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.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.