Beliefs Culture Ethics

Millennials are the ‘don’t judge generation’ on sexual morality: Survey

A diverse group of people.
A diverse group of people.

Photo courtesy of Rawpixel via Shutterstock

Most young adults of every religion, race and ethnicity support access to affordable contraception.

(RNS) Most young adults of every religion, race and ethnicity support access to affordable contraception.

And 56 percent of people ages 18 to 35 say that in some situations, choosing to have abortion “is the most responsible decision that a woman can make.”

But, a new survey finds, the reasoning behind these millennial beliefs might surprise older adults who are more rooted in religious doctrines. Most young adults hold views on moral issues that are a long way from what some major religions preach on issues such as abortion and contraception.

For most millennials — including one in three who don’t identify with any particular religion — it’s all about personal circumstances, said Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.

On Friday (March 27), PRRI released a major survey, funded by the Ford Foundation, looking at the views of U.S. adults ages 18 to 35 on issues such as sexual behavior, gender identity, abortion, contraception, sexual assault on campus and more.

“What we see running through the answers is that where principles of fairness come up, millennials want to see equal access to health services, abortion and contraception. They think people should have individual freedom to make decisions,” said Jones.

RNS abortion graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

RNS abortion graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

Personal experience can color their views as well, said Jones. The survey found 8 percent of people said they themselves had an abortion and 36 percent know a close friend or family member who did. And nearly half of millennial women say they either have personally used emergency contraception such as Plan B (18 percent) or know a close friend or family member who as done so (29 percent). These are the contraception methods some critics consider abortifacients, or abortion-inducing.

RNS birth control graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

RNS birth control graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

Abortifacients were a key point in the Hobby Lobby case heard by the Supreme Court. In its ruling, the court allowed small businesses the right to opt out of providing insurance coverage for free contraception based on their religious objections to providing access to some — or any — forms of contraception. PRRI found 58 percent of millennials opposed the Supreme Court ruling. A mere 9 percent of millennials say contraception is morally wrong.

“Millennials seem reluctant to make blanket black-and-white moral pronouncements about issues they see as complex,” said Jones.

RNS homosexuality graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

RNS homosexuality graphic by Tiffany McCallen. Click to view full size.

“They don’t only make legal allowances for circumstances, they also make moral allowances for people in difficult circumstances. It’s more about empathy than it is about autonomy.”

So, to the extent that religious authorities or doctrines are seen to make black-and-white statements, Jones said, “millennials are going to have a problem.”

For example, when Jones looked more closely at Catholics, whose church stands against all forms of artificial contraception, he found only 11 percent of all Catholics said it was morally wrong. Catholics, both men and women, fell right in line with millennials overall, with about 70 percent saying artificial contraception is morally acceptable and nearly two in 10 saying it depended on the situation.

Millennials — including 87 percent of Catholic women and 79 percent of white Protestant women — also favor expanding access to contraception to women who cannot afford it.

But looking at access to contraception in economic terms revealed a split along the lines of religious identity.

With one exception, majorities of every major religious group, including 60 percent of Catholics, say access to contraception -– the ability to control if or when they have children — is critical to a woman’s financial security.

But only 38 percent of white evangelicals said it was critical and 62 percent disagreed.

White evangelical millennials also stood out from other millennials on the issue of abortion:  80 percent of white evangelical millennials say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. That set them apart from majorities of black Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics who all say it should be legal in all or most cases.

However, the influence of white evangelicals on public opinion in the future may be muted by their small — and aging — numbers. White evangelicals are the oldest of the major religious affiliations, with 49 percent of them age 50 and older. According to the PRRI survey, only 11 percent are millennials, a close parallel to young white mainline Protestants (10 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (10 percent).

A sampling of other findings:

  • Most millennials (73 percent) say sexual assault is somewhat or very common on college campuses and 53 percent say this is also the case on high school campuses.
  • One-quarter of millennials say that marriage has become old-fashioned and out of date, while 71 percent disagree.
  • Millennials fall into a four-way split on “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels. While 25 percent say they are exclusively “pro-life” and 27 percent say they’re “pro-choice,” 22 percent rebuff both labels and nearly 27 percent say that both labels describe them equally well.
  • 7 percent of millennials identify either as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The survey of 2,314 U.S. adults was conducted online in both English and Spanish between Feb. 12 and Feb. 25. The margin of error for the overall survey is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • Not surprising that millenials are so non-judgemental on morals. They were raised in a world that has been largely stripped of any moral boundary. Mom and Dad divorce and sleep around, teachers sleep with students, they freely send naked selfies around the web, schools give them condoms but cannot teach them abstinence, and any religious guideline is verboten because it may inhibit their expressions.

