Sex Ed

Changes in Americans’ Views on Sexual Morality in the Past 15 Years

October 17, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller


The results of Gallup’s 2016 Moral Issues Survey reveal that Americans’ views on sexual morality have shifted in several important ways in the last fifteen years. Most notable are changes in the number of Americans who believe same-sex behavior, sex before marriage, and having children outside of marriage are morally acceptable. While there have been substantial shifts in those attitudes, Americans’ attitudes toward other sexual issues—particularly abortion and affairs—haven’t really changed at all. Check out the table below for a closer look at the numbers from 2001 compared to today.

Percentage of Americans Who Think Each Behavior Is Morally Acceptable (Gallup, 2016)

As you can see in the table above, the most dramatic change to occur is that a large majority of Americans now believe that gay and lesbian sexual relations are morally acceptable. There has clearly been a massive shift in public opinion since 2001—in fact, just 15 years ago, most Americans felt that such behavior was immoral. It’s likely that few readers are surprised by this change, though, given all of the obvious social and political gains made by the gay and lesbian community in the last few years, especially the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal throughout the entire nation.

Sex between unmarried men and women and divorce were rated as the most morally acceptable in 2001–and the same is true today. By contrast, both consensual non-monogamy (specifically, polygamy) and non-consensual non-monogamy (cheating) continue to be the least accepted. However, it is worth pointing out that the percentage of Americans who think polygamy is morally acceptable has doubled in the last 15 years. I am curious whether moral acceptance of other forms of consensual non-monogamy (e.g., polyamory, open relationships, swinging) has changed over this same time period, too. Unfortunately, Gallup does not routinely inquire about the acceptability of other relationship configurations.

One other finding of note is that attitudes toward abortion have remained pretty flat since 2001, whereas attitudes toward stem-cell research have become more favorable.

It will be interesting to see how these findings continue to evolve over time, although, as noted above, it would be fantastic if Gallup expanded the list of sexual topics they inquired about. For instance, In addition to surveying Americans about their attitudes toward various forms of consensual non-monogamy, it would also be worth assessing whether their 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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