Americans’ Views On Sexual Morality Are Changing

June 7, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

Gallup recently conducted their annual Values and Beliefs survey and discovered that Americans’ views on sexual morality have shifted significantly in the last dozen years, with particularly notable changes in the perceived acceptability of homosexuality, sex before marriage, and having children outside of marriage. At the same time, however, attitudes toward issues such as abortion and pornography have remained largely the same. Check out the table below for details on the specific changes in moral attitudes that have taken place since 2001.

Percentage of Americans Who Think Each Sexual Behavior Is Morally Acceptable (Gallup, 2013)


The shift that has generated the most headlines lately is the finding that a large majority of Americans now believe that gay and lesbian sexual relations are morally acceptable. This is a dramatic reversal in public opinion since 2001, when a large majority felt that homosexuality was immoral. Of course, this change isn’t particularly surprising in light of all of the social and political gains made by the gay and lesbian community in the last few years. For example, twelve states and the District of Columbia now permit same-sex marriage, and several others recognize same-sex relationships in other forms (e.g., civil unions or domestic partnerships). In addition, sodomy laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and the federal hate crimes statute was expanded to cover sexual minorities.

Of the sexual attitudes assessed, birth control and divorce are seen as the most morally acceptable, a trend that has continued since 2001. At the same time, both consensual non-monogamy (e.g., polygamy) and non-consensual non-monogamy (i.e., cheating) are the least accepted. However, it is notable that the percentage of Americans approving of polygamy has doubled in the last 12 years.

Attitudes toward abortion and pornography have remained almost perfectly flat in recent years. However, I personally find it intriguing that fewer Americans think porn is acceptable than abortion, especially in light of how widespread pornography use is across gender and sexual identities.

It will be interesting to see how these findings evolve over the next few years, although I would love it if Gallup expanded the list of sexual topics they inquired about. For example, it would also be worthwhile to track the evolution of attitudes toward prostitution, bisexuality, and other forms of consensual non-monogamy (e.g., polyamory, open relationships) to see whether they’re following similar paths.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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