CCIES Home » Global Trends: Some Final Impressions

Global Trends: Some Final Impressions

    from The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality

Robert T. Francoeur, Ph.D., and Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D.

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[Note from the CCIES Website Editor:  Please send any additions, corrections, or updated information to:  Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D.]


Our role as editors of The Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality (CCIES) has been carefully limited to recruiting scholars who could report with some authority about the sexual attitudes, values, and behavioral patterns of a particular country or some particular aspect. We provided them with our standard content outline, and left them free to write. We then copyedited their manuscript without altering in any way their thoughts, although we did seek clarification when necessary and encouraged them to fill in any gaps we found. In the case of chapters in volumes 1 to 3 published in 1997 and volume 4 published in 2001, we invited the original authors and some new authorities to update these chapters. Sometimes, we sought—or inadvertently found—scholars with alternative perspectives or interpretations who broadened an entry with commentary. As editors, our role has been that of a catalyst—to facilitate bringing together those with the broadest possible perspectives to enrich the product.

At the same time, as we read and reread these chapters and exchanged communications with the authors, we could not help but be impressed by some similar developments in different countries, some common threads of changing attitudes and behavioral patterns. Sometimes, we found these similarities in survey results or commentaries by the authors or updaters. At other times, a specific seemingly minor local event reported first in the local media caught worldwide attention, signaling what might become a cultural turning point. Whether we were impressed by a general broad-based trend, like the plummeting birthrates around the world, or one of the local events noted below, they all seem to suggest that, today, at the dawn of the 21st century, the human race is engaged in the biggest sexual revolution in at least 5,000 years. It will be far more radical in its consequences than the geographically limited revolutions of the Roarin’ Twenties and the 1960s-1970s, although each had a progressively greater impact through the dissemination of American popular culture through the media. Unlike those revolutions, which at first mainly affected North America and Europe, this new revolution is stirring in large and small, rich and poor, agrarian and industrial nations all around the world. Fueled by television and the print media, by economics and technology, by medical and reproductive advances, and by the Internet, it is racing along in Europe and North America. But it is also sprouting all over Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where it is shaking up traditional views of sex, the way men and women relate, our patterns of sexual intimacy, as well as the way we bond, marry, and create families.

Our work on these reports on 62 countries and places—one quarter of all the nations in the world, including China, India, Japan, and key countries in Europe, the Americas, and Africa—has left us convinced that this new sexual revolution is being led less often by males who have dominated civilizations worldwide for the past several thousand years, but by women, who are taking a more-public stance for more gender equality—and sometimes to gain dominance. For thousands of years, males largely have created and controlled the technological advances that triggered all the minor Euro-American sexual revolutions of the past. Five to eight thousand years ago, men restructured the whole of human society and male-female relationships, when our ancestors discovered agriculture, domesticated animals, invented the wheel, smelted bronze for tools and weapons, and created alphabets to record their history, laws, trade agreements, and treaties. When men built the first cities in the Middle East, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, they created a new lifestyle: Men held most of the power and women became the subordinate sex relegated to the private world of babymaker and homemaker. The equality men and women had enjoyed in earlier, nomadic hunter-gather societies disappeared in the male-controlled world of ancient city life. In this urban hierarchy, women had three faces, the Trevia of virgin maiden, wife/mother, and whore. A good woman’s value depended on her premarital virginity, her marital fidelity, her production of male heirs, and catering to men’s needs.

Over the centuries, men invented ever faster, easier, and cheaper ways to communicate and travel. Males drove the medical technologies that improved our health and more than doubled human life expectancy in a brief century. Male-driven science and technology gave many of us the increasing leisure, mobility, and affluence essential for the occasional minor sexual revolutions that have come our way. Forty years ago, male scientists, urged on by Margaret Sanger, developed antibiotics to control sexual diseases and the contraceptive technologies that have given women, for the first time in human history, the freedom to enjoy sex without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy.

Obviously, our years of work on CCIES have left us with some controversial conclusions, with which our readers may or may not agree. This is not the place to debate the validity of our observations. We will only suggest some reasons for them. Only the future will confirm or refute our observations and forecasts. And so we conclude CCIES with some highlights encountered along the way. Agree or disagree. Add or reject. We invite our readers to join us in looking to the future. [Join the conversation on the Editors’ blog at and discuss these and related issues.]

