July 22, 2017

These are socially liberal times – as shown by massive shifts in public opinion on issues like same sex marriage and the legalisation of cannabis. But our increasingly free-and-easy attitudes don’t apply to every issue.

A case in point is extramarital sex – or adultery, if I may be so bold – on which public disapproval appears to be holding up. A fascinating article by Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the Institute for Family Studies presents the evidence:

“According to the past 30 years of the General Social Survey (GSS), three out of every four American adults aver that extramarital sex is always wrong. At the other end of the spectrum, under three percent of the population thinks extramarital sex isn’t wrong at all. The number of Americans who report actually having sex outside the bonds of matrimony has held relatively steady, at around 16 percent. Annual fluctuations have been minor, rarely exceeding more than a percentage point in either direction.”

However, when one unpicks the numbers on those admitting to extramarital sex, one finds a growing divergence between the generations – but not in the direction you might expect.

“…the broader trend has obscured startling changes: since 2000, older Americans are cheating more, while younger Americans are cheating less…

“For the first few years of the millennium, there were scant age differences. Starting after 2004, Americans over 55 began reporting rates of extramarital sex that were about five or six percentage points higher than were being offered by younger adults. By 2016, 20% of older respondents indicated that their marriages were nominally adulterous, compared to 14% for people under 55. Most married Americans remain committed to monogamy, but the mounting age difference is noteworthy and statistically significant.”

What could explain this phenomenon? Wolfinger shows that it isn’t those of advanced age driving the change, but rather people in their 50s and 60s — the “products of the sexual revolution”. While there may be some tendency for older people of whatever era to “grow bored of their marital beds”, the data is clear that “older Americans only became more sexually active outside marriage in recent years.”

Wolfinger wonders if the advent of Viagra might have some bearing on the matter – not in changing attitudes towards adultery, but in facilitating the dirty deed. However, the growing gap between the generations isn’t just explained by more infidelity among the older age groups, but less among the younger – for which Viagra surely can’t claim the credit.

One has to ask whether the baby-boomers play fast-and-loose with their marriages because they can afford to. If you have assets – especially housing assets – then divorce may be financially feasible. If on the other hand you have no property and no savings, and you and your partner can barely afford the rent between the two of you, then a split could spell financial disaster – even homelessness.

Nicholas Wolfinger’s analysis shows a big drop in extramarital sex (among the younger cohort) taking place in the second half of the last decade e.g. coinciding with the financial crisis. This also happens to be a period in which the long-term fall in teen pregnancies has accelerated.

The decline in various forms of youthful malarkey is often attributed to the distraction effect of social media. But perhaps it’s more a case of needs must.

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