Premarital Sex


We would all agree that the moral code regarding premarital sex has changed from the turn of the century, and even from a generation ago.  But has behavior changed?  If so, how much has it changed?  Why has it changed?


Historical Trends:

% OF FIRST BIRTHS OCCURRING WITHIN 9 MONTHS OF BEING MARRIED
NINE NEW ENGLAND TOWNS 
Year
%
BEFORE 1701
11.1%
1701-1760 23.3%
1761-1800 33.7%
1801-1840 25.1%
1841-1880 15.5%

Look at this chart.  This type of evidence is the best available to address the issue of changes in premarital sexual behavior over time.  There were no surveys of sexual behavior prior to the mid-20th century.  Look at the measure of "premarital sex" being used here.  Is it a good one?  Certainly not the best.  But can data like this tell us anything about trends in prevalence of premarital sex?  Can anyone see "trends" in the data?

I think the major, perhaps only, conclusion we can reach from this data is that changes in prevalence rates have occurred over time.  This conclusion is also confirmed by European research.  Apparently, there have been times in the past during which premarital sex was quite common, and times when it was much less frequent.  This finding should give us some "pause" before we label the present time as being a "revolutionary" one during which for the first time in history premarital sex became a common occurrence.  This is simply not true.



 

Early 20th Century Trends:

Premarital Sex, American Females
Alfred Kinsey's Findings, 1937-1956
BORN BEFORE 1900 73% NO PREMARITAL SEX 
BORN 1900-1930 49% NO PREMARITAL SEX
(BY AGE 20:  20% HAD EXPERIENCED INTERCOURSE)

Alfred Kinsey was a zoologist who became interested in human sexual behavior.  He began interviewing individuals about their sexual behavior in 1937.  By 1948 he and his colleagues, Pomeroy and Martin, had interviewed 12,000 people; by 1956, 18,000 people.  Let me make a few points about Kinsey's work:
 

Well, what did Kinsey discover about premarital sexual behavior?  He uncovered a revolution in behavior that occurred among your great-grandmothers.  1915 to 1920 was a period of significant change in premarital sexual behavior.  In the interval after WW1 through the 1950s the incidence rates of premarital sex remained stable.  Why this early sexual revolution?


 

The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s & 1970s:

 
PERCENTAGE OF NEVER-MARRIED WOMEN AGED 15-19 WHO EVER HAD INTERCOURSE, BY RACE, UNITED STATES, 1979, 1976, AND 1971
(ZELNICK AND KANTNER STUDIES)
AGE
 
1979
 
1976
 
1971


Total  White  Black
Total  White  Black 
Total  White  Black
15
22.5% 18.3% 41.4%
18.6% 13.8% 38.9%
14.4% 11.3% 31.2%
16
37.8% 35.4% 50.4%
28.9% 23.7% 55.1%
20.9% 17% 44.4%
17
48.5% 44.1% 73.3%
42.9% 36.1% 71%
26.1% 20.2% 58.9%
18
56.9% 52.6% 76.3%
51.4% 46% 76.2%
39.7% 35.6% 60.2%
19
69% 64.9% 88.5%
59.5% 53.6% 83.9%
46.4% 40.7% 78.3%













MALES 
17
55.7% 51.5% 60.3%
18
66% 63.6% 70.8%
19
77.5% 77.1% 79.9%

What do Zelnick and Kantner's studies tell us? These were nation-wide random sample surveys.  Obviously, real changes in premarital sexual behavior occurred during the 1970s.  Zelnick and Kantner's three surveys caught this sexual revolution right when it was happening.  Our best estimate is that this recent period of rapid and significant change began about 1965.

Why do you think this recent change in premarital sexual behavior occurred during the mid-1960s - 1970s?  What other trends can you seen in the Zelnick/Kantner data?  Any racial differences and trends?
 
 

Did these racial differences "narrow" from 1971 to 1979?


 
 
 

During an eight year period the percent of 15 year-olds who ever had intercourse increased from 14.4% to 22.5% while the percent of 19 year-olds increased from 46.4% to 69%.  Consequences flowed from this increase. In 1971 about 9% of women aged 15 to 19 became pregnant while in 1979 16% became pregnant.  This happened even though the use contraception increased. Among premaritally pregnant teenagers the proportion who married before the birth of the child fell sharply from 33% in 1971 to 16% in 1979 while the proportion that terminated their pregnancy rose from 23% in 1971 to 37% in 1979.  All these changes marked a decisive break from past practice, and all were very disturbing to social conservatives. 

There is evidence that this "liberalization" trend ended by the early to mid-1980s, and there even might have been some declines in the prevalence of premarital sex since then.


1992 National Health and Social Life Survey:

Changes in the First Experience of Intercourse


Some of the survey's findings relating to premarital sex:
 

Here are some of the survey's findings regarding males and female differences in their first experience of intercourse:
 




















Recent Findings Regarding Premarital Sex:

Youth Risk Behavior Survey:  Teen Sex 1991-2011

Beginning in 1990, as part of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started conducting national school-based Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011).  These are large surveys that generally survey more than 16,000 students in over 150 high schools throughout the nation. These data on sexual activity are summarized from these Youth Risk Behavior Surveys


  




The news is that there has been a bit of a decline in the percent of high school students who have ever been sexual active. There is also some very good news -- which might indicate that sex education might be working -- condom use has increased dramatically.  Among high school students who are sexually active, condom use has increased from 46.7% to  61.5% over a 16 year period.  The recent slight decline in condom use, however, has raised some concern about the direction of this trend..

Go to the Center for Disease Control and find out more about the Youth Risk Behavior Survey 



National Survey of Family Growth Data on Premarital Sex, 1988 to 2002

There is additional evidence of a decline in teenage sexual activity from the National Survey of Family Growth 2002 (NSFG) and the 2002 National Survey of Adolescent Males .  Interviews were conducted with 7,643 females, 1,150 of whom were teenagers, and 4,928 males, 1,121 of whom were teenagers. These data can be compared with data collected in the 1988 and 1995 NSFGs, and from the 1988 and 1995 National Survey of Adolescent Males.  They present an interesting time series.  Look at the Male Chart.  It shows a very dramatic decline in the % of teenage males who have ever had intercourse, especially from 1995 to 2002 -- a drop of 18.2 percentage points for 19 year old males.  The declines are less significant for females.  In fact, the Male/Female Comparison Chart shows that by 2002 a higher percentage of 19 year old females had experience intercourse than 19 year old males.  Does this mark the end of the double standard?

Males
Male

Females
Female

Male/Female Comparison
Comp

Read the entire report:  "Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2002"
Vital and Health Statistics,
Series 23, No. 24 (December 2004)
The data used in the above charts can be found in Table 3, Page 18.