A new high: More Americans than ever say sex between teenagers is morally acceptable

A new high or a new low? America’s got a fee-vah and … it’s a little skeevy, to be honest.

They should have refined the question to specify whether they mean sex between underaged teens or all teens, as that ambiguity may be pushing the approval numbers up a bit. Are you surprised to learn that the demographic subgroup that’s most jazzed about teen sex is liberals? They’re at 60 percent in Gallup’s survey, a point higher than even the 18-29 age group, which itself includes some teenagers.

Nothing ends a long week like getting an outrage buzz on over teen promiscuity, but before we pronounce America lost, let me throw this graph at you. It’s from the CDC, published last year. Pregnancy isn’t the only social anxiety associated with teens, particularly younger teens, having sex, of course; another is that they’re participating in an activity for which they’re not emotionally prepared. But it’s surely true that pregnancy is the chief social anxiety. Teenaged parents may lack the maturity needed to properly care for their child or they may decide to solve their “problem” by aborting the baby. What makes us cringe at the culture becoming more comfortable with teen sex is the possibility that it’ll lead to *more* teen sex, which in turn will lead to more teen pregnancy. But:

Hmmm. Seems ominous — the drop in the pregnancy rate is probably due to more abortions, right? No, actually. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the teen abortion rate has also dropped steadily from its highs in the late 1980s to 2011, the last year for which they had data. In truth, modern teens are having much less sex than their forebears did even as the country’s acceptance of the practice climbs. Theories abound for why that is. Too many digital distractions? Greater awareness of the risks of STDs? A slowdown in maturation? You look at the Gallup data above and you think, “Kids are growing up too fast.” But in reality, per the last link, kids are growing up slow: “Today, the researchers say, 18-year-olds act more like 15-year-olds from previous decades.”

It’s tempting to theorize that it’s *because* teens are less promiscuous than they used to be that the culture is now more morally accepting of them having sex. I don’t buy it. I bet if you repolled Gallup’s sample and asked them whether they think teens are, in fact, having more sex now than they used to, most would say yes. That’s certainly what American entertainment implies, just as screaming headlines about horrific crimes have convinced many Americans that the crime rate is soaring. It isn’t. Moral perception and moral reality are often two different things.

There’s no denying, though, that Americans have become generally more morally permissive than they used to be. If you doubt that, take a peek at the various other polls Gallup has published over the last 10 days on changing moral standards. Is gambling moral? Yep. Marijuana and alcohol? Yep. Cloning animals? More so than in the past. Euthanasia? Big yep. The funny thing is that, as Americans become more morally permissive, they’re also becoming more dour about the state of the country’s moral values, with those who say those values are “poor” at their highest levels in 15 years. Make up your mind, America!