian-American studies, reported a very similar experience.

Nguyen grew up in the U.S. from the time she was 7 years old but was raised under traditional Vietnamese conventions. “(My parents) didn’t let me date until I was in college,” she said.

In stark similarity to Santostefano’s experience, Nguyen also reported that her parents were not allowed to date without an “escort” or chaperone present.

With Nguyen being a Budd Gen-Xer born in 1979, having an experience that is so strikingly similar to a person born on the other side of the world, roughly 20 years earlier than herself, speaks volumes about cultural traditionalism.

These similarities in culture over time run parallel to the advent of television in the mainstream, according to research reported by the Kinsey Institute of Indiana.

“As early as the 1920s, with the rise of automobile use and novel entertainment venues throughout North America, traditional models of courting under parental supervision began to fade,” according to a 2012 study by conducted by the Kinsey Institute on “Sexual Hookup Culture.”

One may come to the conclusion that with the way modern American culture is, rates of teen pregnancy and the spreading of STDs would run rampant, and for a time, it did. However, education has proven to be the strongest preventative measure against the unwanted consequences of a sexually permissive culture, Nguyen said.

“As people learn more about sex, you tend to have a leveling off of the diseases and things like that,” Nguyen said.

While modern culture may be permissive when it comes to premarital sex, it doesn’t take too kindly to extramarital affairs.

“Between the 1970s and the 2010s, American adults became more accepting of premarital sex, adolescent sex and same-sex sexual activity but less accepting of extramarital sex,” according to 2015 paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

That is to say, a proclivity toward sexual freedom does not equate to an overall loosening of ethics. It just means that, in the modern day, people may permit one another to be a little more human.

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