Sexual Norms: Where Does America Stand Today?

Frank Newport
The Gallup Poll
December, 1997

SEX. An alien tied up and forced to watch America's daytime talk shows might conclude it's all our society ever thinks about, and that when it comes to sexual interaction, anything goes. Sexual behavior and sexual deviance continue to dominate the nation's news media as much or more than ever before. The nation's chief executive is set to respond in court to charges that he was unable to channel his sexual instincts in normative ways, sportscasters Frank Gifford and Marv Albert occupied a great deal of media attention for their alleged forays into usually forbidden sexual territory, former Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn is now out with her new book reviewing the sad saga of her sexual relations on an isolated Air Force Base in North Dakota, former and current vice presidents weigh in with their views on the morality of sexual behavior as portrayed on television sitcoms, and the list goes on.

Periodically, it bears asking: Where do we stand as a country in terms of our views on these highly charged issues? How should humankind's built-in reproductive instincts be appropriately allowed to have their way? Looked at from a more sociological point of view: What are the existing norms in this country relating to sexual behavior?

A "norm" is a rather mysterious term referring to shared expectations of appropriate and desirable behavior in specific situations. The concept of a norm is mysterious because it refers to a concept which exists "out there" as part of a culture, but is something which generally - unlike laws, for example - is never written down or codified formally.

Survey research provides an excellent mechanism for social scientists to use to analyze a society's norms. If 80% of the members of a society agree that a certain behavior is appropriate in a given situation, then it can be hypothesized that this represents a fairly widely shared norm. If only 20% agree, than the behavior is more appropriately characterized as deviant rather than normative.

Many observers are quick to note, of course, that the existence of a norm does not - by any means - imply that actual behavior follows the norm. As we will see in the sections which follow, this may be particularly true in regard to American sexual behavior, concerning which there seems to have always been a significant gap between what is considered normative, and what people actually do. In fact, the tension between the very basic human sexual drive, the key mechanism in the society's ability to reproduce itself, and the culture's attempt to control and channel this amazingly powerful instinct, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the scientific study of human beings. And, as noted above, not only is sex and its regulation and control by society fascinating to social scientists, it apparently retains a unique position as one of the most interesting and compelling topics of interest and conversation to the average lay person as he or she toils through their presumably otherwise boring daily existence.

Hence we present the following Gallup Guide to Contemporary American Sexual Norms as revealed by Gallup's polling results over the years.

We can split public opinion on moral issues into three major categories. Click on each to find out more:

1. Pre-marital sexual relations

2. Extra-marital sexual relations

3. Homosexual relations

1. Pre-Marital Sexual Relations

What is or is not acceptable in regards to sexual relations between two people who are not married? We can examine American attitudes towards basic pre-marital sexual relations, living together before marriage, and having a baby without benefit of clergy.

Basic Pre-Marital Sexual Relations

The normative proscription against pre-marital sexual relations is not widely shared. Only 39% of 18+ Americans say that "having sexual relations before marriage" is wrong. Fifty-five percent say that it is not wrong. The rest - 6%, don't give an opinion. It is not shocking to discover that disapproval of sex before marriage is highest among older Americans, who presumably are least likely to be in a situation in which this temptation is relevant. To the younger crowd - 18-29 - there is a full 75% agreement that pre-marital sexual relations are not wrong. To the 65+ crowd, only 29% say that it is not wrong.

Living Together Before Marriage

The Gallup Poll has not asked Americans directly if the approve or disapprove of "living together before marriage." We do have data, however, on actual behavior in this regard:

Almost one third - 31%- of currently married couples in this country admit that they lived together before they got "officially" married. This figure is based on a Gallup Poll taken among all married couples from 18 to 90.

It appears that the practice is likely to become even more predominant in the years ahead. In 1989, 8 years ago, only 19% of married couples said they lived together before getting married. Not surprisingly, the living together trend is much more prevalent among the younger set. Almost one half of married couples age 18-29 say that they lived together before getting married, compared to only 6% of the gray-haired set of those 65 and older.

As is true with so many other trendy fashions, the living together phenomenon is more prevalent on the West Coast than anywhere else in the country. About half of married couples living in the West of all ages lived together before married. By contrast, for example, only 25% of the couples in the South lived together. It is interesting, but maybe not surprising, to note that Democrats and liberals are significantly more likely to have lived together before they got married than Republicans and conservatives.

Having A Baby Out Of Wedlock

There is no one dominant American norm on this issue: 47% of Americans say that it is wrong for a couple to have a baby if they are not married while 50% say that it is not.

As is true with almost every issue relating to sexual behavior, views are very age related: 39% of those 18-34 say that it is wrong to have a baby without being married, compared to 63% of those 55 and older.