We begin with a brief look at economics, education, and gender—with Japan in the east, Scandinavia in the west, and the Middle East and North Africa in-between. In 2003, as noted in our chapter on Last-Minute Developments, Japan ranked 69th out of 75 member nations of the World Economic Forum for its record of empowering women. While 40% of Japanese women are employed outside the home, only 9% hold managerial positions. In Scandinavia, women hold slightly less than a third of the managerial positions, but less than 10% of the positions on corporate boards. In 2003, Norway passed a law requiring corporations to raise the percentage of female board members from the then 9% to 40% by 2007, or face stiff penalties. Sweden, with 30% female corporate board members, was planning to follow Norway’s example. (In the U.S., women hold 46% of the board memberships.) In 2003, the first woman to serve on the board of the Bank of Japan warned that “Japan has gone as far as it can with a social model that consists of men filling all of the economic, management and political roles.”

At the same time, the World Bank was pointing out a similar tension with warnings that women remain a “huge, untapped” economic resource in the Middle East and North Africa, where more women workers are needed to transform economies that must depend increasingly on private-sector exports to compete worldwide. Despite the fact that women make up half the 325 million people in these regions, and in some countries as many as 63% of university students, they comprise only 32% of the labor force, according to the World Bank report on “Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa: Women in the Public Sphere.” According to the World Bank’s vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, “No country can raise the standard of living and improve the well-being of its people without the participation of half of its population. Experience in other countries has shown over and over again that women are important actors in development.”

In the 19 countries of the Middle East and North Africa, women’s workforce participation is “lower than would be expected on the basis of the region’s fertility rates, education levels and the age structure of the female population,” the World Bank report found. It is less than half the 74% rate in the Asia and Pacific region, with their successful exporting countries, where women have played a pivotal role in emerging industries. With improved health and education, one of every three women in the Middle East is 30 years old or younger. But these younger women are likely to face greater obstacles in finding a job and playing an active public role in their societies than their contemporaries elsewhere. There are far-reaching economic and social consequences when men who find their self-image in being the breadwinner for the family discourage women from employment outside the home. Middle East and North African countries have the highest proportion of dependents to wage earners in the world. Each wage earner in these regions supports more than two nonworking dependents, a problem that cannot be counteracted even by lowering unemployment rates.

Along with the gender differences in employment, one needs to consider, also, the growing gender differences in education. These educational differences were highlighted in the annual survey of educational policy issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which concluded that young women are steadily moving ahead of their male peers in educational achievement and aspiration. “In most OECD countries, young women are now more likely than young men to obtain first degrees from university-level institutions. Only in Japan, Switzerland and Turkey is the proportion of young men obtaining their first university-level degrees significantly higher for young men than for young women.” On average, females now make up more than two-thirds of the graduates in the humanities, arts, education and health studies. In mathematics and computer science they account for less than a third, and in engineering about a quarter. According to the report at age 15, girls were better readers than boys in every one of the 43 countries that took part of the 2000 study. In about half of these countries, boys were ahead in mathematics. As a consequence, in most OECD countries, females expressed higher expectations for their future occupations than males.

These higher expectations are an important factor in our future. It has meaning for young men and women in Japan, the Middle East, North Africa, and the West. In Japan, for instance, young women are increasingly expressing their anger with chauvinist and nonproductive males. “I would like to get married, but I don’t want to lower my living standard” is a typical position of young Japanese businesswomen who live with their parents and frequently travel abroad. The number of unmarried men and women over age 39 has doubled in 20 years. Japan’s birthrate is 1.4 children per childbearing woman and shriveling like a dried prune.

