Half of American Christians say casual sex is sometimes or always okay
Many Christian traditions frown on premarital sex. And although Christians in the United States have less permissive views than Americans without religious affiliation about dating and sex, most say it’s okay in at least some circumstances for consenting adults to have sex. outside of marriage, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Half of Christians say casual sex – defined in the survey as sex between consenting adults who are not in a committed romantic relationship – is sometimes or always okay. Six in ten Catholics (62%) agree, as do 56% of historically Black Protestants, 54% of Mainline Protestants and 36% of Evangelical Protestants.
Among those who are not affiliated with a religion, the vast majority (84%) say casual sex is sometimes or always okay, including around nine in ten atheists (94%) and agnostics (95%) who say this . The religiously unaffiliated, also called “nones”, are those who describe themselves, religiously, as atheists, agnostics or as “nothing in particular”.
The Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to better understand how Americans affiliated with a religion and Americans who are not religiously affiliated differ in their attitudes toward certain sexual and dating behaviors. The analysis also explores how the attitudes of Americans who attend church services regularly differ from those who attend less often.
These results are based on a survey conducted October 16-28, 2019 among 3,998 American adults. This includes those who participated as members of the Pew Research Center American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited by national random sampling of residential addresses. That way, almost all American adults have a chance at selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the adult United States population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education, and other categories. For more information, consult the ATP methodology and the methodology for this analysis.
The sample size of the 3,998 survey was not large enough to analyze responses from Jews, Muslims, and adults from other non-Christian religious groups.
The questions used for this analysis can be found here.
The survey did not ask respondents whether they themselves would engage in one of these practices. Instead, the questions asked if they found the practices acceptable “regardless if you would do it yourself”.
When it comes to sex between unmarried adults who are in a committed relationship, the gap between Christians and the unaffiliated is less marked. A majority of Christians (57%) say that sex between single adults in a committed relationship is sometimes or always okay. This includes 67% of mainline Protestants, 64% of Catholics, 57% of historically Black Protestants, and 46% of Evangelical Protestants.
Eight in ten Americans who are not affiliated with a religion (79%) say that sex between unmarried adults in a committed relationship is sometimes or always okay.
There is less acceptance among Christians – and Americans in general – of a range of other sexual and dating practices interviewed in the survey, such as: having sex on a first date , share sexually explicit photos with other consenting adults, and have an open relationship (defined as a committed relationship where both people agree that it is okay to go out or have sex with other people).
Evangelical Protestants are less likely than most other Christian groups in this analysis to find these practices acceptable.
For example, just over a third of Christians in the United States say that it is sometimes or always acceptable for two consenting adults to exchange sexually explicit images of themselves. Three in ten Evangelical Protestants share this view, as do four in ten Catholics and Protestants in the mainstream and historically Black Protestant traditions.
Seven in ten Americans with no religious affiliation say it’s sometimes or always okay for two consenting adults to exchange sexually explicit images of themselves.
How often Americans attend church services is another factor in how they answered questions. Those who said before the coronavirus outbreak that they generally attended monthly or more are less likely than others to approve of the sexual and dating practices interviewed in the survey.
For example, just under half (46%) of American adults who attend services at least once a month say that single adult sex in a committed relationship is sometimes or always okay, compared to three-quarters ( 74%) of those who go less often. And about one-third (35%) of those who attend church services at least once a month say casual sex is sometimes or always okay, compared to three-quarters (75%) of those who attend less frequently.
Additionally, 12% of those who attend church services at least once a month say it’s always or sometimes okay to have sex on a first date, compared to 38% who attend less once a month.
Age can also play a role in how Americans think about these issues. Young adults more often identify themselves as without religious affiliation than older Americans, and young adults are also more likely than older adults to say all of these dating practices are acceptable.