Pew Research Surveyed Christians’ Attitudes Toward Casual Sex

Pew Research Surveyed Christians’ Attitudes Toward Casual Sex September 4, 2020

Hi and welcome back! I promised you a palate cleanser yesterday, and here it is! See, Pew Research recently released the results of a survey they conducted about casual sex. In it, they asked people in various religious groups (including Nones and atheists) what they thought about sex. The results give us quite a lot of hope for the future. Christian leaders are losing control of their crazy-train, and as usual, it’s love in all its glorious forms that’s leading their victims right out of their grasp.

casual sex for the birds (and bees)
(Pascal Beyer.) Let’s do it! Let’s fall in love!

Surrrrrrvey SEZ..!

The survey came out just this past week: “Half of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consenting adults is sometimes or always acceptable.”

What a bombshell of a headline! They asked about 5000 adults in America all kinds of questions about sex, all of which are available right here. (Here’s a writeup about their other takeaways.)

Half of their respondents were married, with most being happily so. Interestingly, they got a lot of long-term spouses on the survey. Another 19% were partnered but not married. 31% were single, with 15% not looking for love (mostly because they had a lot going on right then).

The survey-takers asked respondents to speak generally about the situations in question, not personally. Even if they’d never do X themselves, how acceptable did they find it for people generally?

Here’s the general shakedown (link to graph here):

  • 57% of Christians said sex between unmarried partners was always or sometimes acceptable. (42%: Rarely/never.)
  • 50% of Christians said casual sex between consenting adults was always or sometimes acceptable. (50%: Rarely/never.)
  • Christians  were a lot more divided over open relationships: 18% were okay with that always or sometimes. (19% rarely; 62% never.)
  • Only 3% of Christians said sex on the first date was always fine. 16% thought it sometimes was. (27% thought it rarely was. And 54% said never.)

This survey’s already pretty surprising. But when we dive into the denominational differences between respondents’ replies, things get more interesting still.

 

The Drilldown.

I mean, it’s not revolutionary news. Once we drill down into Christian denominations, Christians fall out along lines you might expect: Catholics were surprisingly okay with most stuff, while evangelicals were the least okay with anything non-marital. That’s about how they go on most behavioral surveys.

As well, Christians who claimed to attend religious services once a month or more (which is what passes for frequent attendance these days, hilariously) were way less likely to approve of non-marital sexytimes than those who admitted they attended church less than monthly.

The real attendance figures sound downright dismal, but Christians have long fibbed about it. They do this even on anonymous surveys, and always have.

Self-reports about virtuous behavior are about as useful as a chocolate teapot, but these do tell us what Christians’ aspirational best-selves look like. In this case, their best self is someone who bravely, reliably, faithfully manages to trail into their church once a month. The aspirations are falling a lot faster and more completely than their prudishness.

Still, a Christian who aspires to that kind of attendance also tends to buy into the tribe’s party lines. That holds true in general, not just here.

Also expected: unaffiliated people (atheists, agnostics, and Nones) tended to be way more permissive than Christians.

An Interesting Proto-Defection.

general denominational breakdown
(Source. Click to embiggen.

Here’s what I found interesting regarding that Pew survey:

Evangelicals are very, very far from united on the topic of sex.

On the topic of casual sex, here’s how evangelicals replied:

  • 12%: always acceptable
  • 24%: sometimes acceptable
  • 17%: rarely acceptable
  • 47%: never acceptable

Not even half of evangelicals said that consensual casual sex was always unacceptable for others.

We find the same defection in the ranks concerning sex between two consensual adults in a committed relationship:

  • 21%: always acceptable
  • 26%: sometimes acceptable
  • 11%: rarely acceptable
  • 41%: never acceptable

Condemning and avoiding all non-marital sex has been an evangelical party line since forever ago. But on the ground, the flocks’ resolution wavers considerably.

Almost half of ’em were at least sometimes okay with the idea of sex within a committed non-marital relationship.

WOW.

And the Reality.

