Graph: Americans becoming more accepting of homosexuality; less accepting of extramarital relationships

Americans' views of sexual ethics has changed dramatically over the past four decades -- but not completely in a liberal direction. Could growing support for same-sex marriage be explained by these changes?

Graph of views of extramarital affairs or homosexual sex

Percentage of Americans who say that extramarital affairs or homosexual sex is ‘always wrong’

Americans’ views of sexual ethics has changed dramatically over the past four decades — but not completely in a liberal direction. Sure, views about premarital sex and homosexual relationships are now less conservative, but Americans are now more against extramarital affairs than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Could growing support for same-sex marriage be explained by these changes? Americans are more accepting of homosexual relationships. This is not a move from traditional and toward libertine ethics. Americans are also more supportive of the traditional ideal of faithfulness within marriage. Supporting same-sex marriage encourages both new views on homosexuality while maintaining traditional stances on fidelity.

The General Social Survey (a federally funded sociological survey) has included questions on sexual ethics for the past 40 years. When the survey began, seven-in-ten Americans said extramarital affairs were ‘always wrong’ and about the same percentage said the same about homosexual sex.  In the 1990s, this began the change. Views about homosexuality became more tolerant — today less than half of the public says that it is always wrong. Public opinion toward affairs, however, became more conservative with just over 80 percent now saying that it is always wrong.

Graph of views of extramarital affairs or homosexual sex among weekly church attenders

Percentage of Americans who attend to church (or other worship service) weekly who say that extramarital affairs or homosexual sex is ‘always wrong’

Religion, of course, reinforces traditional stances on sexuality. Yet, we see a split growing between views of extramarital sex and of homosexual sex. In the 1970s, 80 percent of those who attended church every week were opposed to extramarital affairs and to homosexuality. Today, opposition to affairs has increased while resistance to homosexual sex has waned.

Graph of views of extramarital affairs or homosexual sex among those who rarely attend church (once a year or less)

Percentage of Americans who rarely attend church (once a year or less) who say that extramarital affairs or homosexual sex is ‘always wrong’

Those who rarely or never darken a church door have been more liberal in their sexual ethics, but this views have also changed in both a liberal and conservative direction. On homosexual relationships, the less religious have moved from high to low opposition. During this same time, their view on sex outside of marriage has grown more traditional.