We all know the future of sex involves robots and teledildonics, but what will love be like in centuries to come? Here are three possibilities, based on current trends.
Serial and Parallel Monogamy
What it might look like:
A discovers sex and love at roughly the same time, among his group of friends. Some of them he's met at school; others are people he knows from social networks. He and his friends don't think of hooking up and dating and being friends as different things – it's hard to say where one ends and the other begins. As a result, A has sex which is as casual as meeting up over coffee, and friendships that are as intense as first love. And vice versa.
When he grows up and starts to think about settling down and having a family, his models for love and intimacy are based on what he experienced when he was younger. He considers love, friendship, and sex to be overlapping and interchangeable. For several years, he lives with three close friends. He has sex with two of them some of the time, and eventually one of them decides to get pregnant. The two of them decide to become a monogamous couple to raise the child, but remain living with their two other friends.
Years pass, and A and the mother of his child both fall in love with other friends. They decide to form a poly marriage, where they remain a couple but also have other long-term relationships too. Their two housemates have sex with each other once in a while, but start fighting. One of them moves out, and a new friend moves in. A winds up having sex with the new housemate one night when his two long-term lovers are off vacationing with their kids.
Where will this scenario come from?
In the west, changing norms around marriage have already made serial monogamy a reality for many people. They may be monogamous, but they will have several partners throughout their lives. Add to this the changing ideas about friendship and sex that is popularly associated with the social network generation, and you have a population of people who expect multiple partners drawn from extremely interconnected but casual friendship networks. As a result, long-term romantic relationships start to look more like friendships. The emotions are no less intense, but the structure of the relationships might take on the characteristics of friendships today: Constantly-changing groups of people whose feelings for each other range from talk-every-day closeness to casual meetups at the pub. Stability will be provided by the network, and by a few long-term close connections like A's monogamous relationship and later his two long-term lovers.
The idea that humans will one day live in poly marriages is a popular one in science fiction, and can be found in novels by authors from Ursula Le Guin and Charles Stross, to Octavia Butler, Iain M. Banks, and Robert Heinlein.
The Female Minority
What it might look like:
B is always one of four girls in her classes at school. Everybody else is a boy. At first this seems normal, but then they all go through puberty and she starts to realize that she is the focus of intense attention from all those hormone-charged boys. In the country where she lives, girls are considered less valuable than boys, but you'd never know it based on how the young men treat her. In fact, B manages to grow up believing that girls are more special than boys, because after all she and other young women are the object of fascination and desire among their peers wherever they go.
In college, B falls in love for the first time after going on hundreds of dates and being told no less than two dozen times that she's broken some young man's heart. She's received gifts and plaintive love letters and weird homages but all of it made her feel weird and slightly guilty until at last she meets a man who shares her passion for puzzle games.
Of course, it's so hard for her to know what men are thinking. That's why B's romance almost didn't bloom. On their first date, she tells him all about her favorite kinds of word puzzles and her college classes and where she grew up and he just nods and smiles like all the other young man did. Occasionally she can pry some detail out of him about himself, but half the time when he's talking about himself he's really talking about his family or demurring that her opinions on most things are probably more informed than his. Finally, though, she challenges him to a game of chess and sees that they actually do have something in common.
Years later, he admits that he waited by the phone almost constantly waiting for her to call about a second date. She was busy with exams and didn't manage to get back to him for five days. While she finds having a steady boyfriend a relief – at least she isn't pressured by all the other men anymore – her female roommates in college are enjoying playing the field. They go to meetups and matchup balls and speed date events, amused by all the ways the men get gussied up and try to grab their attention. Her friends explain with bursts of giggles that some men prefer each other's company to these awkward competitions, and there are bars and clubs where no woman ever goes – she only hears rumors of them.
Where would this scenario come from?
In many parts of China, medical technology has merged with traditional beliefs and population control to leave some regions of the country with 150 men to every 100 women. This imbalance was produced after just one generation, and we may see repeats of this scenario in other nations where governments try to limit the birthrate. Many people still regard sons as the only way to continue the family line and ensure that elders will be cared for by a stable breadwinner.
The result of a skewed gender ratio, however, may wind up reversing gender roles. Men who want to get married will find themselves in the position that marriage-minded women were once in: Waiting by the phone, trying to please their dates by not speaking up too much and seeming too opinionated.
Ian McDonald has written about this in his short story collection about a future India, called Cyberabad Days. A twist on this scenario appears in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where women are plentiful but fertile women are not. Women in Atwood's novel become the property of men, and there is no gender role-reversal.
What it might look like:
C and D are raised in an affluent community where everyone goes to church, elders are respected, and a King rules the land. From a young age, C and D have known that they are promised to each other as husband and wife – it was arranged by the priest and the community's prominent families before they were born. All marriages are arranged, except among the poor, and C and D have only seen the favelas from a distance when they pass through the community gates in a tram to travel to a neighboring town or air station.
Nobody expects C and D to love each other, least of all C and D. They will certainly make a home together, raise children, and take care of each others' parents when the time comes. But they will seek love outside the bounds of marriage. They call it courtly love, after the medieval notion that marriage is for duty and romance happens in highly codified, covert ways that everybody knows about but politely pretends not to.
C and D are married when they turn 16, and their families buy them a small starter house in the heart of town, near the shopping mall. C works in her mother's hat shop and D is going to school to become a biotech entrepreneur like his father. Although C and D like each other, they cannot imagine a romantic spark growing between them. Passion has no place in an orderly home.
And so they both discover love a few years after they are married. C meets an intense young man from outside the community who aspires to one day own his own home. He works in the mall as a physician's apprentice, and C's effortless, money-bought beauty embodies everything he hopes to have for himself one day. He sends her secret poems via an encrypted channel; they meet in places nobody will ever find them. D knows she has a lover, but as long as it never interferes with family dinners and she leaves no clues anywhere, he is happy. D has a lover too, a waitress who works at the gentlemen's club where he goes with his father. She always serves him port with a salacious smile, and his liaison with her is looked upon as the sweet folly of a young man.
Where would this scenario come from?
Courtly love, historically, grew out of a society infused with traditions that were so old they felt more like window-dressings than true social mores. It was also associated with the ultra-rich aristocracy, who had time to engage in court intrigue and romance rather than having to work for a living. We can see certain trends like this in our world today, where ancient, devout societies pay lip service to tradition while indulging in decidedly modern activities with a wink.
As strong religious cultures from the Middle East slowly blend with the secular and religious cultures of the West, it's possible we might see the emergence of a neo-courtly love tradition. Especially among the wealthy elites. People who value the old ways, but want to experience Hollywood-style romance, may find themselves in a marriage very much like C and D's.
Authors like Robert Charles Wilson (Julian Comstock) and Elizabeth Bear (Carnival), who have written about neo-traditional cultures, often touch on this idea of people who lead hidden, unconventional lives in conventional society. Steampunk novels and Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age have a touch of neo-courtly love in them, as do many modern fantasy novels like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series.
"Beijing Opera Bride," "Sakura Bride," and "Green Tea Bride" via Kimiko Yoshida.