With these observations in mind, we can move on to briefer mentions of our other observations:

  • Continued rapid globalization and technological development will escalate anxieties, tensions, and open conflicts for people and societies rooted in fundamentalist, traditional, agrarian, patriarchal value systems, as television, the Internet, and daily physical contact exposes them to the more-permissive, gender-equal, and individualistic values of industrial and postindustrial Western societies. The currents of enculturation are already working in both directions, with both agrarian and industrial societies caught in the maelstrom of rapid change.
  • In Iran, a very fundamentalist Islamic country ruled by very conservative religious leaders determined to keep women in their place, are encountering repeated opposition from the younger college-educated generation, including the daughters of leading moderate government officials. With Revolutionary Guard everywhere, one would hardly expect teenage “infidel” girls in high tops, tank shirts, bare midriffs, and jeans to risk arrest by hanging out on city streets. Where did these rebellious teenagers pick up their “satanic” fashions and the courage to wear them in public? Answer: By 1994, a quarter of a million Iranians were watching popular Western television programs beamed down from satellites to low-tech dish antennae and decoders hidden in their apartments and shared with neighbors, despite threats by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
  • In Africa, where nearly 70% of the world’s HIV-infected people live, most new victims are women infected by their husbands who are accustomed to having a “home-wife” and one or more “traveling-wives” for company while they’re away at work. With a burgeoning feminist movement pushing to transform these sexual politics, the AIDS crisis is forcing African men to listen to their women, and that empowers women. Women in Kenya have enlisted the aid of Anglican Church leaders to reduce and eliminate “sexual access” to widows who are “inherited” by a male relative of the deceased husband. Although not easily, and with resistance from some feminists, new laws and healthy alternative rituals are being adopted to replace female genital mutilation.
  • In Latin America, Peruvian women have enthusiastically endorsed a government campaign to make contraception available to all women, especially the poor. In a nation where 90% of the people are Catholic and many rural women have 10 or more children, Peru’s women are ignoring the Pope’s ban on contraception and asserting their right to control their own sexual and reproductive lives.
  • In Islamic northern Nigeria and in Pakistan, several young women who claimed they were raped—and named their assailants—have triggered international human rights protests when the media publicized that they were tried and convicted of fornication and sentenced to death by stoning. Islamic law requires four adult males be present to witness the rape in order to prove it had taken place.
  • Worldwide, the media reported increasing challenges to the traditional marriage arranged by parents or family: In Upsala, Sweden, in 2002, the “honor killing” of 26-year-old Fademi Sahindal by her father, when this Kurdish woman announced she would marry her Swedish lover, provoked international outrage.
  • In May 2003, India’s television and print media propelled Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student, to Hindi stardom as a “New Age woman and role model” for the nation’s young women. Ms. Sharma called off her wedding after the groom’s family demanded a dowry of $25,000 in addition to the gifts already received from the bride’s family. Ms. Sharma reported the groom to the police, who put him in jail pending formal charges that he and his mother had violated India’s laws against dowries.
  • In Thailand, pioneering single women are choosing to buck social and family traditions by living on their own when they cannot find a nonchauvinist husband. Many of them are even having a child by a lover who lives on his own.
  • In Algeria, Muslim women are turning to personal ads to find mates of their own choice, despite strong family disapproval and censorship by fundamentalist Islamic men.
  • There is a growing tradition of financially established single Italian men, “mammoni,” to continue living with their parents into their 30s, 40s, and beyond, instead of marrying and moving out on their own. This, plus a birthrate below 1.1 child per fertile woman, are radically changing the traditional Italian extended family. Italian husbands and Catholic bishops complain that the Italian women are not listening to them anymore. So many Italian women, married and unmarried, are using the pill and having abortions, that Italy now has the lowest birthrate of any nation in the world.
  • China has been widely condemned for its one-child-per-family policy, forced abortions, and female infanticide. But because these policies have also created a serious surplus of males, young Chinese women are enjoying an unexpected change in bargaining power and choice in picking the best possible husband.
  • Meanwhile, an unmarried Polish woman begged a doctor for an illegal abortion and created a national movement to legalize abortion when her ex-lover reported her and the doctor “to teach her a lesson.”
  • In Ireland, a 14-year-old girl who tried to go to England for an abortion forced the government to allow at least some abortions. With one in six Irish marriages ending in separation and 75,000 broken marriages, President Mary Robinson pressed for a referendum to lift the constitutional ban on divorce and allow women some relief in alimony and child support.
  • Fifty thousand women attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Women from many nations eloquently claimed the right to control their sexual and reproductive lives, equal inheritance rights, access to credit, and freedom from violence. In the end, the women of Africa, led by Namibians, forged a compromise that blocked the Vatican’s proposal to excise the words “sexual freedom” from a particular document. As one observer commented, “It’s shocking to find African countries more progressive than others.”
  • There is a continued shift away from a procreative morality and motivation for sex to a relationship- and pleasure-based morality.
  • Increasing popularity of hormonal contraception, the morning-after pill, condoms, and new contraceptives are facilitating the shift to lower fertility rates, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and increasing rates of nonmarital sex, especially for women. In both developing and industrial/ postindustrial societies, women are increasingly taking responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies, and for initiating a nonmarital relationship.
  • Increasing years between puberty and the age of marriage make premarital sexual abstinence increasingly more difficult and unlikely.
  • A continued increase in life expectancy and erosion of the sexual double standard are making men and women equally as likely to experiment with extramarital sex and to divorce and remarry or remain single. Men and women continue to experiment with extramarital relations earlier, more often, and with more partners than in the past.
  • In Finland, the popularity of both marriage and cohabitation are declining. Two national surveys, in 1972 and 1993, show that the fastest-growing lifestyle is LAT, couples “living alone together” (in a sexual relationship). In these same surveys, LATs report being much happier with their personal and intimate lives than married or unmarried cohabiting couples. Similar trends have been reported in Germany and elsewhere.
  • There is increasing recognition of the rights and needs of sexual minorities, the elderly, and those who are disabled or handicapped. The “graying” of Europe and America is paralleled by developing nations like Iran and Costa Rica with a third or more of their population 14 years old or younger.
  • There is a spreading recognition and acceptance of protected sexual relations and the promotion of protected sex, as the shift from agrarian to urban life continues.
  • There is growing social, legal, and religious acceptance of homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and gender-variant persons.

