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9.1: An Overview of Heterosexuality

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Explain what happened as a result of the sexual revolution.
    2. Describe current views on sexual behavior.
    3. Understand the prevalence of certain sexual behaviors today.

    Because Chapter 5 “Sexual Orientation and Inequality” discussed sexual orientation and inequality, this chapter’s discussion of sexual behavior focuses almost entirely on issues concerning heterosexual sex. To provide a backdrop for these issues, we first provide an overview of heterosexual behavior and views about such behavior.

    The Sexual Revolution: Changing Attitudes and Changing Behavior


    The youth counterculture of the 1960s emphasized that sexual intercourse need not be delayed until marriage. Their views helped fuel the so-called sexual revolution.

    Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 3.0.

    The 1960s were a time of major change in the United States. The Southern civil rights movement and Vietnam antiwar movements shook the nation, and the women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental movements began. Another major change was the sexual revolution, which saw a substantial change in many aspects of Americans’ sexual behavior and in how they thought about sex. Thanks in large part to the introduction of the birth control pill, women became freer to have sex without fear of pregnancy. The hippies of the youth counterculture of the 1960s emphasized free love, the idea that sexual intercourse and other forms of sex need not be delayed until marriage, and a popular slogan heard during the Vietnam antiwar movement was “make love, not war.” A highlight (or lowlight, depending on one’s view) of the era was the Summer of Love in 1967, when tens of thousands of young people gathered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco to do drugs, have sex, and engage in other counterculture activities. The appearance of HIV and AIDS during the 1980s reversed some of the trends of the sexual revolution, as people became more concerned about the consequences of unprotected sex, but the effects of this revolution largely remain: Many more people now have sex before marriage than before the 1960s, and views about certain sexual behaviors have become less conservative since the 1960s and 1970s (Harding & Jencks, 2003).

    We can see evidence of changing views about sex in data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been administered nationally since the early 1970s. One of the questions the GSS asks is about premarital sex: “There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” In 1972, only 27.2 percent of the public replied it was “not wrong at all,” but by 2010, this percentage almost doubled to 53.1 percent (see Figure 9.1 “Change in Views about Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital Sex Is “Not Wrong at All”)”).

    Figure 9.1 Change in Views about Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital Sex Is “Not Wrong at All”)


    Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1972 and 2010). Retrieved from

    On two other issues, extramarital sex and sex between teenagers, views have not changed from a generation ago. Very few Americans today, fewer than 5 percent, think that either type of sexual behavior is “not wrong at all,” and very few thought they were not wrong a generation ago when the GSS asked about these two behaviors. As all these trend data indicate, the sexual revolution changed certain sexual attitudes but did not affect other attitudes. In this respect, then, the sexual revolution was only partly revolutionary.

    Certain changes in sexual behavior also occurred as part of the sexual revolution. In particular, many more people began having sex before age 18 during and after the 1960s than before the 1960s and, in a related trend, to have more sexual partners before age 18 (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). We can see evidence of the former trend in national survey data reported in Table 9.1 “Percentage Who Had Heterosexual Sex before Age 18”, which shows the percentage of people born in different decades (birth cohorts) who had sex before age 18. Among women, less than one-third of those in the 1933–1942 and 1943–1952 birth cohorts (who would all have reached age 18 before the sexual revolution) had sex before age 18. These low figures jumped to 47.6 percent for those in the 1953–1962 birth cohort (who became teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s, during the sexual revolution) and then grew further to 58.2 percent in the next birth cohort. In a twenty-year span, then, women became 28.2 percent more likely (= 58.2 – 30.0) to have sex before age 18. Men, too, became more likely to have sex before age 18, though at a slightly smaller rate of increase, 18.8 percent (= 61.3 – 42.5) over the thirty-year span shown in the table. In related figures, only 30 percent of teenaged girls in 1972 were sexually experienced; by 1988, this figure had jumped to 51 percent (Martinez, Copen, & Abma, 2011). The remarkable increase in teenage sex for both females and males since the 1960s has had important repercussions down to the present, as we shall see in the section on teenage sex and pregnancy later in this chapter.

    Table 9.1 Percentage Who Had Heterosexual Sex before Age 18

    Birth cohort 1933–1942 1943–1952 1953–1962 1963–1974
    Women 32.2 30.0 47.6 58.2
    Men 42.5 47.9 56.8 61.3

    Source: Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality. (p. 328) Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.