2. Extramarital Sexual Relations

Gallup has collected Americans' opinions on the morality of adulterous affairs, and has also asked what Americans think really goes on, regardless of their views on the morality of the issues.

Basic Extramarital Relations

There is a major difference in the attitudes of Americans towards extramarital affairs compared to their attitudes towards premarital affairs. Americans strongly adhere to a normative standard which says it is wrong to cheat on one's spouse. Specifically, 79% of the US public says that it is always wrong for a married person to have sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner, with another 11% saying that it is "almost always" wrong. That leaves only a small 6% who say that it is wrong only sometimes and just 3% who say that it is not wrong at all.

Unlike most other areas of sexual conduct, this is one dimension on which young people are just as likely to agree as older Americans.

But what is the reality of the situation? Do Americans feel that most of their fellow married citizens in fact do not cheat on their spouse?

Estimates Of The Prevalence Of Extramarital Affairs

Despite the strong feelings that it is wrong to have adulterous relations, Americans - perhaps cynically - are fairly likely to feel that this type of deviant behavior is a common occurrence. Almost 80% of the public says that half or more of all married men have committed adultery at some point in their married career. What about women? Sixty percent of the public says that half or more of married women have committed adultery. Furthermore, a little over half of Americans say that they personally have a close friend or close family member who has had an extramarital affair.

3. Homosexual Relations

Americans have a complex set of attitudes about homosexual relations. First, there is a basic question about
the morality of homosexual behavior and basic views of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. Then there are Americans' views about one particular well-known example of public homosexuality relating to the eponymous star and on screen central character of the TV sitcom Ellen. What about the origins of homosexual behavior? Is it genetic or learned? Legally speaking, should homosexual behavior be against the law? Should homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals in terms of job opportunities? And, perhaps the most controversial of all, what about legalizing marriage between same sex partners?

Basic Views Of Homosexuality As An Acceptable Lifestyle

By a 52% to 42% margin, Americans say that homosexuality should not be considered an "acceptable alternative" lifestyle. This finding is not substantially different from the results of a poll conducted 15 years ago, in 1982.

Some observers find the use of the term "lifestyle" objectionable. Earlier this year the Gallup Poll asked the question slightly different without the 'lifestyle' term: "Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered acceptable or not?" The results were almost identical, suggesting that the word lifestyle makes little or no difference in how the public reacts to this question.

Views On The Morality Of Homosexuality

A clear majority - 59% -- of Americans say that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. Only 34% say that it is not morally wrong. The attitude that homosexual behavior is morally wrong is much more prevalent among older Americans, and in the South.


The television sitcom "Ellen" provided a litmus test of sorts to measure Americans' views on homosexuality. Not only did the lead character in the show announce last April that she was gay, the actress herself - Ellen DeGeneres - also "came out" and declared her own lesbianism.

Despite their generally quite cautious views on homosexuality in general (see above), only 37% of Americans said they were "bothered" by the fact that "the television character of Ellen will be openly gay on the show". The largest percent of the public, 50%, said that they were not bothered by the situation either way.

With regard to the increasing visibility of gay characters on television generally, almost half -- 46% -- of the public says that there are in general too many homosexual characters and situations on television sitcoms. Thirty three percent say that there is the right amount, and 9% say that there are too few gay characters.

Genes or Socialization?

One of the key issues in the debate on gay rights is the perception of whether homosexuality is a genetic characteristic (such as race or gender), or a situation brought on by socialization and lifestyle choice. The American public still sides slightly more with the "upbringing or environment" side of this equation, with 40% of those asked in November 1996 saying homosexuality is due to environmental factors, compared to 31% who say that it is genetic.

Legal Issues: Discrimination and Civil Rights

There is a strong feeling among Americans that homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, by a 84% to 12% margin. (But paradoxically, Americans are opposed to hiring homosexuals for certain selected jobs - see below).

Despite the positive view of homosexual civil rights in terms of employment, there is a reluctance on the part of Americans to agree with even the most basic premise that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal. Less than half - 44% -- of those polled in November 1996 said that homosexuality should be legal, compared to 47% who said that it should not be.

Hiring Homosexuals For Specific Occupations

A November 1996 Gallup Poll asked Americans if homosexuals should or should not be hired for a number of specific occupations. The results:

Homosexuals Should Be Hired

Homosexuals Should Not Be Hired


Elementary School Teachers


High School Teachers


Armed Forces




Member of President's Cabinet





Legalizing Same Sex Marriage

Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to legal marriages for gay partners: 68% of those interviewed in a 1996 Gallup Poll said such marriages should not be sanctioned by law, while only 27% said that they should be.

Opposition to legalizing homosexual marriages is particularly strong among men and older Americans. Even among those who think that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle, more than four in ten are opposed to legally sanctioned gay marriages.

Copyright 1998 The Gallup Organization