Americans Have Become More Opposed to Adultery. Why?

Tired of talking about the debt ceiling?  Let’s talk about sex.  A few weeks ago, a Ross Douthat column about gay marriage included this statistic:

In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong.

I thought for sure this was wrong (51% seemed far too low).  Douthat’s column did not cite a source, and the New York Times, still refusing to embrace a a technology called “hyperlinks,” did not embed a link to any source in the on-line version of the article.  But I am 99% sure that this figure came from the General Social Survey, and in particular this item:

What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner?  Is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

Below is the percentage of those who believe that extramarital sex is “always wrong,” broken down by four levels of education and tracked over the available years of data in the GSS:


Douthat was absolutely correct.  In the 1970s, about half of those with a college or graduate degree believed that extramarital sex was always wrong.  Don’t interpret that as suggesting that well-educated people favored a swinging “Ice Storm” kind of life.  At this time, about 25% of those with a college or graduate degree said that extramarital sex was “almost always wrong.”  Very few said that it was “not wrong.”  Nevertheless, I was wrong to doubt Douthat’s figure.

But what’s even more interesting to me is the upward trend.  Americans, and especially better educated Americans, have become less accepting of adultery with the passage of time.  This is particularly surprising (again, to me) in light of opposite trends with regard to premarital sex and especially gay sex:
Among Americans with at least a college degree, the divergence between views of extramarital sex and homosexual sex is even starker:
So what might account for increasing opposition to extramarital sex?  Douthat suggests divorce:

In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong. But far from being strengthened by this outbreak of realism, their marriages went on to dissolve in record numbers.

This trend eventually reversed itself. Heterosexual marriage has had a tough few decades, but its one success story is the declining divorce rate among the upper middle class. This decline, tellingly, has gone hand in hand with steadily rising disapproval of adultery.

See Philip Cohen’s final graph in this post for a depiction of the declining divorce rate.  But at the same time, it’s notable that attitudes toward divorce laws have not undergone a sea change.  The GSS asks:

Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?

I’m not yet convinced that attitudes toward divorce and extramarital sex go hand-in-hand.

In fact, as a colleague pointed out to me, you could draw the opposite conclusion as Douthat.  Even though the divorce rate has decreased since 1980, divorce itself has arguably become more normal and acceptable.  It’s hard to get comparable question wordings over a long time span, but these two polls seem suggestive.  In a 1954 Gallup poll, respondents were asked “Do you believe in divorce?”  53% said yes and 43% said no.  In 2008, 70% of Gallup respondents said that divorce was “morally acceptable”—and that represents an increase even over the 59% figure in 2001. If divorce has become more acceptable, this could lead people to be less favorable to adultery.  The logic goes something like this: “If you’re in an unhappy marriage, don’t cheat.  Just get divorced.”

Ultimately, I don’t have a good answer here.  Hence this rambling, speculative blog post.  I welcome any ideas (or citations to relevant research) that might help explain why Americans, and especially better educated Americans, have become more opposed to adultery.

14 Responses to Americans Have Become More Opposed to Adultery. Why?

  1. Andrew Gelman July 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Excellent graphs!

  2. Manoel Galdino July 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    Back in the 50’s, it was hard to have sex before mariage. So, people got maried to have sex. But then, they got bored and tryed some extramarital sex.

    Not, it’s easier (see the graphic on premarital sex ) and you can get a divorce, so you can’t blame a boring marriage as an excuse for extramarital sex anymore.

    Another possibility is related to gender difference. Maybe men have the same opinion over time, but women changed. Any graph broken down by gender?

  3. Seth July 27, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    Going off what Manoel says, there are probably fewer people who are getting married today because they “have to.” People once got married just to have sex, because they were going to have a baby they didn’t want, because someone was going to get drafted if he was single, etc. Assuming more marriages are occurring out of choice rather than necessity, it would make sense that attitudes had turned sharply against adultery.

