Agree to Disagree: Millennials Talk Sex and Morals | Sojourners

Agree to Disagree: Millennials Talk Sex and Morals

A couple holding hands. Image via Mirko Tabasevic/
A couple holding hands. Image via Mirko Tabasevic/

When it comes to consensual sexual ethics among millennials, all behaviors are on the table … if the time is right. For the same generation in which no single religious group claims more than about one in 10, there is also little clear generational consensus on sex and reproductive health, a new report finds.

“Across seven behaviors related to sexuality [including: using contraception, sex between minors, unmarried cohabitation], there were no issues for which a majority pronounced them morally wrong in general,” the report, authored by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox at the Public Religion Research Institute, states.

Millennials prove a regular source of fascination for commentators and other millennials alike. This is the generation that launched a thousand think pieces, and understandably so — in study after study, millennials consistently defy both traditional categories and expected reactive categories alike. (We’re an obstinate bunch.)

When it comes to sex, PRRI’s new release highlights what its authors call “situationalist ethics” — a flexible set of acceptable behaviors. Far from displaying a lack of moral code, the report suggests millennials embracing nebulous but durable moral through-lines that eschew the “whats” of behavior for the “hows” and “whens.” 

For example, in the case of sex between two adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship, millennials are evenly divided for and against (37 percent), with a significant number saying it depends on the situation (21 percent).

When it comes to abortion, most say it depends on the situation (39 percent), though more say it’s morally wrong than morally acceptable. Using artificial forms of birth control is by far the clearest point of agreement, with a full 71 percent saying it’s morally acceptable and another 14 percent agreeing, depending on the situation. Only 9 percent rejecting the use.

The report examines how our generation’s religious, racial, and political diversity is shaping attitudes, but it’s worth nothing how educational attainment is shaping moral frameworks, too. Much of the report’s findings reflect similar attitudes on broad categories across racial and religious lines, while noting some stark differences when broken down by educational attainment. (Not discussed in the report, but well-documented elsewhere — the crucial question of poverty and economic mobility when it comes to sexual norms.)

Support for sex education in schools and provision of all forms of contraception on college campuses, for example, cuts across all religious, racial, and ethnic groups. But support for health insurance coverage for abortions increases dramatically among those with a college degree; and those without a college degree are twice as likely to think family life suffers if women with children work full time.

A tragic point of consensus on education is the broad agreement (73 percent) that sexual assault is somewhat or very common on college campuses. 53 percent said the same for high schools, and a full 29 percent perceive sexual assault as somewhat or very common in middle schools.

In an environment where a full 25 percent of millennials report receiving no sex education in school — and a full 32 percent among religious institutions — the impact of limiting discussions about sex, sexual ethics, and reproductive health becomes tragically clear.

That millennial attitudes on many sexual behaviors are increasingly trending situational, while continuing to draw clear lines around behaviors that violate consent and respect, implies a shift, not away from a moral framework but toward a responsive and intuitive one, with significant implications for faith communities’ discussions on sexuality and reproductive health. Read the full report here

Catherine Woodiwiss, @chwoodiwiss, is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. 

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