    Parents and schools are disinterested in their morality and allow the Kardashians and Hilton’s to lead by example.

    Oh, and any inconvenient pregnancy can be handled by Murder, er, Abortion Inc.

  • Immature generation! Their ethics are situational and emotional based. Their basis for life is what feels good to them and doesn’t make others made at them. “Can’t we all just get along?”

    Still, for those who profess the Christian faith, they have been let down by a church that dogmatically told them what position was “right” without teaching them how to think biblically about the issue. Instead of telling them what to think, we should have taught them how to think. We could only hope that then they would deeply wrestle with what God’s desires and intentions are for life. After all, God bought them with a price and their life is not their own, to paraphrase scripture. I wonder if they can take a guess at the implications of those verses?

  • Its immature to base one’s concept on morality on their connection to humanity and emotions instead of “because this book/preacher says so”? Not at all.

    People following strictly religious concepts of morality tend to be rather immature about the concept. Following a set of rules blindly, in an arbitrary fashion, out of expectation of divine reward/punishment, is not moral thinking. It is self-interest. A sociopath’s morality. Morality is considering how your actions affect others, not just yourself.

    “Thinking biblically” about a situation is not thinking. Its just spurious rationalizing. No different than being dogmatically told to follow a position. At best it teaches Christians to excuse any and all actions and behavior in arbitrary and self-serving way.

  • Of course you want to find loopholes around the idea of respecting the lives of other people.

    Where is the fun of being a Christian if you can’t wag your finger at people and blast them for not believing or acting just like you?

    Why be a civil respectful person when you think your religious belief gives you license to act like a raging anti-social jerk?

  • I won’t debate the virtue of religion with you as you seem disinclined towards it. But morality spans all religions and the non-religious. It has a basis in something, be that emotions, observable situations, cultural changes, history, personal values or any other thing. To base it on a “book” as you state is perfectly reasonable. To say something is moral, as I am sure you would at times, is fine, but will you argue for a basis? Which one? And then will you critique someone else’s basis because you are disinclined towards it?

    What would the generation being described in this article claim as a basis for morality? My point is that they are not thinking about a basis but are just doing what seems right and fair to them at this point in history. That may be fine, but it is not very well thought out or supported. Perhaps they, like many other today, do not believe we need or want a basis for morality. But for the person who can see the fallacy of that logic, more is needed.

  • “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”

    “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

    No… contextually the bible’s pretty absolute on the whole “don’t judge other people” commandment.

  • “To say something is moral, as I am sure you would at times, is fine, but will you argue for a basis? Which one?”

    Ah the relativism embraced by religion.

    How is this as a basis, the understanding of the unconditional inherent dignity of all humankind. Being an emotional, non-crazy person living among other people.

    How hard is it to understand that harming others in a malicious fashion is not a good thing to do?

    People don’t like to be harmed and tend to react badly when it happens to them. You don’t need a book to tell you that.

    Religious people use their scriptures all the time to find excuses not acknowledge such things. To find justification to be malicious, to harm others and to claim moral justification for it. A good deal of the Christians who post here talk about morality in one sentence and then say hateful malicious things in the next. Hypocritical nonsense.

  • You have a hard time answering a direct question, don’t you? Pitiful. You’re not sincere, just a cynic.

  • John 7:24 says don’t judge by mere appearance make a right judgment
    so we are to judge between right and wrong not judge by what a person
    says they are or how they appear but if they follow the Bible and the do
    not judge or you will be judged means pull the plank out of your own eye
    or you will be judged meaning don’t be a hypocrite like many in the church
    today who rail against abortion/homosexuals yet still get drunk,gossip and
    be mean/don’t bridle their tongue,gamble,have premarital sex. Preaching
    against sin is Biblical/not judging so we are to judge between right and a
    wrong but not stand in the judgment seat of Christ just preach against sin!

