The Joy of Sexual Values


Support for legal abortion is slipping in the U.S. It also appears that the high divorce rate and liberated lifestyles of the boomer generation may now be producing more cautious, conservative attitudes among the young.

John Leo

Faye Wattleton, former head of Planned Parenthood, was crushed to learn that women's attitudes on abortion are not what she supposed they were. A poll conducted by Wattleton's new group, the Center for Gender Equality, found that 53 percent of American women think abortion should be allowed only after rape or incest, to save a woman's life, or not at all. Only 28 percent said abortion should be generally available, and 70 percent want more restrictions.

Another sign of slippage in support for abortion shows up in UCLA's annual national survey of the attitudes of college freshmen. Support for legal abortion dropped for the sixth straight year. In 1990 it was 64.9 percent. Now it is a bare majority, 50.9 percent. The National Opinion Research Center in Chicago found declining opposition to legal abortion from 1988 to 1996. But opposition climbed again in 1998 and is now in the 55 percent range.

Declining support for abortion owes something to the gruesome details that emerged in the debate over “partial-birth” abortion. Improvements in ultrasound imaging also tend to undermine abortion, cutting through the abstractions of “choice” and “reproductive rights” and showing pregnant women how much a fetus resembles a newborn. When ultrasound video shows the fetus in 3-D, support for abortion could drop further.

But this support may be eroding because sexual attitudes in general have been moving in a conservative direction throughout the 1990s. Wattleton's poll shows that 44 percent of women think divorce should be harder to get, and 52 percent oppose distribution of condoms in schools. Surveys by Yankelovich Partners Inc. report that three decades after the sexual revolution, only 37 percent of Americans think premarital sex is acceptable (32 percent of women, 43 percent of men), and only 20 percent approve of sexual intercourse among teenagers. In the UCLA survey, a record low of 39.6 percent of students (down from 51.9 percent in 1987) agreed that “if two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for a very short time.”

Getting religion

Two factors driving the conservative trend are religion and the costs of the sexual revolution (AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, the effects of divorce, dissatisfaction with promiscuous sex). The Wattleton survey found that 75 percent of the women polled said religion is very important in their lives, up from 69 percent two years ago. A study of young urban males by the Urban Institute found that the growing trend toward less permissive sexual attitudes in the 1990s is associated with religious beliefs. The number of religious teens didn't rise, but the teens who were religious developed more conservative values. It's not just teen pregnancies that are down. So are teen sexual activity and approval of it. Support for premarital sex remains high, but it dropped from 80 percent in 1988 to 71 percent in 1995. Over the same period, the percentage of males age 17 to 19 who have had sex fell 7 points to 68 percent.

In a hypothetical case of pregnancy involving an unmarried couple, the percentage of males who endorsed having the baby and supporting it rose steadily from 19 percent in 1979 to 59 percent in 1995. The report says these changes, found among whites and minorities alike, are “broadly consistent” with the sexual values reflected in the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March. The lessons of the study, said its authors, are that values matter and AIDS education makes a difference.

The high divorce rate and liberated lifestyles of the boomer generation may now be producing more cautious, conservative attitudes among the young. “Generation X-ers basically believe the baby boomers went too far with their lifestyle, taking it to the brink,” says Ann Clurman of Yankelovich Partners. “Children of divorce are 50 percent of gen X-ers. They think they are victims of divorce and want to pull back from the precipice. Down the road we will definitely see less divorce.” Her colleague and fellow analyst at Yankelovich, J. Walker Smith, adds this: “X-ers don't want to return to Ozzie and Harriet, but they want to recapture the traditional satisfactions. The family unit is on the decline, but the desire for family satisfaction is on the rise.” Smith says boomers too, as they age, are developing more traditional attitudes: Gen X-ers are 10 to 25 points more likely in surveys to prefer a return to traditional standards than boomers were when they were young. And boomers today are just as likely as gen X-ers to differ with the attitudes reported by the boomer generation in the 1970s.

Smith says researchers are picking up a rising reaction against the trend of dropping dating in favor of “hooking up”–typically teens or college students going out in groups, maybe drinking a lot, then pairing off for sex. Amy Holmes, of the Independent Women's Forum, is pushing a “Take Back the Date” movement to stamp out the aimless sex of “hooking up.” Maybe the tanker is turning around.


Leo, John. “The Joy of Sexual Values.” U.S. News and World Report (March 1, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of John Leo and U.S. News and World Report.


John Leo writes the Outlook column for U.S. News and World Report.

Copyright © 1999 US News&World Report

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