Majority Considers Sex Before Marriage Morally Okay

by Lydia Saad

Divorce also socially acceptable

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The 2000 census indicates that, while it is not exactly becoming extinct, the American nuclear family is in decline. Since 1960, the percentage of households comprised of a married couple with children has fallen from 45% to 24%. Just in the past decade, the number of "nonfamily" households rose at twice the rate of family households. Similarly, the percentage of single-mother families rose three times as fast as married-couple families.

So what is the American value structure underlying these important lifestyle trends? In order for there to be a high rate of nuclear families in the U.S. population -- as there was in the United States four decades ago -- many people must choose to marry, marry at an early age, have several children, and shun divorce. Recent Gallup polling focused on values and beliefs sheds light on how Americans feel about some of these factors.

Pre-Marital Sex No Longer Taboo

In the days when pre-marital sex was taboo, many couples had at least one powerful incentive to marry. This may have been the case in 1969 when Gallup found that premarital sex was frowned upon by two-thirds of Americans, while only 21% felt these relations were acceptable. That critical view dropped sharply by the early 1970s to 47%, and in 1985 Gallup found a majority of Americans on the other side, with 52% saying premarital sex was morally okay. Today, according to a May 10-14 Gallup poll, only 38% of U.S. adults say it is wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage, while 60% disagree.

A slightly different worded question on the same subject yielded a similar result. When Gallup asked in the same survey whether sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable or morally wrong, the majority (53%) said it is acceptable, while 42% said it is wrong. However, in line with the long-term trend showing how values on this subject have changed since the 1960s, the answers to this question are sharply different according to respondents' ages. The vast majority of young adults, 67%, think premarital sex is morally acceptable. Their views are similar to those in the 30- to 49-year-old category (60% say sex before marriage is acceptable), but are much more liberal than those aged 50-64 (only 46% say it's acceptable) and, particularly, those aged 65 and older (28% saying acceptable).

Americans even go a step further, with a majority, 52%, sanctioning "living together" as a morally acceptable lifestyle. Less than half, 41%, hold on to the "living in sin" mentality, saying it is morally unacceptable for an unmarried couple to live together; 3% think it depends on the situation, and 2% say it is not a moral issue.

More People Want Fewer Children

In addition to liberalized sexual mores taking away some of the urgency to marry, there has been an important long-term change in family size expectations that may partially account for people marrying later in life. According to Gallup trends dating back 65 years, there has been a substantial decline in Americans' preferences for large families, defined as having three or more children.

When Gallup first measured preferred family size in 1936, only 34% of Americans thought that having one or two children was ideal, while nearly two-thirds (64%) favored having three or more children. Today, the majority (52%) say that less than three children is ideal, while 38% prefer larger families of three or more children. The sharpest change in this measure was observed around 1970 -- a time of heightened population concerns and a burgeoning sexual revolution. Between 1967 and 1973 the percentage favoring three or more children fell from 70% to 43%. Preference for smaller families continued to grow until 1986 when it peaked at 66%, after which it declined somewhat.

Divorce Accepted by Most

For better or worse, when married couples run into hard times today there appears to be relatively little social pressure to force them to stay together. Nearly three in five Americans, 59%, tell Gallup they think divorce is morally acceptable, and another 12% say it depends on the situation. Only 28% feel divorce is morally unacceptable.

Unlike the issue of sex before marriage, attitudes toward divorce are not strongly related to age, although it appears that America's seniors may be somewhat more circumspect about its morality than those in the younger age groups. There are, however, political differences on this question, with Republicans taking the most conservative stand against divorce (only 48% think it's acceptable, while 36% consider it wrong) and political independents being the most liberal (69% think it's acceptable, and only 21% think it's wrong.) Democrats fall in between, with 59% describing divorce as acceptable and 27% calling it morally wrong.

