Sex Ed

How Americans’ Views On Sexual Morality Have Changed

November 17, 2015 by Justin Lehmiller

The results of Gallup’s 2015 Values and Beliefs survey reveal that Americans’ views on sexual morality have shifted in major ways over the last 15 years, with particularly notable changes in the perceived acceptability of same-sex behavior, sex before marriage, and having children outside of marriage. At the same time, however, attitudes toward issues such as abortion and affairs 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 Behavior Is Morally Acceptable (Gallup, 2015)

The shift that has generated the most media attention 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 compared to 2001, at which time a large majority of the country felt that such behavior 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, such as the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states and the federal hate crimes statute has been expanded to cover sexual minorities.

Of the sexual attitudes assessed, sex between unmarried men and women 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) continue to be the least accepted. However, it is notable that the percentage of Americans approving of polygamy has more than doubled in the last 12 years. It would be interesting to know whether acceptance of other forms of consensual non-monogamy (e.g., polyamory, open relationships, swinging) have changed over this time period as well; however, Gallup (unfortunately) does not routinely inquire about these other relationship configurations.

One other finding worth noting is that attitudes toward abortion have remained pretty flat in recent years, whereas attitudes toward stem-cell research have become more favorable.

It will be interesting to see how these findings continue to evolve over the next few years, although, as noted above, I would love it if Gallup expanded the list of sexual topics they inquired about. For instance, In addition to inquiring about attitudes toward other forms of consensual non-monogamy, it would be interesting to see whether people’s views of bisexuality are changing in the same way as people’s views on homosexuality.

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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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