- Deseret News - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

When it comes to the morality of sexual behaviors, millennials have more questions than answers.

How old are the people involved? Why aren’t they planning to get married? How did she get pregnant?

The instinct of today’s young people to inquire further before passing judgment is among the key findings in a new survey on millennials, sexuality and reproductive health, released last week by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

Already regularly referred to in the media as lazy, nonreligious and underemployed, Americans born between 1980 and 2000 have now been given another label by researchers: undecided on issues of sexual ethics.

“Millennials pay attention to moral issues and judge them independently. They’re not painting with a broad brush,” said Daniel Cox, director of research at PRRI.

For example, 40 percent said it was “morally acceptable” to have a child out of wedlock. Another 28 percent said it “depends on the situation,” and 27 percent said the practice was “morally wrong,” PRRI reported.

The only sexual behavior with either majority support or majority rejection was the use of artificial birth control. Seventy-one percent of millennials say it’s acceptable, said the survey, which included some 2,300 young adults.

According to sexual health experts, the millennial generation’s discomfort with taking hardline stances on abortion, casual sex and related behaviors likely stems from the way its members were raised, their diversity and their engagement with social media. Millennials might resist condemning a sexual practice because they can name friends or acquaintances who’ve done it, attaching a person to the behavior instead of a straightforward religious or moral teaching.

“They’re just generally confused about messages we’ve given them growing up about diversity, inclusion and being nice to everyone,” said Kate Ott, an assistant professor of sexual ethics at Drew University Theological School. “They ask, ‘How do I say that’s actually wrong without offending someone else?’ ”

The situation presents a unique challenge to sexual health educators, religious leaders, medical professionals and policymakers, all of whom need an understanding of millennials’ context for moral decision-making in order to influence their outlook on sexuality.

Who are millennials?

PRRI paid close attention to three aspects of diversity among millennials: race, religion and politics.

Racial and ethnic diversity is one of the defining characteristics of the generation, according to the researchers. PRRI reported that 55 percent of millennials identify as white (non-Hispanic), 21 percent as Hispanic, 13 percent as black, 6 percent as Asian-Pacific Islander and 4 percent as mixed-race. By comparison, among Americans ages 65 and older, 82 percent are white.

In terms of religion, millennials are most notable for their lack of formal affiliation. One-third do not claim membership in a religious denomination, PRRI reported. The next-largest religious groups with which millennials affiliate are white evangelical Protestants (11 percent), white mainline Protestants (10 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (10 percent).

The generation also encompasses a unique balance of political views. According to PRRI, “roughly equal numbers of millennials identify as conservative (30 percent), moderate (30 percent) and liberal (33 percent).”

The ability to recognize and respect a diversity of opinions is one of “the hallmarks of the generation,” Mr. Cox said. “They see that the people around them look, act, feel and think a little differently.”

Millennials and morality

Likely as a result of the diversity of their generation overall and the diversity of opinions available online on sexuality issues, millennials often prefer to consider the situation of the people participating in a sexual behavior before judging its morality, rather than sticking to set-in-stone ethical guidelines, said Mr. Cox and other sexual ethics researchers.

“They’re thinking about people’s lifestyles and choices” when they consider the morality of certain sexual behaviors, said Tina Hoff, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s health communication and media partnerships program and panelist at PRRI’s survey release. “They’re looking at these issues in the context of relationships … rather than as black-and-white concepts.”

This affinity for “situationalist ethics” was illustrated by PRRI’s survey. “In fact, across seven behaviors related to sexuality, there were no issues for which a majority pronounced them morally wrong in general,” according to researchers.

PRRI examined millennial views on artificial forms of birth control, cohabitation without the intention of getting married, having a child out of wedlock, abortion, casual sex, gay or lesbian sex and sex between two people under the age of 18.

The only sexual behavior for which “morally wrong” responses (41 percent) outranked both the view that it’s “morally acceptable” (24 percent) or that it “depends on the situation” (29 percent) was sex between two minors.

Ms. Ott said there are likely interesting links between millennials’ comfort with moral “gray areas” and their upbringing in the “everyone gets a trophy for participation” era. In other words, they were raised to focus on cooperation, rather than separation.

Many millennials think “that being politically correct means that everybody gets to be right,” she said. “They seem to say, ‘You believe what you want to believe and I’ll believe what I want to believe, as long as there’s space for us both.’ ”

However, Ms. Ott added that a resistance to taking hardline ethical stances on issues of sexuality shouldn’t be confused with having no moral grounding. Millennials are an active generation when it comes to grassroots social and political campaigns, she said, noting that they seem comfortable living out their own values without attacking others.

Millennials and sexual health

Surveying millennials on issues of sexuality and reproductive health helps predict how the political landscape will change as the generation ages, Mr. Cox said. He highlighted the case of contraception, which seven in 10 millennials view as morally acceptable, according to PRRI.

Unlike older Americans, who continue to fervently debate women’s rights to access birth control and how contraception coverage should fit in a company’s health care coverage, millennials seem pretty settled about these issues and ready to turn to other sexuality-related debates, he said.

The research also presents millennial views on sexual health more broadly, findings that can be valuable to organizations or community leaders hoping to engage young people in conversations about sexuality issues, noted panelists at PRRI’s survey release.

For example, people hoping to address millennial sexual health can see in the survey that members of the millennial generation prefer to discuss the topic with medical professionals, friends or the Internet rather than leaders like pastors or teachers.

Forty-five percent of millennials said they consult their doctors about sexual health or relationships “often” or “once in a while”, while 44 percent named their friends, 43 percent included the Internet in their list of trusted sources and 30 percent said they sought out information from their parents, PRRI reported. Only around one in 10 respondents said they discussed sexual health with a religious leader (11 percent) or teacher (10 percent).

Because of young people’s affinity for asking friends for advice or searching the Internet for pointers, sexual health organizations have to be creative about sharing resources, Ms. Hoff said.

“(Millennials’) information is only as good as where they’re getting it from,” she said. “Where some might see (millennials’ reliance on friends and the Internet) as a negative, I see an opportunity there. That’s a way we can more effectively get out information.”

Doctors and other health care providers should also pay attention to research on millennials’ information-seeking habits, said Fred Wyand, director of communications for the American Sexual Health Association, noting a Kaiser Family Foundation survey with similar results.

“This research underscores the importance of professionals getting their two cents in as well,” he said.

Mr. Wyand’s organization works closely with health organizations and parents to improve the way each group presents important sexual health information. Sexuality issues are often embarrassing to address, and the new PRRI research shows that millennials respond to awkwardness by choosing friends and the Internet as resources over parents or other community leaders, he said.

People who want to engage millennials in discussions of sexual morality or the safety of different behaviors need to focus on being approachable, Mr. Wyand said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, doctor or website, people need to get the impression” that you’re there to help.

Ms. Ott echoed Mr. Wyand in her call for religious leaders to think critically about why only 11 percent of millennials said they were a trusted source of sexual health information. If faith leaders hope to have influence over, or at least engage with, millennials’ moral grounding in the area of sexuality, they need to focus on creating healthy conversations, rather than simply “wagging their fingers,” she said.

“Our clergy members have to step up. They have to talk about these issues,” Ott said. They have to offer a conversation instead of “rule-oriented responses.”

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