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Sex in America: 45 Years of Often Contradictory Changes

Teen sex is down, but casual adult sex is up. What’s going on?

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A good deal of evidence suggests that since 1972, teens have been engaging in less sex, have been using condoms more consistently, and have conceived fewer children. Meanwhile, young adults have been getting it on more, with more quickie, casual hook-up sex. And American adults of all ages have been having sex with more partners, while at the same time feeling less accepting of extra-marital affairs.

How can these contradictions be explained?

Less Teen Sex, Fewer Teen Pregnancies

For decades, social conservatives have railed against “the teen sex/teen pregnancy epidemic.” The George W. Bush administration spent more than $200 million a year to promote abstinence-only sex education in schools, encouraging teens to sign “virginity pledges” pledging they wouldn’t have sex until their wedding nights. Thirteen percent of U.S. teens — 2.5 million high-schoolers in all — signed such pledges.

But did they honor them? According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, they did not. A Harvard researcher used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to track thousands of teens who’d signed virginity pledges. Five years after signing, 82 percent denied having signed, but compared with teens who did not sign virginity pledges, signers were still just as likely to have had sex before marriage.

However, compared with previous generations, today’s teens have become somewhat less sexually active. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 1991, 54 percent of ninth-to-twelfth-graders said they’d had intercourse. By 2013, the figure had fallen to 47 percent.

In addition, sexually active teens have become considerably more likely to use contraception. In the early 1980s, 55 percent of sexually active teens used birth control, mostly condoms. But in 2010, a survey by University of Indiana researchers showed that teen contraceptive use had increased to 70 percent. That same year, the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth pegged teen contraceptive use at 84 percent.

As a result, the teen birth rate has plummeted. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures show that in 1990, the birth rate among teens was 60 per 1,000 adolescent women. By 2013, the rate had fallen to 27 per 1,000, a drop of 55 percent.

The conclusion: There is no teen sex epidemic. Compared with their parents, today’s teens are less sexually active and more sexually responsible.

Young Adult Premarital Sex: More of It, and More Acceptance

Since 1972, American adults have become significantly more accepting of young adults having premarital sex. These figures come from the General Social Survey (GSS), a collection of more than 50,000 interviews by researchers with the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center:

Adults saying premarital sex is acceptable (year interviewed and percentage):

  • 1970s: 29 percent (35 percent of men, 23 percent of women)
  • 1980s: 42 percent
  • 1990s: 42 percent
  • 2000s: 49 percent
  • 2010s: 55 percent (59 percent of men, 52 percent of women)

Over the past 45 years, acceptance of premarital sex has almost doubled. Meanwhile, compared with older adults, young adults have become even more accepting of premarital sex:

Young adults, 18 to 29, saying premarital sex is acceptable (year interviewed and percentage):

  • 1970s: 47 percent
  • 1980s-1990s: 50 percent
  • 2000s: 62 percent

Half of all adults have no problem with premarital sex, but among young adults, almost two-thirds voice no objections.

More Casual Hook-Ups, and Greater Acceptance of Them

Social conservatives denounce quickie sexual flings as immoral, but many social liberals, especially women, have problems with casual sex as well, saying it values sex over relationships and exploits young women. Nonetheless, according to the GSS, American adults of all ages report having somewhat more casual sex:

Adults of all ages reporting any casual sex during the previous year (year interviewed and percentage):

  • 1988-1989: 28 percent
  • 1990-1994: 32 percent
  • 1995-1999: 31 percent
  • 2000-2004: 36 percent
  • 2005-2009: 39 percent
  • 2010-2012: 38 percent

Compared with older adults, young adults feel even more accepting of casual sex. A recent article in Vanity Fair, “Tinder is the Night,” implies that most twenty-somethings spend evenings staring into their phones scanning hook-up sites (Tinder, Hinge, Happn, etc.), making connections and enjoying easy, frequent casual sex. There’s little evidence that Tinder et al. have triggered a stampede of one-night bed-hopping, but compared with older adults, the GSS shows that young adults are indeed more accepting of casual sex:

18 to 29-years-olds reporting casual sex in the previous year (year interviewed and percentage):

  • 1980s-1990s: 35 percent (44 percent of men, 19 percent of women)
  • 2000-2010s: 45 percent (55 percent of men, 31 percent of women)

More Lifetime Sex Partners

Finally, since 1988, the GSS shows that American adults report a larger number of lifetime sex partners.

Year interviewed and lifetime number of sex partners:

  • 1988-1989: 7
  • 1990-199: 8
  • 1995-1999: 9
  • 2000-2004: 10
  • 2005-2009: 11
  • 2010-2012: 11

Extramarital Sex: Somewhat Less Acceptance

“Life is short. Have an affair.” That’s the slogan of Ashley Madison, the site for married people looking to step out. It claims to have 39 million members in 53 countries. Clearly, many spouses are looking for something on the side. Nonetheless, GSS data show that American adults have become somewhat less accepting of married affairs. From 1972 to 2012, acceptance of extramarital sex fell 12 percent.

What's Going On?

Add up all these trends and you wind up with major contradictions — less teen sex and fewer teen pregnancies, but more young adult casual sex, more premarital sex, and more lifetime sex partners — and yet less acceptance of extramarital affairs. How can all this be explained?

Some experts say that the drop in teen sex has to do with fear of AIDS. But if that’s the case, why are adults having more casual sex — and more sex partners?

Other authorities suggest that increased education and a decline in religious observance explain the increase in casual sex and number of partners. But if that’s true, why is there less acceptance of extramarital affairs?

It’s complicated out there.


Harris, G. “Study Finds Use of Condoms Increasing,” NY Times, May 27, 2010.

Rabin, R.C. “Condom Use Highest for Young, Study Finds,” NY Times October 4, 2010.

Rosenbaum, J.E. “Patient Teenagers? Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Controls,” Pediatrics (2009) 123:e110.

Sales, N.J. “Tinder is the Night,” Vanity Fair, Sept. 2015.

Twenge, J.M. “Changes in American Adults’ Sexual Behavior and Attitudes, 1972-2012,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2015) 44:2273