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marriage matters
Is the Taboo Against Adultery Breaking Down?

Since the 1970s, according to most polls, Americans have grown steadily more tolerant of pre-marital sex, divorce, birth control, and homosexuality, even as they have grown more and more intolerant of adultery. The trend is so robust that, in 2013, the Atlantic declared marital infidelity to be “America’s last sexual taboo.” It seemed that the norms against most consensual sexual behaviors were being swept aside in the wake of the sexual revolution, but but the norm against defying one’s marriage vows remained as strong as ever.

But recent data from the General Social Survey—compiled here by Paul Hemez of Bowling Green State University—raises questions about whether even “the last taboo” is starting to falter. According to Hemez, the share of Americans who said “marital infidelity is always wrong” climbed steadily from 1973 to 2008, but fell back down to 1994 levels in 2015.

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As would be expected, the survey shows variation by age and education level. Millennials (at 75 percent) are least likely to strongly disapprove of adultery, while Gen-Xers, (at 82 percent) are most likely. People without a high school degree are most conservative, at 85 percent disapproval. People with a college degree or higher are most permissive, with only 73 percent saying that infidelity is always wrong.

To be clear, there is not nearly enough evidence to think that attitudes towards adultery will follow the trajectory of other sexual taboos. It has for decades stood out as an exception to our culture’s increasingly libertarian attitude toward sexual issues. A Pew poll from last year showed almost no change in attitudes toward extramarital affairs between 2001 and 2015 (although support for polygamy, adultery’s not-so-distant cousin, doubled over the same period).

Sexual attitudes can change with extraordinary speed. It seems unlikely that adultery will ever become fully sanctioned and celebrated, but it’s also not impossible that norms against it will break down around the edges, with the expectation of marital monogamy diminished. Here’s hoping that doesn’t come to pass, and that the end of the last taboo isn’t just the last shoe to drop in the sexual revolution.

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  • Fat_Man

    I am going to call BS on this one. People answering survey questions tells us very little about what they think, because the communications gap between question writers and question answers is so large and the contamination produced by the social interaction between the questioner and the answerer is so strong. Polling tells us even less about what people really do. Marital relationships are so opaque to the outside world in particular that I cannot begin to think how to research this issue on the basis of actual behavior not the mushroom food given to survey takers.

    • Jim__L

      It matters how you phrase the question too. For example, when you ask “Is adultery wrong if you’re married to Hillary Clinton?”, the answers probably skew towards “No”. Then again, if you ask “Is adultery wrong if you’re cheating with Monica Lewinsky?”, that probably biases the answers towards “Yes”. (As opposed to, say, “Is adultery wrong when you’re cheating with Marylin Monroe?”)

      You’re right, the human factor has to be taken into account. Humans are what they are, good and bad.

  • Beauceron

    Look, the traditional elements that have formed the foundations of Western society have been under assault for decades by the Left.
    The Left has been smart, daring, and utterly ruthless in the prosecution of its movement– the goal of which is the destruction of Western society and culture.
    They are winning and, in my opinion, are on the cusp now of permanent control which will lead to inevitable victory across the board. The forced changing of the demographics was the brilliant stroke. Attitudes towards marriage or crime or race or public policy as a whole can change pretty easily. The push towards the tribalism and identity politics that power the Left led them to bringing in tens of millions of people to undercut the culture and politics of the population– and that can never ever be undone. It’s permanent. It leaves traditionalists in the West without anything to stand on. You can no longer lean on “Judeo-Christian tradition” when your country has a large muslim minority that never had those traditions in the first place. You cannot look back to the intentions of the Founders when a majority of the people in your country have no affinity for the culture from which the founders sprang– in fact hate the culture.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s not the sex that’s the big problem with this one. It’s breaking peoples’ hearts, including one’s own, putting children and other relatives into unstable dramas and usually making a financial as well as emotional mess. The polling on this is silly. Most people don’t need to be asked what is wrong with adultery—–they need to be told. There is a good long list of excellent reasons not to become involved with other people’s wives and husbands.

    • Jim__L

      That’s just it — the Sexual Revolution is all about trying to remove all context from sex.

      Once you start thinking about the implications of sex not just as an encounter, but as part of the trajectory of your life (and others), the whole philosophical support structure of the Sexual Revolution crumbles… and the rational structure that starts to take shape looks a whole lot like traditional Christian teachings on the subject.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Whomever from the Sexual Revolution advocated messing with other people’s wives and husbands would be an idiot. I’m not against Christian teachings against adultery. It so happens there are lots of good secular arguments against it too.

