THE SINGLE ADULT
Our official morality allows sexual intercourse only within marriage, and young males and females are therefore under tremendous social pressure to get married. Indeed, today more people get married than ever before, and this in spite of the fact that one-third of all marriages now end in divorce. Men and women who are divorced usually do not come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with the institution of marriage or that they as individuals have no talent for it. On the contrary, most of them continue to feel that they will find lasting happiness only with the right marriage partner. Thus, there are people who go through four, five, six, or more marriages and divorces in the course of their lives. In short, there is now a nearly universal and unshakable belief in our society that everybody should marry, and that only marriage offers complete sexual fulfillment.
Former ages have not always shared this belief. In fact, until well into the 19th century it was taken for granted that a certain number of people were unfit for marriage. Those who could not support themselves were often prohibited by law from getting married. Others who faced no such legal obstacles were nevertheless deliberately denied the opportunity to meet suitable partners. Thus, many parents insisted that at least one of their daughters be kept at home to take care of them in their old age. By the time the parents died, the daughter had usually become an "old maid" without any hope of finding a husband.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that the "spinsters" and "perpetual bachelors" of the past always resented their fate. First of all, on the whole, marriage was much less romanticized than it is today. Furthermore, single adults were not necessarily deprived of the joys and the comfort of family life. The traditional extended family consisted of children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, various other close and distant relatives, plus domestic servants. In such a household, there was room for several unmarried men and women. (For further details on the extended family, see "Marriage and the Family.")
Today, most single adults live alone. While this can be very dull and even depressing at times, it also has its advantages. Indeed, in many of our big cities the single way of life can be very attractive. There are special apartment houses, retirement homes, and residential hotels which cater to singles and which try to make their lives as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. As a matter of fact, the cities themselves, with their libraries, museums, theaters, clubs, sports facilities, health spas, restaurants, cafes, etc. offer so many pleasures that perhaps only a single person can take full advantage of them. Most important of all, the anonymity of city life results in a great deal of sexual freedom. Unmarried men and women meet in social groups, at parties, in special singles bars, or even through newspaper ads. They can live together for longer or shorter periods of time, then separate and find new partners without too much difficulty. All of this is true for those who have never been married as well as those who are widowed or divorced, for the young as well as the old, heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. In short, it may seem that, at least sexually, the modern single adult lives in the best of all possible worlds.
In many cases, this impression is deceptive, however. For instance, those unmarried adults who have to live in suburbs, small towns, or rural communities still find their sexual opportunities severely restricted, especially once they reach middle age. Even in the big city, older men and women may run into trouble if they openly defy the sexual standards of their neighbors. Nevertheless, sometimes a couple has no choice but to avoid marriage because it would mean the loss of a pension or other financial benefit. Thus, many poor older couples today live together while remaining legally single. Unfortunately, as a result, they may suffer several other disadvantages. Single persons usually pay higher taxes, and they may have a harder time finding a job than married persons. Such job discrimination may even be quite open and blatant if the applicant is a homosexual. Furthermore, because of the antiquated sex laws in most states of the United States, single adults who engage in any sexual intercourse at all are technically criminals and thus live under the constant threat of arrest and conviction. (Again, homosexuals suffer the most from these laws, although heterosexuals may be prosecuted as well.) Finally, it has to be realized that many adults remain single because they are physically unappealing, crippled, deformed, or chronically ill. Still others are sexually inadequate or have unusual sexual interests that make them unsatisfactory as marriage partners. Such adults may lead very unhappy lives. Some of them may find at least some satisfaction with prostitutes, but here again our lawmakers and the police try to interfere.
At least in the United States today, single adults are justified in seeing themselves as members of an underprivileged group. On the whole, they are met with hostility and suspicion because our society regards only the "family man" and the "wife and mother" as fully "responsible" citizens. Thus, the social pressure to get married continues. It may take some time before people realize that this pressure is not necessarily in the general interest. Some individuals simply cannot find happiness in marriage. Others are quite unfit to be parents, and, in a sexually less conformist culture, they might well feel less tempted to reproduce. Indeed, since the world is now threatened with overpopulation, many countries may eventually have to discourage marriage (or at least early marriage) and to reward those of their citizens who remain single.
Fortunately, modern contraceptive techniques have made it possible for men and women to have sexual intercourse without risking unwanted pregnancies. Thus, there is no longer any valid reason why single adults should be forced to remain abstinent. (For more details on the problems faced by single adults, see "The Social Roles of Men and Women.")