1 in 4 Americans Still Oppose Premarital Sex - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Sex outside of marriage is still never OK for many Americans.

By Sean Braswell

  • Around a quarter of Americans opposes sex outside of marriage, even when the participants are in a committed relationship.
  • This figure is down from the roughly 40 percent who said premarital sex was wrong in 2001.

Virginia is for lovers, so they say. But up until March of 2020, when a state law banning fornication was repealed, Virginian lovers could be charged with a Class 4 misdemeanor and fined up to $250 for engaging in sex outside of the marriage bed. “We should not have laws that make most of the population into criminals,” state legislator Mark Levine, who introduced the legislation to repeal the law, told CNN. “Times are very different now than they were in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

While it is the 21st century, and the criminalization of fornication may be on the way out in the United States, a sizable chunk of Americans still oppose sex outside of marriage … even when the participants are in a committed relationship. According to a new Pew Research report

25 percent of Americans feel that sex between unmarried adults in a committed relationship is never acceptable.

The figure comes from a Pew Research Center survey of 4,860 U.S. adults conducted in October 2019 that suggests that while the majority of American adults — 65 percent — say premarital sex is at least sometimes acceptable, there is a sizable minority that still considers it always unacceptable.

The numbers vary somewhat depending on age, education level and political affiliation. Only 22 percent of adults under 30 opposed it, compared to 29 percent of senior citizens, while Republicans were significantly (about 55 percent) more likely to oppose it than Democrats.

But despite those modest differences, the numbers are pretty consistent across demographic groups, says Anna Brown, the Pew Research associate who wrote the report. The largest, and perhaps most revealing, difference is found between those Americans who attend religious services at least once a week and those who don’t — 55 vs. 14 percent opposed. Brown says that religiosity is the variable that offers the strongest explanation, but cautions that correlation does not mean causation.  

The Pew finding coincides with other recent surveys on the subject. The latest Values and Beliefs poll from Gallup in 2019 indicated that 28 percent of the Americans surveyed consider sex between an unmarried man and woman to be morally wrong, with similar breakdowns by age and education level. But, even if a baseline number of Americans still finds the practice morally wrong, the times are indeed a-changing as the Virginia reforms suggest. The Gallup poll numbers have steadily declined going back to May 2001, when 42 percent of respondents found premarital sex morally unacceptable. In fact, if you go back even further, a pollster named Elmo Roper found that 47 percent of Americans found sexual relations for young people before marriage to be “wicked” back in 1939. Meanwhile, the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth for 2015 through 2017 found that 85 percent of women and 90 percent of men aged 15 to 49 reported having had premarital sex.

The waning disapproval of premarital sex broadly tracks America’s waning religiosity. According to another recent Pew report, the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” stands at 26 percent as of 2019, up from 17 percent just a decade earlier. “We could well see public opinion continue to change on premarital sex,” says Brown, “as the country’s relationship to religion continues to change.”

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