Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Sexual license, sexual limits

By Claude Fischer


One clear social change of the last half-century is Americans’ increasing support of sexual freedom. It is all around us: magazines at the check-out counter blaring advice about orgasms, easy-access pornography on the web and soft-core pornography on cable, hooking-up culture on tv programs, and nonchalance about couples “living together” before (or after) marriage (see this earlier post).

Love Child


Sexual restraints loosened over much of the twentieth century, but the great release, so to speak, occurred in the late 1960s. As I noted in a post three years ago, the hinge of change seemed to between the time that Diana Ross and the Supremes’ hit song “Love Child” made the charts in 1968 – “My father left, he never even married mom / I shared the guilt my mama knew / So afraid that others knew I had no name” – and 1975, when First Lady Betty Ford described the possibilities of her daughter having a premarital affair as “perfectly normal.”

The rise in the proportion of Americans who had such “normal” premarital affairs slowed down in the 1980s. Similarly, the public’s growing acceptance of premarital sex slowed down. [1] Still, Americans’ approval of sexual liberation across a variety of fronts continued even after the late ‘60s hinge. For many observers, it just shows how hedonistic and morally unstrung our society has become. But there is an interesting pattern to changing public views on sex that suggests a more complex story.


I’ll draw here, as I often do, on the General Social Survey, for 40 years the benchmark survey of Americans’ views. For almost all those years, the GSS has asked Americans their opinions about a variety of sexual issues and often, as well, about their sexual behavior. In the graph below, I show the trends since 1972 in Americans’ answers concerning four issues. It shows the percentage who said that homosexuality is wrong, that pornography should be illegal, that premarital sex is always wrong, and that there should not be sex education in the schools. (For the texts of these questions, see note [2].) Remember: The major change in Americans’ opinions on these matters except homosexuality occurred in the decade or so before this series starts. Nonetheless, change continued after the early 1970s.

Sex Qs_1

Reading from the bottom up, we see that the percentage of Americans objecting to sex education, already low in 1972, dropped 10 more points to negligible in 2012. The percentage who said that premarital sex was “always wrong” also dropped by an additional 10 points. Those who said that all pornography should be outlawed shrunk as well by about 10 points. Finally, we see the dramatic change in opinions about homosexuality, from about 72 percent saying it was “always wrong” around 1992 down to about 46 percent saying that twenty years later.

So, it looks like the moral wraps on sexuality were coming off. But, consider two more series from the GSS below. One question is about whether extramarital sex is wrong and the other about whether young-teen sex is wrong. [3]

Sex Qs 2

Here the sexual trend is either absent or is actually a conservative trend. There is no net change in approval of teenage sex; about 70 percent still think it is always wrong. And on extramarital sex, Americans objected to it more, the percentage saying it is always wrong going up more than 10 points from about 71 percent in the early 1970s to about 82 percent recently.

Perhaps this is just talk. Or maybe not. Since 1991, the GSS has asked respondents to privately answer the question (the interviewer cannot see), “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” The percentage saying “yes” was unchanged: 15.4 percent in the early 1990s and 16.6 percent around 2010 (even though, one might speculate, the stigma of adultery had eased post-Clinton). [4] As to teen sex, rates have declined since the 1990s (p. 13, pdf). But the behavior is besides the present point, which has to do with Americans’ attitudes toward sexuality. And there seems to be a contradiction.

I will suggest one possible explanation for these contradictory trends, especially the premarital versus extramarital. What we see is the development of a sexual code consistent with American “voluntarism”: An individual is free to pursue his or her personal desires against any group pressures except when that individual has entered into a voluntary compact; then, the freely-chosen “contract” must be adhered to. (See discussion in Made in America.) Marriage is one especially critical such compact. Every adult American is free to enter and free to leave a marriage – these days, freer to leave than ever – but so long as he or she chooses to stay in the marriage, true fealty is expected and straying is morally wrong. (The teen sex issue has to do, I suspect, with the notion that young teens are too immature to responsibly make such compacts.)

Other explanations are possible, but whatever the reasons for this seeming contradiction in attitude trends, it complicates any simple story of growing sexual license.



[1] These trends are discussed in Made in America, pp. 141-2, 225-28.

[2] “Would you be for or against sex education in the public schools?” (percent against); . . . “There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” (percent always wrong); . . . “What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex?” (percent always wrong); . . . . “Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws: 1. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age. 2. There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18. 3. There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography” (percent answering 1).

[3] “What if they [a man and a woman] are in their early teens, say 14 to 16 years old? In that case, do you think sex relations before marriage are always wrong, almost always …” (percent always wrong);” . . . “What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner? [Always wrong, almost always, etc.]” (percentage always wrong).

[4] A New York Times article reported researchers finding in the GSS data a trend toward more extramarital affairs (“Love, Sex …,” October 28, 2008), but I have crunched the numbers and don’t see it. You can do it yourself on the GSS website (variable EVSTRAY).

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.