Barna conducted a study with 1,000 interviews to determine what Americans think about sex. Not surprisingly, viewpoints varied among different generations, and the greatest difference in opinion was between people of faith and those without a belief system.
About half of Americans believe “choosing not to have sex outside of marriage is healthy.” However, the generations differed with most Elders (59%) in strong agreement with this statement, roughly half of Boomers (53%), a few less Gen-Xers (49%) and Millennials being the smallest percentage (43%).
Significant differences in attitudes toward sex are gender related and faith-based. The study found, “Practicing Christians (72%) are almost twice as likely as adults of no faith (38%) to say that choosing not to have sex outside marriage is a healthy choice. Women (56%) are more likely than men (43%) to hold this view. Compared to those who have never been married (41%), people who are married (53%) and, somewhat surprisingly, cohabitating adults (49%) are more likely to strongly agree with the statement.”
Barna shared the differences in attitudes toward sex outside of marriage might have to do with “confusion or ambivalence about the purpose of sex.” Elders and Boomers tend to more strongly agree with the statement that sex is for procreation, expressing intimacy, or uniting a marriage. Most Gen-Xers and Millennials believe the purpose of sex is to express intimacy and to procreate.
The general consensus for younger generations is that sex is a part of self-discovery, self-expression and self-fulfillment. With people getting married later in life than in the past, and sex being deemed a normal part of the single life, “Nearly half of younger generations say that sex is to connect with another person in an enjoyable way (44% Gen-Xers; 49% Millennials), though this sentiment is not much different from older adults.”
Those without practicing faith tend to believe sex is for connection, enjoyment and self-expression, while most Christians (69%) believe sex is to unite a man and woman in marriage. Saving sex for marriage is now “a radical” commitment. Clearly, there is a “collision of new and old attitudes about sex in society today.”
Gender differences highlight most women (69%) believe the purpose of sex is to express intimacy, while most men believe it “unites a man and woman in marriage (45% men; 39% women) or satisfies a biological need other than procreation (43% men; 36% women).”
Traditional Christian sex ethics teaches sex is meant to be between a man and a woman within the context of marriage. The study asked participants to describe their opinion of that statement. The top five words to describe the sentiment were similar for each generation, but the proportions differed. Only Millennials used the term “anti-gay” and left out “right” in their top five descriptions.
Other faiths and religions differ in their top descriptors and non-Christians feel more negatively about traditional sexual ethics.
Barna editor in chief, Roxanne Stone said, “The big story here is how little everyone agrees on when it comes to the purpose of sex. There’s never been a shortage of conversations and cultural imagination around sex, but this current lack of consensus points to a growing ambiguity and tension over its place in society and in the individual’s life.”
Stone continued, “If a significant (albeit decreasing) number of young adults still view sex as an avenue toward intimacy—then how can leaders celebrate that desire, while offering reasons to reserve that level of intimacy for marriage? The views toward the meaning of sex revealed in the research can help Christian leaders frame their conversations about sex toward the real perspectives and pain points Americans—especially young adults—are feeling toward the topic.”
How do these findings help frame your approach to conversations about sex as a leader?