        • Jim__L

          FG, the Sexual Revolution is all about celebrating sex as a transcendent good no matter what the circumstances.

          If you don’t think that that’s what the Millennials took from it, you’re fooling yourself.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Did you know that I was married at 20, am still married to the same woman at 64, have not messed with any other women, and am not a peddler of the “Sexual Revolution”?

          • Jim__L

            The content of your posts persuades otherwise.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Jim, if you can’t do any better than call me a liar on a personal level—-get away from me. Buzz off. Scram. You’re a pain in the ass and you’re never going to be anything else.

          • Jim__L

            I think you’re lying to yourself, first and foremost.

          • FriendlyGoat

            “First and foremost” you have proven yourself to be the permanent pain I called you—–in person and to me. That’s the point. I seriously, seriously no longer care what you “think” and would prefer you just “reply” to other people, not to me.

        • Jim__L

          “Just be happy and mess around with whomever you’re with at the time”, if their wives are off on business trips, say. I am not picking that example at random. Honestly, this is where the Sexual Revolution leads. There is no other place it goes.

          Don’t use the word “secular” — use the term “wise”. “Secular” reasoning doesn’t own wisdom. In fact, secular reasoning tears apart the foundation upon which wisdom is shared.

          God gave us the Law for a reason — because it leads best to human thriving, and following it means we avoid a whole lot of the avoidable problems that we can have in this life.

          Even if you don’t understand — if you’re too young, or too hormone-crazed, or if conventional wisdom is against it — you can still simply follow, and you’ll get the advantages, whether you understand them or not.

          This is what secularism and the Sexual Revolution takes away from people, especially the poor.

          We will re-learn these lessons amidst horrible pain. The Law will turn out to have been right all along.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I’m not arguing against the church view of adultery. It is fine for every church person to agree not to do it because the Bible says not to do it. For everyone else, you don’t do it because it is almost guaranteed to hurt many people badly in all kinds of ways. If I make some dude mad enough to shoot me over a woman he is married to, aside from myself getting shot, how badly did I screw up his life—-and for what? There are lots of angles—–all of them bad.

        • Joe H.

          I have eight friends who are married, and I’ve banged four of their wives…. working on the 5th…. might happen before Halloween..

  • Evan Seitchik

    I am at a loss to understand how the author came to the conclusion in the headline from the graph that they included.

    The taboo against adultery has been increasing since the seventies and has been essentially flat since 1994. Extracting some kind of trend from the single down-tick in 2014 is misguided. The overall shift doesn’t even mesh with the “conservative” narrative presented, i.e. that we cared more about adultery in the good old days and that our virtues are slipping.

    Instead, it suggests if anything that Gen X is more stringent than baby boomers on this issue. What are we supposed to make of that? A moral surge in America in the last 40 years?

  • http://www.quora.com/Richard-Treitel/answers Richard T

    Adultery isn’t viewed with disapproval because it involves sex, but because it involves breaking a solemn promise. Were it not so, extra-martial sex would be viewed in much the same way as pre-marital sex, and it would have been that way for decades (or centuries). Anyway, Evan S. is right.

    One of the things I like abut TAI is that the content is serious rather than something one might find in /People/. Please?

    • Jim__L

      The prevalence of no-fault divorce argues against that conclusion.

  • gabrielsyme

    Welcome to deep decadence and the decline of a civilization. The GSS is a massive survey – and a 5% drop is extremely significant in this time period, especially as this hasn’t been the subject of much popular or political argumentation. Essentially what we are seeing is libertinism bleeding over from the same-sex marriage debate. Many homosexual activists warned that they meant not to adopt traditional marriage norms, but destroy them from the inside. This is partial evidence that they are making progress on that measure.

    • Jim__L

      And this is why same-sex “marriage” is bad for real marriage.

  • Josephbleau

    Let everyone be adulterous, none monogomous. “If I can’t have it, burn it down.” (BLM, 2016.)

  • Matt B

    Marriage rates have declined over the same period that the disapproval of infidelity has increased. So increasingly people’s opinions about marriage are outsiders’ expectations about an institution in which they do not participate.

  • Joe H.

    I just signed up for the new Ashley Madison website… time to get me some discreet married poooon-tannngg…. yeah baby!

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