  • The question alone gave the game away. If you had to ask, you missed the point.

    You relied entirely on a false assumption. I do not find it reasonable to base morality on a book. Morality is more than arbitrary acceptance of codes and rules. With spurious and self-serving interpretations, any moral codes and rules are easily avoided or put to service for immoral ends. Therefore, I do not worry about which book. None will do the job.

    Since your initial premise is flawed, your questions derived from them are flawed as well.

    Obviously moral behavior comes from other sources. Ones you felt the need to reject or ignore.

  • Larry – all other issues aside, do you have a basis for your morality? Could you even attempt to answer that question?

  • It’s not to disagree or agree; it’s knowing that your chain is being pulled. When you stand there not knowing why, like a dog on a leash being yanked by the master. Have a good day as you bark at each other! It amuses the masters who rule over us.
    Religion is by no means perfect but, to say man’s morality of the moment is more humane and loving is ludicrous. Feel free to choose A or B. You pay or pray for what you get. At the end we are nothing but dust.

  • “the do not judge or you will be judged means pull the plank out of your own eye or you will be judged”

    Everyone is said to be a sinner, are they not?? If so, how on earth would one ever be able to judge another person?? Only the sinless are qualified to perform judgment.

    “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

    One cannot judge whilst anything remains in their eye. And, if we are all imperfect and sinners, no one is qualified to judge. To merely judge is to be a “hypocrite” as you say, for ALL are Sinners and Sinners are NOT permitted judgment.

    “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

  • The received wisdom of newspaper editorialists, 2d rate schoolteachers, and adolescents full of themselves. What could be more authoritative?

  • Whether you believe in God or not, each person has a conscience, if you ever stop to listen to your conscience you will know if you are right or if you’re wrong.

  • John, I answered the question.

    “How is this as a basis, the understanding of the unconditional inherent dignity of all humankind. Being an emotional, non-crazy person living among other people. “

    I don’t like repeating myself, but maybe I was not as clear on this.

    We do not maliciously harm people based on our understanding of other people. Our ability to relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes. Being a sane human being.

    There is self-interest as expounded by the notion of reciprocity. One does not harm others because one does not want to be harmed in kind.
    In addition, there is also the understanding of what harmful acts do to others. We understand what its like to be harmed, therefore understand that others feel the same. One does not wish upon others what one understands is bad for themselves.

    If you needed a book or God to tell you maliciously harming others is bad, you lack the kind of sane empathy that most of humanity possesses.

  • Larry – since I love your avoidance to my questions so much, I though I would ask you again how your answer is relevant to my very clear question? Can you read?

  • I answered it already 3 times now. I even put it in italics for you and elaborated ad nauseum! You are just not reading it.

    Does it have to be in all caps and bold before you figure it out?

    I will do it in bold. All caps is tasteless.

    Short and final answers (since you never bothered to read my previous remarks the first times):
    What book do I base my morality on? NONE morality doesn’t ever come from books.

    What do I base my morality on? Understanding the human condition as being a sane person who lives among other sane people.

    Ms. Grossman doesn’t like people hogging discussions. So to be polite to her, I have explained all that is necessary to you. It may not the answer you were looking for and its off the script you set out to follow, but its all you are going to get.

  • “How is this as a basis, the understanding of the unconditional inherent dignity of all humankind.”

    Excellent. And the source of that concept is the book you are bashing. It was UNKNOWN in history prior to the triumph of Judeo-Christianity in the west.

    Where is Max now that we are examining “dogmas” again? LOL!

  • His position is that the entire human race was not “sane” prior to around about the beginning of the common era…what changed about that time??? Uh-oh…

  • Shawnie, people were moral before your religion, they are moral without your religion. They are moral without ever hearing about your religion. They didn’t suddenly become moral when your religion was dominant in the culture.

    Your religion doesn’t do jack about morality. At best its an excuse to get like minded people in the same room. What they do about it varies wildly with the given crowd.

    You use your faith as an excuse to be snide, sanctimonious, to baldly lie, and to support discriminatory behavior. Others use it to oppose such behaviors.

    Christianity may have been used to rally people against slavery, but it was also what was used to reinforce and defend it.

    Christians may oppose war, but it also many support it.

    Christians may oppose genocide, but it also many used to justify it.

