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.
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.
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.
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.
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.