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Over Four in 10 in U.S. Now Say Teen Sex Morally Acceptable

Over Four in 10 in U.S. Now Say Teen Sex Morally Acceptable
by Justin McCarthy

Story Highlights

  • Moral acceptability of sex between teens up six points from last year
  • Religiosity a big factor in views on sex between teens
  • Most U.S. adults still approve of sex between unmarried adults

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. adults remain more likely to say that sex between teenagers is morally wrong (54%) rather than morally acceptable (42%). But the percentage who find it acceptable has grown by 10 percentage points since Gallup first polled on the question in 2013, including a six-point increase in the past year.

Line graph: Americans' views on moral acceptability of sex between teenagers, 2013-2018. 2018: 54% morally wrong, down from 64% (2014).

These results are from Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted May 1-10. Adults with children younger than 18 in their household (39%) and those without children younger than 18 (43%) are similarly likely to find sex between teenagers morally acceptable.

Adults aged 18 to 29, whose adolescent years are not as far in their past, are the only age group in which a majority says sex between teens is morally acceptable, with 59% saying this. Older adults are less likely to agree; and adults aged 65 and older are about half as likely to find it morally acceptable (31% do).

Most liberals find sex between teens morally acceptable (60%) -- more than twice the rate of conservatives (26%). Meanwhile, moderates are roughly split in their views on the moral acceptability of sex between teenagers.

Religiosity plays a significant role in Americans' views on teenage sex. A slight majority of U.S. adults who seldom or never go to church (54%) find sex between teens morally acceptable, while a much smaller 20% of weekly churchgoers agree. About one in three adults who attend church nearly weekly or monthly (34%) find teenage sex morally acceptable.

Views on the Moral Acceptability of Sex Between Teenagers, by Subgroup
Next, I'm going to read you a list of issues. Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about -- sex between teenagers?
Morally acceptable Morally wrong
% %
Has children under 18 39 57
Does not have children under 18 43 53
18-29 59 38
30-49 43 54
50-64 35 60
65+ 31 65
Conservative 26 70
Moderate 45 50
Liberal 60 37
Attend church weekly 20 78
Attend church nearly weekly/monthly 34 62
Attend church less often 54 42
Gallup, May 1-10, 2018

Acceptability of Sex Between Unmarried Men and Women Remains High

About seven in 10 Americans deem sex between unmarried men and women morally acceptable, matching the 69% high Gallup found in 2017. The latest figure is up 16 percentage points from the slim majorities of U.S. adults who believed that sex between unmarried men and women was morally acceptable in 2001 and 2002.

Line graph: Moral acceptability of sex between unmarried men and women, 2001-2018. 2018: 69% morally acceptable, up from 53% (2001).

The current 28% of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is morally wrong is down from the 42% recorded in 2001 and 2002.

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Unmarried adults themselves are slightly more likely than married adults to believe premarital sex is morally acceptable -- 74% vs. 66%, respectively. And men (73%) are slightly more likely than women (66%) to say it is morally acceptable.

Sex before marriage is considered a sin in many religions, but majorities of Catholics (77%) as well as Protestants (60%) say they believe it is morally acceptable. Americans who do not have a formal religious identity are the most accepting, with 90% saying unmarried sex is morally OK.

One's degree of religiosity, however, appears to have more of an impact on their view of premarital sex. While majorities of Americans who attend church nearly weekly or monthly (67%) or less often (83%) say they believe sex between unmarried men and women is morally acceptable, fewer than four in 10 weekly churchgoers (38%) agree.

Solid majorities of liberals (84%) and moderates (75%) find premarital sex morally acceptable, but only a slim majority of conservatives (54%) share this view.

Views on the Moral Acceptability of Sex Between Unmarried Men and Women, by Subgroup
Next, I'm going to read you a list of issues. Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about -- sex between an unmarried man and woman?
Morally acceptable Morally wrong
% %
Men 73 25
Women 66 31
Married 66 32
Unmarried 74 25
Conservative 54 45
Moderate 75 22
Liberal 84 15
Attend church weekly 38 59
Attend church nearly weekly/monthly 67 31
Attend church less often 83 16
Protestant/Other Christian 60 38
Catholic 77 22
None 90 8
Gallup, May 1-10, 2018

Bottom Line

Americans have shifted quite a bit in their views on the morality of a variety of issues, from pornography to the cloning of animals.

Since 2001, most U.S. adults have consistently felt that sex between unmarried adults is morally acceptable -- and they have become even more likely to view it as acceptable since. But these views do not extend to sex between teens, as Americans remain more likely to say it is morally wrong -- though the percentage saying it's morally acceptable has grown in recent years.

There may be greater sensitivity to the idea of teenagers having sex given their underage status, and some state laws may be guiding Americans' views on the subject. But many teens are having sex; 41% of U.S. high school students have had sexual intercourse, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether sex between teenagers continues to become more accepted among Americans could largely hinge on the views of adults younger than 30 -- currently the sole age demographic in which a majority says teen sex is morally acceptable. If these young adults carry their views with them as they age, this could become a more mainstream view. But if their views become more conservative as they graduate into the next age bracket, teenage sex could remain a practice that most Americans feel is morally wrong.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 1-10, 2018, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

Gallup


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