Happily ever after in America? Sex and self-realization in marriage, 1950–1980

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University of New Brunswick


This dissertation explores the intellectual and cultural history of the idea and practice of non-monogamous heterosexual marriage. The second half of the twentieth-century witnessed unprecedented challenges to the traditional notion of lifelong monogamous union. The idea that there was something natural, healthy, or adaptive about the sexually-exclusive marital bond came under fire from scientists and philosophers, social scientists, sex-positive feminists, champions of the counterculture, free-thinking Christians, popular writers and media personalities, utopian sexual revolutionaries, and even marriage counsellors and therapists. The study charts this trend from its antecedents in the interwar years, through the postwar baby-boom and the sixties sexual revolution, and into the countercultural utopianism of the 1970s. It presents the first comprehensive historical account of consensual non-monogamy – from open marriage and swinging to group marriage and sexually liberated intentional communities. It explains the decisive influence of feminism, both liberal and radical, on the evolution of consensual non-monogamy. As with feminists, open marriage proponents challenged prevailing norms of sex and gender. It also connects the widespread rejection of monogamy to the insistent call for self-realization resounding through the therapeutic culture. The enthusiasm for open marriage found its unlikely culmination in the controversy sparked by the best-selling Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples (1972) by anthropologists Nena and George O’Neill. The discussion kindled by this publication reveals both the wide appeal of the open marriage concept and the role of the “informal public” in enforcing conformity to the institutional mandate of monogamous union. As the rebellions of the 1960s ebbed, the cultural tide turned against sexual exploration and experimentation. A more pessimistic and restrictive cultural environment gradually took hold, and the open marriage movement dissolved in the face of a resurgent family values new Right and a new, sexually conservative, cultural feminism.