America’s sexual revolution greatly affected young people, with young women especially becoming more permissive in their attitudes and behaviors in the past 50 years, a study shows.
A sixfold increase in young women’s approval of premarital sex “was the biggest change,” said Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and co-author of the study in the current issue of the American Psychological Association’s Review of General Psychology.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, young women’s approval of premarital sex rose from 12 percent to 73 percent. Among young men, such approval rose from 40 percent to 79 percent.
Other dramatic changes included a drop in average age of young women’s first sexual-intercourse experience from 19 to 15, a rise in oral sex and a decline in “feelings of guilt” about such activities.
James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, said the study shows that government support for abstinence programs is “clueless.”
“If the average age of puberty is around 12 and the average age of marriage is 26 and close to 80 percent of young people approve of premarital sex … we have to get away from the political fantasy of abstinence-only [education] and start to zero in on reality,” Mr. Wagoner said.
But Charlotte Hays, senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), said her group is “making progress” with messages about how young women don’t have to settle for casual sex.
The IWF has performed “groundbreaking” work on the perils of sexual hookups and has received a lot of positive feedback, especially from young women, Miss Hays said. “I think there are a lot of girls who might like to be more modest.”
Mrs. Twenge’s study, conducted with Brooke E. Wells of the City University of New York, is a meta-analysis of 530 studies on sexual attitudes and behaviors of young Americans published in scientific journals between 1943 and 1999. The studies involved 270,000 young participants, whose average age was 17.
The study found great changes in sexual attitudes and behaviors. In the 1950s, for instance, 13 percent of young women reported being sexually active. By the 1990s, this rose to 47 percent.
Young men had only “nominal increases” in sexual activity during this time, the study showed.
The percentage of youths engaging in oral sex also climbed: In 1969, about 48 percent of young men and 42 percent of young women reported having engaged in this activity. By 1993, this jumped to 72 percent of young men and 71 percent of young women.
Mrs. Twenge said data on approval of premarital sex stop at the 1980s because no studies on the issue were published in the 1990s. However, she suspects approval of premarital sex remains high among young Americans because of “a cultural shift” toward individual wishes and away from social rules.
“It’s more acceptable to say: ‘I’m going to do what’s right for me and the rules don’t apply,’” she said. “‘If it feels good, do it’ is the mantra.”