Conclusive evidence of a global sexual revolution underway and led primarily by women? Certainly not, if taken individually. But we will leave it to our readers to judge the cumulative weight of these and other developments found in the CCIES.

Around the world, women are demanding and getting countless, often unnoticed social changes that, taken together, create an irresistible tidal wave no one can long escape. Around the world, the ways in which women and men relate are shifting gradually toward a new gender equality that will inevitably also change our marital relationships and family structures. The spread of manufacturing and technological development has brought women in many developing nations a growing financial and psychological independence that in many small but important ways helps them take increasing control of their own lives and set their own goals.

Obviously, societies do not change overnight. Patriarchy is not going to disappear overnight, and perhaps not in the foreseeable future, but just maybe, an irresistible tide is shifting, away from male dominance toward a growing equality of the sexes. At least, that is our hope.

To be sure, many men are participating with women in effecting many of these changes. At the same time, many men—and women—are noting the excesses that have been accumulating in at least the United States, which we are also exporting to the rest of the world in our popular culture. The best example is that of sexual harassment, which has become grossly misused and distorted from the original problem. And there are other indications that when women get power, they are just as likely to abuse it as men. The United States is no longer a patriarchal society, if it ever was. Yet, many Americans believe it still is, because sexual politics have transformed it through its use as a metaphor to a perceived reality—and that is not helpful in achieving our goals.

Thus, we need to avoid the simplistic traps that remain all too common. The human sexuality complex exists in an environment that has multiple forces that act on it—in much the same way that it influences them reciprocally. Politics remains an undeniable obstacle to real progress on a global level while it simultaneously provides the means for redressing the inequities of the past. Yet, solutions that merely shift the inequities to men are not a long-term solution; they just exacerbate the crises. Solutions that demonize men’s sexuality while extolling women’s sexuality are doing the same. This is the sexual counterrevolution noted by John Money in the epilogue to the United States chapter that is currently underway in this country. And that is counterproductive as a long-term strategy.

For real lasting change to occur that benefits both sexes requires a joint effort of both women and men working together for the common good. The current situation of social groups working toward and promoting only their own self-interests and empowerment needs to change on a global level so that sex enriches the lives of everyone.

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