By Niels Hoven 30 Avr, 2009

Are today's young people really unraveling the moral fabric of our society? While exploring some surprising data on premarital sex, it became apparent that perhaps we should be blaming the older generation instead.

Acceptance of premarital sex has been steadily increasing in the US. The NSF-funded General Social Survey is the major source of data on social trends in the US. In 2008, for the first time ever, a majority of respondents said they believed that premarital sex was "not wrong at all". Furthermore, the "not wrong at all" crowd is having more sex than the "always wrong" crowd, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Though supporters of premarital sex have on average more sex than those who oppose it, their average annual sexual activity has been steadily declining

What did surprise us, however, is that among supporters of premarital sex, the average of the number of times they are having sex each year has been decreasing steadily over the past twenty years. Counter-intuitively, those who believe premarital sex is "always wrong" have seen their average annual sexual activity steadily increase every year. What's going on?

It turns out that there's a confounding variable. The average age of premarital sex supporters has been increasing every year, while the average age of premarital sex opponents has been steadily decreasing. Since younger people tend to have more sex (see Lose Your Job, Have More Sex), this trend manifests itself as an increased average frequency of sex among premarital sex opponents.

The average age of premarital sex supporters has been increasing every year, while the average age of premarital sex opponents has been steadily decreasing.

Note: For those idealists out there who point out that surely young, unmarried opponents of premarital sex would be abstaining from sex themselves, I've included a few extra charts that you can explore in this workbook. (View it with Reader for free.) It turns out that unmarried opponents of premarital sex are actually having quite a bit of it.

But returning to the topic at hand, why would the average premarital sex opponent be getting younger and younger? Does it have something to do with the recent trend in abstinence education? That seems unlikely, as the shift in age has been going on for twenty years.

The answer appears when we segment the population into under-40 and over-40 age brackets. In the under-40 age bracket, beliefs have remained remarkably consistent over the past twenty years. In the over-40 age bracket, on the other hand, there has been a clear shift towards increased acceptance of premarital sex.

A visual analysis reveals a consistency of beliefs over time in the under-40 age bracket. In the over-40 age bracket, on the other hand, there has been a clear shift towards increased acceptance of premarital sex.

Intriguingly, there has been no such shift in religious beliefs, which have held steady for the past two decades. Although opinions on the morality of premarital sex are closely tied to religious beliefs, this particular shift in sexual morals is independent of any changes in religious opinion.

Unlike opinions on premarital sex, religious beliefs have remained steady for the past 20 years.

Though some would claim that the moral decay of our society is manifesting itself in our youth, it appears to be our elders who are actually spearheading the movement. Acceptance/rejection of premarital sex has hardly changed among our youth during the past few decades.

It's not clear whether this shift represents an actual shift in belief within individuals, or a shift in the population of individuals who make up the older age bracket. That is to say, it's not clear whether your grandparents are actually becoming more accepting of premarital sex, or whether your grandparents are just dying and being replaced with 40-year olds who have maintained the morals of their youth. The true explanation is likely a combination of both these factors, though a colleague of mine proposes the dubious, if somewhat more fun, explanation that perhaps premarital sex makes you live longer.


1. I think it's more an issue of generation than age. The baby boomer generation went crazy as they were growing up, and then generation x reacted. There's very definitely a baby boomer way to relate to sex and a different generation x way.

2. What happened 20 years ago? The AIDS epidemic was at its peak. When I was in first grade (1987-8) I remember my parents imploring me to run away if I ever saw anyone bleeding. My father told me that if I became someone's "blood brother" by cutting our palms and then rubbing them together, I would DIE. I didn't know what sex was in first grade, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a high school senior in those days. Even by the time I had sex ed (I guess 1992), the AIDS scare had calmed down considerably.

3. Does this account at all for the presumed inclination of people who support premarital sex to claim they're having it more, and people who oppose premarital sex to claim they're having it less, than they really are?

The arguments are both subtle and complex to simply say that Gen X is to blame for changing attitudes towards sex, morality or any social dogma for that matter. One has to understand that Gen X was the first generation to be truly bombarded with mass media messages. Yet we were still brought up to believe that journalism would report the facts to us in the same way that a doctor would... honestly.

Obviously both Governments and special interest groups identified that by exploiting mass media they had a channel available to them to influence both behaviour and thought. Such messages of change were and still are crafted into story lines of Sitcoms, movies and magazines of every description.

Simply look at the social impact that resent television series have had on society... Friends and Sex in the City for example have made huge impacts in culture, relationships and how we see ourselves. I live in New Zealand for example... 10 years ago the cafe scene didn't exist here. If you said Tall Black or Latte you would have been looked at sideways.

Media also impacted on how fathers in fact all men related to children as the message rang out painting all men as paedophiles and suddenly men were afraid to bath their own children.

The age of Gen X was in many regards the age of media witch hunts, Men and manhood especially became targets... It was a time of great social experiments that in hindsight were huge disasters... The New Age Sensitive Man was chief among these. There are a great many very confused Gen X men in this world who have lost sight of what it truly means to be a man in the full sense of the word - and in no way am I talking about the old stereotypical male chauvinistic pig...

So while Gen Y may be looking for someone to blame... which of course is the answer to all our woes according to the doctrine of modern psychotherapy - you should take the time to realise that Gen X grow up amid some of the biggest social change in human history. Many of the anchors that once grounded us, shaped our thinking or enforced discipline of both mind and body were ripped from the foundation of our society and replaced with academic theories and politically correct rationales that were unproven in the complexity of the real world.

Finally I'm not saying that it was all bad, some great things did come out of this change... My message however is simple this, don't blame anyone, because as an adult you now have the power to directly impact your life, because what is done is done...