Recent reports by the Gallup organization (hereherehere) have stressed that Americans’ views on personal morality issues have moved “left,” by which, I assume, they mean toward permissiveness. (Since libertarians would be the most permissive of all and are usually put on the “right,” this kind of geometry confuses.) More Americans polled in 2015 than in 2001 say they accept, for example, premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, and, most dramatically, gay marriage. There is notable exception to this permissive trend: views on extramarital sex. The percentage of Gallup respondents who said that was “morally acceptable” was 7 in 2001 and 8 in 2015.

Gallup’s non-trend for adultery puzzled some, including the Gallup folks. (Columnist Russ Douthat, for example, wrote a column parsing philosophical issues of human rights to suggest, I think, that the constancy is still part of the national decline of virtue.) I write this post to say: the seeming exception of adultery to increasing permissiveness is not new; its exceptionalism has gotten starker over decades; and there is an explanation.

I covered the topic in a post over two years ago and beg the reader’s indulgence for some repetition.


Since the early 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked representative samples of adult Americans, “If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?,” and “What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner?,” with similar answer options. The figure below shows how the answers “always wrong” have trended over more than forty years.

About four decades ago—the era of Nixon, Vietnam, bell-bottoms, Wayne Newton on the hit charts, Pong, and years before personal computers—about 33 percent of Americans said premarital sex was always wrong; the percentage is now about 20. Back then, about 70 percent considered adultery always wrong; now that’s up to about 80 percent. As Americans have become more relaxed about premarital sex, they’ve become less relaxed about extramarital sex.

(What, you may ask, about actual incidences of extramarital sex? Starting only in 1991, the GSS asked respondents “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” The percentage of ever-married respondents who said yes has hardly changed, at about 15 percent. Ha!, you may snort, why believe them? True, the 15 percent figure may be way off, but if Americans have really become more libertine, you’d expect at least more willingness to admit infidelity. That has not happened.)

An Explanation

When I last reported the striking increase in disapproval of extramarital sex, then up through 2012, I offered this explanation:

What we see is the development of a sexual code consistent with American “voluntarism”: An [adult] individual is free to pursue his or her personal desires against any group pressures except when that individual has entered into a voluntary compact; then, the freely-chosen “contract” must be adhered to. (See discussion in Made in America.) Marriage is one especially critical such compact. Every adult American is free to enter and free to leave a marriage–these days, freer to leave than ever–but so long as he or she chooses to stay in the marriage, true fealty is expected and straying is morally wrong.

Why that the contrast has sharpened over 40 years is yet another question. I suspect that just as Americans have become more willing to grant autonomy to more individuals to make more life choices on their own–freer of legal, community, or family commands–so the complementary value is stressed: You must keep the commitments you have freely chosen.

Who Thinks This Way

The diverging lines in the graph above means that a growing percentage of Americans—from roughly two in five four decades ago to now over three in five–express some tolerance for premarital sex and intolerance for extramarital sex. Who are these discriminating, contract-enforcing people?

Noodling around in the GSS data, I found out that these folks tend, other things being equal: to have not graduated college, identify as Protestants or Catholics, frequently attend church, be southern, women, white, born of native-born parents, and born either before 1920 or after 1960. (Yes, the generation that grew up in the 1970s and after is more—selectively—opposed to extramarital sex than their parents’ generation is.) However, the growing trend of more people offering that combination of views—premarital sex OK, extramarital sex not OK—appears to be shared by Americans of all kinds.*

Several scholars have suggested that much of the decline in marriage rates among Americans in recent years reflects not a disdain of the institution, but an increasing respect for it—that is, people delaying marriage until they can really make it work with the right person, with sufficient maturity, and with financial security. Americans’ seeming inconsistency on extramarital affairs is actually consistent with the elevation of the marriage contract.

*Statistics footnote: Examining only respondents who said that premarital sex was either “wrong only sometimes,” or “not wrong at all” (GSS variable PREMARSX=3,4), I regressed, using a logit model, the dichotomy, said “always wrong” for extramarital sex (XMARSEX=1) vs. any other answer, on a variety of socio-demographic indicators (n = 9,318; in several years, the GSS did not ask the same respondents both questions). I also explored interaction terms with year to see what groups may have contributed the most to the growth in the overall percentage, but failed to identify any. Other factors constant, the percentage holding that combination of views grew about 4 points a decade.