Current Views on Premarital, Extramarital Sex

by George H. Gallup Jr.
Senior Staff Writer

When it comes to public opinion about extramarital sex, it appears that the sexual revolution of recent decades had little effect. According to a May 2003 Gallup Poll*, 93% of Americans consider "married men and women having an affair" to be "morally wrong," six points higher than the finding recorded one year ago. That's consistent with surveys conducted over the last three decades by Gallup and by the National Opinion Research Center, which have consistently shown that the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of extramarital sex.

In the 2003 Gallup survey, respondents were given a list of 16 scenarios and asked if the activities described are morally acceptable or morally wrong. More people deemed "married men and women having an affair," to be morally wrong than almost any other action, on a statistical par with polygamy and cloning humans.

While views on the morality of having an affair outside marriage have not budged since the late 1960s and early 1970s, the percentage saying sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable has increased dramatically over this same period. In the May survey, 58% said premarital sex is morally acceptable (41% say it is morally wrong). The figure recorded for morally acceptable a year ago was five points lower at 53%.

Here is the trend prior to 2001 when the same issue was presented, but the wording was slightly different:

Further evidence of the impact of the sexual revolution appears in the sharp increase in the number of cohabiting couples over the past several decades. As reported in the summer 2003 issue of Youth Culture Today, Census figures show that the number of cohabiting couples increased ninefold between 1960 and 2000, from half a million couples to more than 4.5 million. A recent Gallup survey of 13- to 17-year-olds** shows that a large majority (70%) of teens say they approve of couples living together before marriage (see "Moving In: Teens Views on Cohabitation" in Related Items).

Political ideology does not seem to color people's views on extramarital sex. However, when it comes to premarital sex, those differences are substantial: 42% of conservatives say they believe premarital sex is morally acceptable, compared to 64% of moderates, and 80% of liberals.

Views about sex before marriage also differ significantly by race, age, gender, education, and church attendance. Most likely to say sex before marriage is morally acceptable are whites, younger adults, men, and people with a college background. Persons who seldom or never attend church or synagogue overwhelmingly view sex between unmarried men and women as OK.

Bottom Line

Although sexual attitudes and behaviors have shifted dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s, a strong majority of Americans (93%) still believe that extramarital sex is morally wrong, and a sizable minority (41%) cling to the belief that premarital sex is wrong. The sexual revolution may have passed, but it will be interesting to see what changes in opinion, if any, the next stage of evolution in sexual mores will bring.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

**The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 1,200 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 23-Feb. 10, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%. For a complete description of the sampling and weighting procedures used to conduct the survey, click here.

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