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Emerging lessons of rapid social change

Bharat Dogra and Reena Mehta |

It is often said that if even highly disturbing news is repeated frequently, the human mind adjusts to it and we stop worrying about it. Even so, details of incidents involving various crimes against women and girls, some so-called revenge and honour crimes and others horribly violent crimes such as incest and child abuse come as a shock.

Sometimes one is distressed by the tender age of the victim and sometimes even by the exceptionally young age of the culprit. What kind of a social turmoil is taking place in which children are either so insecure or so aggressive?

Sometimes we are shocked by the incredible cruelty involved. Then there are other distressing incidents rooted in widespread alienation and depression. Clearly, we are in the midst of rapid social change but are we able to handle it with the special care and caution that is needed? Certainly, some forms of social change are badly needed. Ending gender-based and other discrimination is badly needed and most welcome.

A more open society where there are higher opportunities for frequent and free gender interactions (for example on the basis of co-education) and much less room for repressed sexuality is needed. Part of the encouragement for such change can come from the more liberal western society. But will we be able to select the positive aspects while avoiding dubious ones, or will the more suspect aspects appear more attractive?

Can we integrate helpful aspects of western influence with some of the obvious strengths of our own society? Or will we end up selecting the more harmful aspects of both worlds? This nightmarish situation is already visible to some extent.

To improve our choices, it may be helpful to look at aspects of recent social change in western society and reflect on their consequences in local situations as well as in different sociocultural contexts. While the age of puberty has been declining, the age of marriage has been rising. While there are differences in the experiences of various western countries, by and large there has been a decline of the traditional family based on children living with two married parents. In several countries, the number of single member households is now higher than the number of traditional families.

An individual-based value system, more emphasis on material aspects, weakening of social relationships and increase in economic independence have worked together to reduce the necessity as well as the desirability of the traditional family for many people. Many more marriages are ending in divorce while many people do not opt for marriage at all, instead co-habiting or living in, with more possibilities of changing partners.

Children have been forced to get used to rapid change of parents, step-parents, divorces and cohabitations, with various undesirable influences on their tender minds. In the USA, a survey of children below six revealed that 31 per cent of them had experienced such a major change in the last three years. In the same country 40 per cent of child births occur to women who are single or are living with a non-marital partner.

These and other changes led to increasing numbers of men as well as women in western cultures accepting multiple sex partners as the norm. In England, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles put the average number of partners for men at 11.7 and for women at 7.7, while another survey put the two figures at 9.3 and 4.7. In Sweden 14 per cent of 55-year-olds interviewed gave a figure of over 30 partners in their lifetime.

Some surveys pointed to the problem of over-reporting, and the more regular finding appeared to be about seven partners for males and five for females. But these may be conservative estimates. A survey among female students in Sweden repeated a few years later revealed that the number of sexual partners per student during these few years had doubled to 11.

Other surveys in some western countries suggested that the respondents were not even considering one partner relationship as one of the options (let alone an ideal or a desirable option).

This was accompanied also by a big increase in the practice of casual sex, one-night stands and hookups. These terms were used somewhat differently but generally referred to temporary relations merely for physical pleasure and with no emotional or longer-term attachment asked for or provided.

Various estimates suggest that well over 50 per cent of the people in western countries have experienced such relationships to varying extent.

While all this was supposed to add to the pleasure of people particularly youth a strange thing happened. High levels of depression, self-harm, substance abuse and emotional hollowing out began to be recorded among the same groups (like college going youth). How did this happen? What are the lessons of this for other societies?

To be concluded

(The writers are, respectively, a freelance journalist involved with social movements and initiatives and a freelance writer and researcher.)