Changing Public Attitudes Toward Adultery

In response to my post describing increasing opposition to adultery, I got a lot of feedback via comments and other emails.  The question I asked was why opposition to adultery has been increasing.  Here are some notions:

  • The overall trend is not due to trends among specific subgroups.  Paul Musgrave’s follow-up post shows that it’s also increasing among men and women, whites and blacks, the religious and un-religious, Protestants and Catholics, Democrats and Republicans.  The rate of change varies across these groups—note, e.g., the growing polarization between the parties—but it’s certainly not an isolated trend.
  • Americans are developing a specific version of libertarianism.  Via email, Musgrave showed me that the increase in support for marijuana legalization tracks the increase in support of homosexual sex quite closely.  Describing work with Clyde Wilcox (no link yet), Musgrave speculates thusly: “We tentatively interpret this as evidence that Americans have become less willing to judge behaviors that used to be construed as socially deviant but which do not inherently harm others—a sort of J.S. Mill version of libertarianism.”  By this logic, you might expect attitudes toward adultery to differ because there is potentially harm done to another (the spouse).
  • Ease of divorce makes extramarital sex less “necessary.”  Thus, people who have affairs are more deserving of opprobrium.
  • The advent of HIV means that adultery potentially exposes you, and therefore your spouse, to infection, thereby making adultery more immoral.
  • Because the age of first marriage is increasing, people have a longer time to “sow oats” before marriage and thus are better prepared for monogamy within marriage.  The decrease in opposition to premarital sex goes hand-in-hand.

Of course, as a few commenters noted, this rise in opposition to adultery does not imply any particular change in behavior.  (Since 1991, the GSS has asked respondents whether they have had an extramarital affair.  There is no discernible trend.)  Nevertheless, I think the change in attitudes is interesting, even if the cause or causes are difficult to nail down.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

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