    So what does it say about Christianity as a source of morality? Absolutely nothing. Religion provides a great tool to find excuses for their actions either way.

  • ” It was UNKNOWN in history prior to the triumph of Judeo-Christianity in the west.”

    No, you lying apologetic.

    Morals existed before the appearance the mythical Judeo-Christianity (they are 2 distinct things with different ideas on most subjects combining them is far from honest). The discussion of morality is far older than your religion. People did not suddenly become moral with the emergence of Christianity. But religion did give them great excuses to act badly. You still use it to do so.

    As for “that book”, obviously given the malicious and harmful acts by many who follow said book, done in the name of its alleged author, it is not a source of moral behavior.

    Shawnie someone who uses their religious belief as an excuse to engage in sectarian attacks and support discrimination hardly has standing to discuss moral concepts of such a belief. Obviously morality to you is whatever can be excused with a Bible quote.

  • People were “moral” toward their own. Human rights and dignity were acquired through social ties, not inherent. For that we needed the Imago Dei.

    In developing our duties to others they [the ancients] were short and defective. They embraced indeed the circles of kindred and friends and patriotism or the love of our country in the aggregate as a primary obligation; toward our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace charity and love to fellow men or embraced with benevolence whole family of mankind…” — Thomas Jefferson

  • (cont.) “However, “His [Jesus’] moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.” — Thomas Jefferson

    Why do you insist on borrowing from us “lying apologetics?”

  • Interesting on all levels.

    The “sleeper” group in the mix are Hispanic evangelicals, the fastest growing of all the groups listed in the survey.

  • The group, “Hispanic Protestants” is for all intents and purposes synonymous with Hispanic evangelicals, since most Hispanic Protestant churches are evangelical.

    This is probably the fastest growing of any group in America.

  • James, that’s the headline, but if we compare the numbers to popular stereotypes about Millennials, we find that they are a lot less non-judgmental than one would predict. Certainly in their actual behavior, which doesn’t show up in these stats, they are far more conservative than the baby boomers were at that age. For the better part of a decade now, a majority of kids are graduating high school as virgins…..that’s probably the first time since the early or middle 1960s and maybe earlier. There are far fewer abortions than a generation ago, and teen pregnancy is down, I believe.

    So the idea that the Millennials are relatively libertine isn’t exactly true…..Are they more reflexively nonjudgmental of those who are than prior generations? Yes…..but again, less so that one would guess.

  • John, as usual, you are on target….this time on teaching kids not just what is right by why it’s right. Part of it is simple laziness. It takes effort to explain to kids not just what the Bible says, but why it says it and what is the world view behind it.

  • I don’t think these numbers are anywhere near as bad as some would predict. I would guess they were quite bad a generation or two ago.

  • Larry, tell that to your friends on the hard left who wag their finger incessantly at people of all ages on nearly every social, economic, political, and foreign policy issue of the day.

    It’s always whose ox is being gored…..

  • Carlos, conscience is helpful but not perfect. Some people are overly guilt-ridden and shouldn’t be. Other people hardly ever feel any guilt no matter what they do.

  • Larry, you’re confusing the psychological basis of morality with the philosophical basis. You have explained the former but not the latter. Atheists can behave as well as theists and explain it psychologically, but philosophically, atheism provides us no basis whatsoever for deeming morality a real and objective thing that exists above and beyond people’s feelings on the matter.

    It’s fairly plain that you’ve given the latter no thought at all, and your answers will likely make that clear.

  • Hey, nasty Ad Hominem Jack is back, slinging insults as usual. Better chill down. Now you give that some thought, Jackie5!

  • I fear for my daughter’s future after hearing about how teenagers apparently think it’s fine to contract genital herpes because of some misleading information about how half the population has it. Yeah, half the population gets a COLD SORE now and then. I’m pretty sure it’s still very abnormal to break out into massively painful oozing sores on your genitals every six months.

  • This makes me sick to be labeled as a millennial and I’m 25 smdh. Very immoral bunch of people. Hey dumb millennials go sleep with who ever you want to like them rap songs say, and catch something the ajax won’t wash off. I’ve been with the same woman for 8.5 yrs. Now theirs a goal for yall to accomplish and without cheating. Its a lot easier when you dont use social media and listen to immoral music