Attitudes On Sex And Marriage

Special Report - November 23, 2010

Despite increased rates of illegitimacy, divorced and single parents, and the perception that marriage is “becoming obsolete,” huge majorities of Americans continue to believe that family structures other than married parents increase the challenges children face while growing up, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center and TIME magazine. The survey, “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families,” released November 18, looked at marital rates by age and education level, as well as surveyed participants on their view of relationships and families. The survey found that opinions on the acceptability of sex outside of marriage have also changed drastically, as have the percentage of children born out of wedlock. The survey found that:

  • The percentage of respondents who agree that “Premarital sex is wrong” has been cut by more than half to 32 percent in 2009 from 68 percent in 1969.
  • Respondents were nearly three times as likely (60 percent) to agree in 2009 that “Premarital sex is not wrong” as opposed to respondents in 1969 (21 percent).
  • The percentage of children born to unmarried women increased more than eight-fold to 41 percent in 2008 from 5 percent in 1960.
  • Black children were the most likely to be born out of wedlock—72 percent in 2008, compared to 28 percent in 1970.
  • Illegitimate births increased at the fastest rate among whites, though, with the percentage of white children born to unmarried women rising from 2 percent in 1960 to 29 percent in 2008.

Americans did indicate concern for the increased challenges faced by children who are not raised by a married mother and father, especially those raised in single, divorced, or homosexual households. Sixty-one percent of Americans still believe that children need “both a mother and a father to grow up happily.” More than three-fourths (78 percent) of respondents indicated that they believe children of single parents face more challenges than their peers. An even higher percentage of respondents (79 percent) believe that children of homosexual couples face more challenges than their peers. However, fully eight out of 10 respondents indicated their belief that children of divorce face greater challenges growing up.

Additionally, the survey found that:

  • The percentage of Americans in their twenties who were married in 2008 (26 percent) was less than half the percentage in 1960 (68 percent).
  • The percentage of never married adults nearly doubled from 15 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2008.
  • The percentage of all adults who were married dropped 20 percentage points from 72 percent in 1960 to 52 percent in 2008.
  • The percentage of divorced adults has nearly tripled from 5 percent in 1960 to 14 percent in 2008.
  • Forty-four percent of all adults have cohabitated at some point in their lives.

According to the survey, marriage “remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.” When differentiating based on level of education, the survey found that:

  • Marriage among the college educated dropped from 76 percent in 1960 to 64 percent in 2008.
  • Marriage among those with a high school degree or less dropped from 72 percent in 1960 to 48 percent in 2008.
  • The gap in marriage rates between the more highly educated and the lowest educated jumped from only four percentage points in 1960 to 16 points in 2008.

Strikingly, nearly 40 percent of Americans believe marriage is “becoming obsolete,” while 58 percent of Americans disagree with that assessment. This is compared to 28 percent of Americans holding the same pessimistic view of marriage in 1960. Cohabiting parents are much more likely to agree that marriage is becoming obsolete—62 percent. Still, two-thirds of respondents are optimistic about “the institution of marriage and the family.” This number is much higher than the percentage of respondents who are optimistic about our education system (50 percent), the long-term economy (46 percent), and “moral and ethical standards” (41 percent).

When it comes to families, Americans consider a variety of relationships both with and without children to constitute a family. Children are an important component of whether or not an unmarried relationship is considered a family. Unmarried couples without children are considered a family by fewer than half of Americans—45 percent for same-sex couples and 43 for unmarried couples. A majority of respondents consider the following households to constitute a family:

  • A married couple with children (99 percent)
  • A married couple without children (88 percent)
  • A single parent with children (86 percent)
  • An unmarried couple with children (80 percent)
  • A same-sex couple with children (63 percent)

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council pointed out the discrepancy in some media reporting of the survey results. “According to the study, only five percent of Americans under age 30 do not plan on marrying. This doesn’t sound like ‘the end of marriage,’ as some are claiming the survey indicates,” Perkins said in a press release. He also emphasized the importance of families, recognizing that “It’s not surprising that most people consider single parents or cohabiting couples who are raising their own children to be families. The question is whether they are the kind of families we should seek or, as a society, should foster and encourage.” He went on, “The research is still clear—married husbands and wives, and their children, are happier, healthier, and more prosperous than people in any other household settings. Time Magazine’s Belinda Luscombe gets it right in the end when she says that ‘marriage is still the best avenue most people have for making their dreams come true.’”.

Related resources:
Census Report Examines Cohabitation - November 9, 2010
Study Shows College Marriage Gap - October 22, 2010
Most Children Live With Parents - July 27, 2010
Characteristics of Cohabiting Adults Studied - July 16, 2009
The Benefits of Marriage - FNC - Nov/Dec, 2008
Married and Healthy - FNC - Nov/Dec, 2008
Report Analyzes Cohabitation Effects - June 23, 2008
Landmark Study Estimates Costs of Family Fragmentation - April 16, 2008
Traditional Family Still the Majority - February 27, 2008
How Cohabitation Undermines Marriage and the Family - Findings - June 2005

Copyright © 2010. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.

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