In his wonderful autobiography Born Standing Up, Steve Martin recalls the “free love” period of the late 1960s. “This was a time,” he writes, “when intercourse, or some version of it, was a way of saying hello.”
Martin laments that, after three years or so, “women got wise and my frustration returned to normal levels.” Newly published research suggests he might have enjoyed a longer period of hedonistic happiness if he had been born one generation later.
In the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, a research team led by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University reports attitudes toward sex have continued to liberalize, with each generation getting progressively less judgmental.
But sexual behavior is a different story, with promiscuity peaking with members of Generation X. (Although precise definitions vary, Gen Xers are generally defined as those born between 1965 and 1980, while Millennials were born between 1980 and 2000.)
“Millennials hold the most permissive sexual attitudes of any generation,” the researchers write, “though they choose to have sex with fewer partners than Gen Xers did at the same age.”
"The median number of partners was one for those born in the 1910-20s, two for the 1930s cohort, three for (those born in the) 1940s, four for (those born in) the 1950s and '60s, and three for those born in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s."
The reason for this relative reticence can be summed up in seven letters: HIV/AIDS. “Later-born Gen Xers and Millennials, who reported fewer partners than those born in the 1950s and 1960s, became adults after HIV/ADIS was publicly recognized,” the researchers note.
The resultant fear led to a decline in the number of sexual partners, which broke a longstanding pattern. “The median number of partners was one for those born in the 1910-20s, two for the 1930s cohort, three for (those born in the) 1940s, four for (those born in) the 1950s and '60s, and three for those born in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s,” the researchers report.
Using data from the large and nationally representative General Social Survey of Americans adults, Twenge and her colleagues examined sexual attitudes and behaviors between 1972 and 2012. They attempted to answer two specific questions: Have we really gotten more permissive over that period? And if so, is it a matter of people changing their minds, or is does the new thinking reflect a generational shift?
The answer to the first question is, unsurprisingly, yes. “The percentage (of American adults) who believed premarital sex among adults was ‘not wrong at all’ was 29 percent in the early 1970s, 42 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, 49 percent in the 2000s, and 58 percent between 2010 and 2012,” they write.
Acceptance of extramarital affairs actually went down during this period, from four percent in 1973 to one percent in 2012. More than ever, we want our spouses to stay faithful. But acceptance of sex between two men, or two women, increased dramatically: It hovered between 11 and 16 percent in the 1970s and 1980s before jumping to 22 percent in 1993; it then increased steadily, reaching 44 percent in 2012.
The researchers report this reflects a radical change in mindset from one generation to the next, with older people from previous generations mostly holding on to their more judgmental beliefs. It appears we develop our attitudes toward sexuality at a fairly young age and do not alter them very much beyond our “formative development years,” they write.
Twenge and her colleagues did find an exception to this rule. “Generational differences were nearly absent among black Americans,” they note. “Among generations born early in the 20th century, black Americans held more permissive attitudes and reported more sexual partners than whites, but by the 1950s and 1960s cohorts, blacks were less permissive and reported fewer partners than whites.”
The researchers speculate this may be due to religiosity (which declined among white adolescents over the generations, but not blacks), or perhaps the “disproportionate burden” sexually transmitted infections have placed on the black community.
The population as a whole, however, is gradually re-embracing the attitudes of the fleeting period Martin remembers so fondly. Compared to a quarter-century earlier, the researchers report, Americans in the early 2010s were “more likely to have had sex with a casual date or pickup, or an acquaintance, in the last year.”
So Millennials may have fewer partners than those frisky Gen Xers, but they’re still hooking up. Given this reality, the notion of “abstinence-only” sex education seems sillier than ever.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.