Expert Commentary

Changes in Americans’ attitudes about sex: Reviewing 40 years of data

2015 study in Archives of Sexual Behavior reviewing the complex research literature on changes in U.S. attitudes about sex and analyzing data from the General Social Survey.

American popular culture is now saturated with sexual imagery, and many interpret this phenomenon as a representation of changing habits and values across the population. However, there are significant unanswered questions about how much change there has been among specific generations, beginning during the so-called “sexual revolution” by the post-World War II “Baby Boomers” in the 1960s and 1970s, and how much further these transformations may have been extended by GenX’ers (born 1965-1981) and Millennials (born 1982-1989). It may seem obvious that, relative to the 1950s, attitudes have shifted on issues such as premarital sex, same-sex relationships and casual sex — embodied by the media focus on “hook up” culture among Millennials — but the nature of these changes is nuanced and demands careful attention. Some research studies have suggested that these changes have been exaggerated and that there have even been reversals in practices and attitudes.

In a 2015 paper published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, “Changes in American Adults’ Sexual Behavior and Attitudes, 1972–2012,” Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, Ryne A. Sherman of Florida Atlantic University and Brooke E. Wells of CUNY review the complex research literature on these questions and analyze data from the nationally representative General Social Survey (GSS), a research project that provides perhaps the most complete record of public opinion shifts in the United States on many issues. The GSS has asked the same four questions relating to sexual attitudes since 1972, and added more questions about sexual practices in 1988. The researchers note that “the current research literature provides contradictory evidence on whether sexual attitudes and behaviors have grown more or less permissive in recent years.”

The study’s findings include:

  • The data indicate increasingly permissive attitudes about certain kinds of sexual behavior: “Between the 1970s and the 2010s, American adults became more accepting of premarital sex, adolescent sex, and same-sex sexual activity, but less accepting of extramarital sex…. After leveling off in the 1990s, acceptance of premarital sex continued to rise in the 2000s and 2010s.” However, these changes are more pronounced among some subgroups (white men) and less so among racial minorities and, at least on some measures, women in general.
  • The trendlines are relatively clear with respect to premarital sex: “In the early 1970s, 29% of Americans (35% of men and 23% of women) believed that premarital sex was ‘not wrong at all.’ This rose to around 42%in the 1980s and stayed there through the 1990s, rising to 49% in the 2000s and to 55% in the 2010s (59% of men, 52% of women)…. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 47% of Boomers in the early 1970s believed premarital sex was ‘not wrong at all,’ compared to 50% of GenX’ers in the early 1990s and 62% of Millennials in the 2010s.”
  • With regard to same-sex relationships and practices, younger generations have shown decisive changes: “Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 21% of Boomers in the early 1970s believed same-sex sexual activity was ‘not wrong at all,’ compared to 26% of GenX’ers in the early 1990s and 56% of Millennials in the 2010s.”
  • The number of sexual partners people reported having has increased: The “total number of sexual partners since age 18 increased from 7.17 in the late 1980s (11.42 for men, 3.54 for women) to 11.22 in the 2010s (18.22 for men, 5.55 for women).”
  • Rates of casual sex have also increased: “Among 18- to 29-year-olds reporting non-partner sex, 35% of GenX’ers in the late 1980s had sex with a casual date or pickup (44% of men, 19% of women), compared to 45% of Millennials in the 2010s (55% of men, 31% of women).”

Attitudes about Non-Marital Sex (Twenge et al.)

  • African-Americans as a group, however, were a notable exception to these trends, and “shifts in sexual attitudes and behaviors were nearly absent” among this group.
  • The researchers note other important contextual data for these figures: The “median age at first marriage has risen markedly; it was 21 for women and 23 for men in 1970, and by 2010 was 27 for women and 29 for men. The marriage rate in the U.S. reached a 93-year low in 2014…. Marriage is also increasingly disconnected from parenting: More than 40% of babies were born to unmarried mothers in 2012, up from 5% in 1960.”

“Overall, the results suggest that rising cultural individualism has produced an increasing rejection of traditional social rules, including those against non-marital sex,” the researchers conclude. These realities, they note, have public policy implications: “Generational changes in non-marital sexual attitudes and behaviors are particularly relevant as they influence policy decisions regarding sexual health and sexual education policies, such as decisions about emergency contraception and abortion availability and the debates around abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual education.” Further, “these findings indicate that variability in sexual attitudes and norms according to generation, age, gender, and race/ethnicity should be considered in the development and implementation of sexual education and sexual health intervention programs.”

Keywords: parenting, sexuality, marriage

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