When it comes to sex, America’s motto is “Do as I say, not as I do.”
New data from Gallup’s Values and Beliefs Survey shows that men and women differ in their moral attitudes toward controversial sexual subjects like pornography, extramarital affairs, and premarital sex. Most notably, 43 percent of American men over 18 morally approve of pornography but only 25 percent of women do, constituting the largest gender gap in the study.
But Americans of all genders are sexual hypocrites. For many of the major issues that Gallup tracks, American sexual behaviors are drastically at odds with American sexual beliefs. As a society, we often wag our collective fingers at porn viewers, sexually active teens, cheaters, and the promiscuous but, statistically speaking, we’re only chastising ourselves.
Americans are perhaps most two-faced about their use of pornography, especially given that less than half of men and only a quarter of women told Gallup that they condone the medium.
Even fewer admit to watching it. In 2013, Pew found that only 25 percent of men and 8 percent of women who use the Internet to watch videos admit to viewing online pornography—likely one of the most inaccurate social science statistics ever reported. The survey was conducted by phone, which is not exactly an ideal medium for discussing taboo subjects with strangers.
“[T]his may reflect a reluctance to report the behavior among some adults,” Pew noted, in an amusing bit of understatement.
Here’s what we do know about America’s relationship to porn: Domestically, porn is a $10 billion industry. Most major porn websites receive millions of unique visitors per month, with PornHub ranking as one of the top 50 websites in the U.S. by traffic. One study of American university students found that 87 percent of young men and 31 percent of young women view pornography. And in 2010, Nielsen found that 29 percent of American working adults had accessed adult websites from their work computers.
Putting these pieces together, it’s clear that American porn enthusiasts far outnumber the statistical minority of professed pornography viewers and supporters.
Gallup also found that only 40 percent of men and 34 percent of women morally accept “sex between teenagers” despite the fact that the majority of men and women do, in fact, have sex as teenagers.
In 2014, the Guttmacher Institute reported that over 50 percent of both male and female adolescents have had sex by age 18 and over 70 percent have had sex by the time they turn 20 (PDF). The average age of first intercourse in the United States is 17 years old. Either large swaths of Americans regret their teenage sexual escapades, or they’re lying to Gallup.
American men and women have particularly stark moral attitudes toward extramarital sex, which only makes the potential for hypocrisy even greater. Only 12 percent of men and 5 percent of women find “married men and women having an affair” acceptable, which is surprisingly lower than the approval of polygamy among both genders. But behind that pious veneer lies frequent infidelity.
As is the case with the consumption of pornography, it’s difficult to ascertain the precise frequency of extramarital sex but we do know that it’s far more common than our scruples would suggest. One 2003 study (PDF) from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that nearly 22 percent of men and 15 percent of women have had sex with someone other than a spouse while married. In 2007, NBC and iVillage conducted a survey of over 70,000 readers and obtained similar but slightly higher numbers: 28 percent of married men and 18 percent of women admitted to extramarital sex.
As Pew reports, extramarital affairs are generally condemned worldwide but the U.S. still seems to be uniquely moralistic about them. In fact, most major developed nations in the world are more accepting of infidelity than the U.S., including Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Spain, and Japan.
In France, a mere 47 percent of adults find extramarital affairs unacceptable, which is less an endorsement of their practice and more a reflection of a widespread refusal to think of it as “a moral issue.” In America, sex is a moral language by default; abroad, less so.
But forget extramarital sex. Americans can’t even sanction premarital sex as enthusiastically as they practice it. Gallup historical data shows that moral acceptance of “sex between an unmarried man and woman” has been on the rise for years and currently sits at 68 percent. The new 2015 data differentiates that support by gender, showing that 70 percent of men and 66 percent of women are fine with sex between singles.
This support may seem reasonably high but it’s nowhere near the 95 percent of American adults who have had sex before marriage by age 44, according to a 2007 study (PDF) in Public Health Reports. As the Guttmacher Institute notes, premarital sex is “nearly universal” among Americans. So why are over a quarter of men and over a third of women still down on the idea?
Again, adults in Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Spain, Japan, and France are all less likely than Americans to perceive premarital sex as morally unacceptable. Among these, France and Germany are the most honest, with just 6 percent of adults disapproving—much closer to a likely percentage of adults who haven’t had premarital sex. But Americans still can’t bring themselves to approve of something that nearly everyone does anyway.
All this being said, Americans’ sexual words do match up with their sexual actions in some special cases. Fifty-seven percent of men and 65 percent of women approve of having babies outside of marriage, although CDC estimates show that only 40 percent of all births are to unmarried women. Divorce rates appear to be on their way down in the 21st century while acceptance of divorce has been steadily increasing.
But these are some of the only realistic moral attitudes in a country where sexual attitudes and sexual behavior tend to be dissonant. And although this mismatch might be mystifying in and of itself, the probable reasons behind it are not: the United States has the largest population of Christians of any country and is one of the only deeply religious wealthy nations in the world. That math—like most Americans—does itself.