Marriage Still Common

In spite of these forces that might be responsible for weakening the institution of marriage, the vast majority of American adults (75%) tell Gallup that they have been married at some point in their life, and a majority (52%) are currently married. Only one in 14 adults (7%) is currently living together with a partner. Twelve percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, are divorced and another three percent are separated. However, this doesn't fully capture the rate of failed marriages, as many who were divorced in the past may have remarried and would be recorded as currently married in Gallup's survey.

Among those Gallup respondents who report having a child under 18, 66% are currently married -- representing 23% of all Americans. Another 23% of parents are either divorced or have never been married, while 8% are currently living together with a partner.

Survey Methods

The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,012 adults, 18 years and older, conducted May 10-14, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

What do you think is the ideal number of children for a family to have?

 

0

1

2

3

4

5

6/6+

No
opinion

Summary

0-2

3+

                     

2001

1

2

49

27

9

1

1

11

52

38

                     

1997

2

2

46

29

9

2

2

8

50

42

1996

2

3

57

21

7

4

0

6

62

32

1990

3

3

57

18

8

3

0

8

63

29

1987

1

3

56

22

9

2

1

6

60

34

1986

2

5

59

17

11

0

0

6

66

28

1985

2

4

56

21

8

1

2

6

62

32

1983

3

3

54

21

11

1

2

5

60

35

1980

3

2

55

20

9

1

2

8

60

32

1980

1

3

51

21

12

2

2

8

55

37

1978

2

2

49

23

13

2

1

8

53

39

1977

2

2

50

22

10

2

2

10

54

36

1974

1

2

46

22

14

2

3

10

49

41

1973

1

1

46

23

14

3

3

9

48

43

1967

0

0

23

30

31

5

4

7

23

70

1966

0

1

18

27

27

4

3

20

19

61

1965

0

1

18

28

29

5

3

16

19

65

1962

0

1

16

24

33

6

7

13

17

70

1957

1

1

18

34

27

6

4

9

20

71

1953

0

1

28

30

29

7

5

0

29

71

1947

0

1

26

26

29

12

0

6

27

67

1945

0

1

22

28

31

9

9

0

23

77

1941

0

1

31

27

27

6

8

0

32

68

1936

0

2

32

32

22

7

5

0

34

64

Do you think it is, or is not, morally wrong for a couple to have a baby if they are not married?

 

 

Yes,
morally wrong

No, not
morally wrong

No
opinion

       

2001 May 10-14

40%

57

3



There is a lot of discussion about the way morals and sexual attitudes are changing in this country. What is your opinion about this? Do you think it is wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage, or not?

BASED ON -- 491 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A; ±5 PCT. PTS.

 

 

Yes, wrong
%

No, not wrong
%

No opinion
%

       

2001 May 10-14

38

60

2

       

1998 Nov 20-22

40

56

4

1996 May 28-29

40

55

6

1991 Aug 29-Sep 3

40

54

6

1987 Jul 10-13

46

48

6

1985 Apr 12-15

39

52

9

1973 Jul 6-9

47

43

9

1969 Jul 24-29

68

21

11



Do you personally think that it is morally acceptable or morally unacceptable for an unmarried man and woman to live together?

 

 


Morally acceptable


Morally unacceptable

DEPENDS ON THE SITUATION (vol.)


NOT A MORAL ISSUE (vol.)


No
opinion

           

2001 May 18-20

52%

41

3

2

2

           

(vol.)=Volunteered response



Finally, I'm going to read you a list of issues. Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about … [RANDOM ORDER]?

Sex between an unmarried man and woman

 

 


Morally acceptable


Morally
wrong

DEPENDS ON SITUATION (vol.)

NOT A
MORAL ISSUE
(vol.)


No
opinion

           

2001 May 10-14

53%

42

3

1

1

           

(vol.)=Volunteered response



Divorce

 

 


Morally acceptable


Morally
wrong

DEPENDS ON SITUATION (vol.)

NOT A
MORAL ISSUE
(vol.)


No
opinion

           

2001 May 10-14

59%

28

12

*

1

           

(vol.)=Volunteered response

*Less than 0.5%



Get Articles in Related Topics:


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/3163/majority-considers-sex-before-marriage-morally-okay.aspx
Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030