Nuclear family meltdown?

September 26, 1997

Alison Utley reports on new research which claims that same-sex relationships are reordering the British household.

What do today's young people really want out of life? New sociological research suggests that young women, far from fearing the shackles of marriage and motherhood, actually long for them. The research is at odds, though, with the findings of leading theorists of gay and lesbian culture who insist that a generation of teenagers is rejecting the heterosexual ideal, striving instead for cross-sex friendships that replace the family.

According to the latter scenario, the married couple can no longer be taken for granted as the basic unit of society. A radical shift is under way signalling the new dominance of homosexual desire. "Individuals are being released from traditional heterosexual scripts whereby a man and a woman who are sexually active with each other form a household together," says Sasha Roseneil, a sociologist from Leeds University and supporter of the "queering" of sociology. "Queer has become, in British popular culture, not an identity category, but an attitude and a stance which rocks the hetero/homo binary, and it is one to which a generation aspires."

The evidence for a destabilisation of heterosexuality is said to be the new living arrangements that have grown up in the last decade, coupled with the growth of a plurality of sexual communities that break down rigid sexual identities. The symmetry of gay or straight is in the process of fragmenting, Roseneil argues, fundamentally reshaping heterosexuality.

It is well documented that households have been undergoing a transformation. Last month a report from the Office for National Statistics published figures further confirming the disintegration of the nuclear family. Since 1970 the number of divorces have trebled, the number of first-time marriages halved and numbers of lone parents have grown to comprise 22 per cent of all families with children.

Ten years ago, like many other major cities, Leeds was an extremely unsafe place for gays. Homophobia and laddish behaviour were rife, tensions frequently resulting in violence. Today fashionable gay clubs attract a wide range of clientele including the local rugby club.

Popular culture no longer relies on the nuclear family as its focus. Television programmes from Friends to This Life, featuring the domestic lives of non-kin households, offer infinitely more fascinating possibilities. Roseneil says of Friends, the hugely popular American sitcom featuring a group of twentysomethings in New York: "The friendship patterns between the group could be said to be post hetero-relational and the cross-sex friendships between the group as a whole replace the family." Part of the appeal of the series, she adds, is that it offers images of happiness and stability without the ties of heterosexual coupling, marriage and family.

The Spice Girls demonstrate even more powerfully the marginalisation of heterosexual relationships in popular culture, evoking an adulation among millions of teenage girls, which is a new cultural phenomenon. Spice Girl fans, says Roseneil, are creating for themselves identities that value relationships with women over and above those with men. One element of this, according to Roseneil, is unverbalised lesbian desire. "The Spice Girls can be seen as one manifestation of a broader process of the queering of popular culture within late/post modernity," she says.

But how deep is the new hierarchy of sexual identities? Research among young women of Middle England by Ian Procter paints quite another picture. "People have been harking back to the golden age of the family ever since Shakespeare," says Procter, a senior lecturer in sociology from Warwick University. "The traditional family is still what a lot of people, particularly women, aspire to today." Procter's research, including interviews with 78 women aged 18 to for his book, Young Adult Women Living a Contradiction, found that for many, bringing up a child alone was anathema. "They want their one man and they want to stay with him - although they are quite realistic about the prospects of that," he says.

Divorce, he adds, has replaced death as the big destabilising force of the family. "The family has been an evolving institution since the 18th century," he says. "Family stability is a myth because of the changing context in which the family operates. The idea of a 'normal' family with two children is a very recent phenomenon and may be a stereotype but it is one to which many people still aspire."

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