  4. Dean Eckles July 27, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Educated Americans becoming have become more opposed to adultery
    Americans opposed to adultery have become more educated.

    Maybe both, but you don’t mention the latter, which likely explains why the trend in the college-educated subgroup is more striking.

  5. C.S. July 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    “Back in the 50′s, it was hard to have sex before mar[r]iage. “

    Guess it’s time to re-evaluate all those Raymond Chandler novels I thought were so realistic.

    . . . and James M. Cain novels . . . and Patricia Highsmith . . . and Jim Thompson . . . and Graham Greene . . . and Norman Mailer . . . and Terry Southern . . . and Kerouac . . . and . . .

  6. hapa July 27, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    hey look over there. asian americans have very strong beliefs about marriage.

  7. Manoel Galdino July 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    C.S., I’m not american and don’t live in US. I just thought that in the 50’s it was more like Brazil. But I don’t have any hard evidence on this.

  8. Rob in CT July 28, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    I think “don’t cheat, get a divorce” is a reasonable explanation. It’s what I think, so it makes sense to me. That doesn’t make it the answer, but it seems plausible.

  9. Doug Spencer July 28, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    It might be the case that we would *expect* the attitudes toward premarital sex and extramarital sex to have an inverse relationship. The more we tolerate sexual activity before marriage, and people “getting it out of their system,” perhaps the less tolerant we become once one makes a commitment to be monogamous.

    And I second Prof. Gelman – great figures.

  10. Lee July 29, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    I think a lot of society’s moral beliefs don’t make sense. As the article notes, about 7 in 10 Americans consider divorce morally acceptable now. On the other hand, since 2001, the percentage calling adultery “morally acceptable” has never risen above 9% (according to Gallup’s “Values and Beliefs” surveys). In many ways, this is a strange belief system when you think about it. What if a happily married man gets an extremely tempting, no strings attached proposition from an ultra hot woman (say, Alyssa Milano). According to the way most Americans think, it would be immoral for him to have sex with her even once while staying married to his wife, even if he practiced safe sex and there was little to no chance of his wife finding out. But it would be moral for him to throw away a happy marriage and divorce his wife (something guaranteed to cause her great pain) in order to accept the proposition from Milano. Does this make any sense?

    I’m not convinced the growing acceptance of divorce is responsible for the increased intolerance of adultery. I was recently one of 65 people who voted on the moral acceptability of all the issues listed in the latest Gallup Values and Beliefs poll (2011) on an Internet forum. While a larger percentage of us voted divorce as morally acceptable than did Americans in the Gallup poll (74% versus 69%), the difference regarding adultery was even greater–22% of us said adultery was morally acceptable, compared to 7% of Americans as a whole (I voted both divorce and adultery as being morally acceptable).

    Personally, I think holding someone to a promise not to have sex with other people is very contrary to the idea of personal freedom. People break promises and agreements all the time without it being considered immoral–why should they be held to one which limits them in one of the most personal, intimate areas possible?

  11. Modaca July 29, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    What about AIDS? Extramarital sex is terribly unfair when you might be sentencing your marital partner to death.

  12. Lee July 29, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    I think reasonable precautions can be taken about AIDS and other STDs, particularly with condoms and also with being careful about who one sleeps with.

  13. Celine July 29, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    I think there’s a much simpler explanation for the “adultery gap” — hypocrisy. When you combine this study with the results of other studies showing that 50% or more of married men, and 20% or more of married women, have cheated on their spouses at least once, it’s pretty clear that this is an example of “do as I say, not as I do”.

  14. Lee July 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    Another thing that’s interesting is that attitudes seem to have little influence on actual behavior where sex is concerned. As I said before, the percentage of Americans who say adultery is “morally acceptable” has consistently remained below 10 percent. Yet when the French were asked about it in a 2009 poll, 46% said it was morally acceptable. In spite of this attitudinal difference, studies have suggested that the actual rate of infidelity in the U.S. is very similar to that in France. The level of acceptance of adultery is different, but the behavior isn’t.