Sex Ed

Americans’ Views on Sexual Morality are More Liberal Than Ever

June 5, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

According to the results of Gallup’s 2017 Moral Issues Survey, Americans’ views on sexual morality continue to become more liberal. In fact, for a majority of the issues Americans were surveyed about, Gallup recorded the most liberal views on record. The most notable changes observed were that more Americans than ever believe same-sex behavior, sex between unmarried adults, and having children outside of marriage are morally acceptable. Although substantial shifts have occurred 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. You can also compare results from 2001 to today.

Percentage of Americans Who Think Each Behavior Is Morally Acceptable (Gallup, 2017)

As this table reveals, the most dramatic change to occur is that a large majority of Americans now believe that gay and lesbian sexual relations are morally acceptable. Public opinion on this subject has shifted in a major way since 2001—in fact, just 16 years ago, most Americans felt that same-sex behavior was immoral. Few readers are likely to be surprised by this change, though, given all of the important social and political gains made by the LGBT+ community in the last few years, including the fact that same-sex marriage is now legal throughout the nation.

Sex between unmarried men and women and divorce were rated as the most morally acceptable in 2001–and they continue to lead today as well (though they now fall just behind gay/lesbian relations). By contrast, both consensual non-monogamy (specifically, polygamy) and non-consensual non-monogamy (cheating) continue to be the least accepted. However, it is interesting to point out that the number of Americans who think polygamy is morally acceptable has more than doubled over the last 16 years. It would be interesting to know whether moral acceptance of other forms of consensual non-monogamy (things like polyamory, open relationships, and swinging) has changed over this same time period, too. Unfortunately, Gallup has not routinely inquired about the acceptability of these other relationship configurations, which means we can’t really say what, if any, changes have occurred.

One other finding of note is that while attitudes toward abortion have remained pretty flat since 2001, attitudes toward stem-cell research have become quite a bit more favorable in that same time period.

With all of that said, it is important to highlight that while Americans’ attitudes overall are the most sexually liberal on record, the numbers in the table above reveal that a substantial minority continue to hold very traditional and conservative sexual values. This cultural divide is very regional (attitudes are more liberal in the northeast and west, and more conservative in the south), which helps to explain why sexual morality issues are so much more controversial in some states than others.

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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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