With all the handwringing that goes on over the “hookup culture,” you would think that the youngest adult generation—so-called “Millennials”—have all shunned the restraints of longterm monogamy and instead are skipping through one casual encounter after another. But new research from the Public Religion Research Institute on Millennial attitudes on sexuality complicates that narrative quite a bit. If anything, the answers the survey respondents gave to the questions seem rather traditional. Not only did 71 percent of Millennials say that marriage is still a relevant institution, but 37 percent agreed that “sex between two adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship” is morally wrong. Another 21 percent said it depended on the situation.
Does this mean Millennials are less liberal than stereotypes would have you believe? Emma Green of the Atlantic thinks so, writing, “Their politics and mores don’t fit neatly on a spectrum from conservative to liberal,” and that “a majority of young people consider random sex morally wrong in some circumstances, and many of them consider it always wrong.”
“So much for hookup culture,” she adds.
To which I say: Well, sort of. Polling data that asks people about moral beliefs tells a complicated story. From it, you can learn a lot about the messages they got growing up and the ideals they were told to live up to. But these polls don’t tell you much about how people actually feel and behave in their real lives. For instance, Gallup polling shows that 31 percent of Americans believe premarital sex is morally wrong, but Guttmacher Institute research shows that 95 percent of us did it, anyway. That means, at bare minimum, one in four Americans both claims to be opposed to premarital sex but had—or is having—premarital sex.
Are they hypocrites? Some, probably. Certainly a lot of religious conservatives who wax on about “abstinence only” while partaking themselves are just old-fashioned hypocrites. But for most people, the reason they say one thing and do another is more complex than that. You can’t really tell much about how someone feels about a behavior just because they deem it “morally wrong.” Most of us do things we’d probably tell a pollster is “morally wrong”—lying, holding grudges, being unfair, overindulging on food or alcohol—but we’re not laying awake at night, wracked with guilt. The moral condemnation of these behaviors is treated more as checks on excess, more than moral absolutes.
I suspect a significant number of people feel this way about some sexual “rules.” You may tell a pollster that hooking up with someone you have no intentions of a longterm relationship with is wrong, but turn around and do it yourself, figuring it’s okay as long as you don’t make a habit of it. Or hell, the fact that it’s immoral is, for a lot of people, half the reason to do the thing. You don’t have to be a recovering Catholic to know that a lot of people have eroticized sexual guilt. The idea that a hookup is “naughty” is probably half the fun for a lot of people.
Because of this, I have to disagree with Green’s conclusion that Millennials are a mash of liberal and conservative on sexual matters. They seem pretty liberal to me. Yes, most of them view marriage positively, but a huge part of that is likely due to marriage’s changing role in American society. Nowadays, it’s common for couples to get married after dating and living together for a long time, often years. The institution is no longer about corralling human sexuality and few people expect brides to be virgins. Weddings used to be seen as the start of a couple’s life together, but now most couples live together before marrying. The wedding is now seen in most circles as a celebration of an already existing commitment, to the point where it’s become normal for many couples to include their children and even pets in the ceremony.
Even the way the “hookup” question was posed suggests how flexible and liberal millennials are. Respondents were asked to judge “sex between two adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship.” But even most of what is understood as “hookup culture” falls outside of that. Hooking up with an upfront expectation that nothing longterm is possible isn’t all that common. More common is people going into a hookup feeling like it’s okay if it’s just this one time, but also open to the possibility that something more will develop. In contrast, only 25 percent of Millennials opposed living together without intending to get married, suggesting that a huge chunk of respondents were mostly turned off by the idea of people who are shut down to the possibility of love.
Certainly, there was a huge chunk of respondents who are out-and-out conservative, but this isn’t a big surprise. While generational change matters, so do things like family, geography, culture and religion. It would have been more surprising if Millennials rejected, en masse, all of the sexual rules and hang-ups that ruled previous generations. But this research shows a substantive march to the left, confirmed by other intergenerational data, on sexual issues, and an overall move towards an attitude of tolerance for difference and flexibility within their own lives.
Lead photo: Olafs Osh on Flickr
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.