Remember, there ain’t much difference at all between the actual sex lives of Christians and non-Christians — even between evangelicals and those Christians outside their restrictive tribe. One 2012 paper puts it like this:

Results suggest that among married older adults, religion is largely unrelated with sexual frequency and satisfaction [. . .]

You can bet it’s the same for unmarried ones! Indeed, we recently talked about Ronald J. Sider’s 2005 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In it, he talked quite a lot about evangelicals’ general hypocrisy — and spent a lot of that time talking about their sexual hypocrisy. He just sounded so shocked and dismayed that evangelicals were really that hypocritical.

Sider included quotes from major Christian leaders like Josh McDowell saying that teens/young adults in evangelical communities were only slightly less likely to have premarital and nonmarital sex than non-evangelicals, but I suspect the true answer comes a lot closer to no positive differences at all.

However, his findings wouldn’t have surprised anybody who’s done any kind of time among evangelicals. Out of all Christians, their rules around sex are the strictest. Maybe that’s why their hypocrisy is the worst and most obvious and generally, the most harmful to others.

But if these folks took their sex rules seriously, their churches would empty within a week and their leaders would be fired en masse. So instead, they all play a little game around the topic:

They have the sexytimes, oh yes, they certainly do. But they lie about it. Oh sure, they might feel really bad about this hypocrisy. If pressed, they pathologize their desires.

But they still do it, whatever it is for them. They still seek it out. And they always have.

Living a Lie — or Breaking Free.

When authoritarian Christians pretended to fret about the state of Cardi B’s soul when “WAP” came out, she only pointedly reminded them that she’s a fervent Christian. What surprised me though was how few Christians I saw vocally defending her. You gotta think that most of her audience is also Christian, after all.

It’s like everyone felt they had to abdicate the field to the party line. And largely, they did. They handed the whole discussion to those trying their best to set the tone of the conversation that Christians will be allowed to have regarding sex. Those control-hungry mini-godlings do not have the flocks’ best interests at heart. They never did.

Thankfully, other Christians come a lot closer than those wingnuts to integrating consensual sexuality into their interpretation of the religion. These will usually be more egalitarian-minded folks in the progressive flavors. But even some evangelicals these days struggle to escape their birthright of prudishness, misogyny, and authoritarian control.

I bet the tribe’s leaders just hate these new revelations.

Reactions.

The survey’s just been out a few days, but I caught a basic and noncommittal writeup of it on that Church Leaders site. In time, we’ll probably see some impressive hand-wringing out of evangelical leaders.

I say this because I know how they felt about an earlier Pew survey that indicated fraying control over the flocks. Back in 2017, Pew discovered that Christians’ attitudes toward equal marriage weren’t anywhere near as uniformly condemning and bigoted as they had been. OMG, 35% of evangelicals approved of equal marriage (at the time)!

In response, every authoritarian Christian and their dog flipped out about this news.

Well, not their dogs. Dogs love everybody. They are far superior to evangelicals themselves. It’s a pity evangelicals had to model their religion after an apocalyptic nutjob’s mythic ravings instead of on dogs. Let’s be real: I’d at least look into a religion based around dogs. Or cats. I mean, a few million Ancient Egyptians can’t be wrong.

(I’m now sitting at my desk working out the logistics of this idea. I don’t even know how long that reverie lasted. Still, it was worth it: 10/10, would welcome our new canine and feline overlords.)

But the authoritarians, they definitely didn’t like this development. Cue the hand-wringers fretting about “this crisis of belief” about these “self-identified evangelicals” wrecking their groove. I reckon we’ll see more of that sort of retaliation in coming days regarding this new survey.

They shoulda gone with dogs. Just sayin’.

What This Could Mean.

Not only do we see some potent signs here of the breakdown of evangelical leaders’ control over the flocks, but we might be seeing the first glimmerings of awareness in the rank-and-file about their right to dictate other people’s lives for them. The survey specifically asked respondents not to answer for their own personal selves, but for society in general — people in general. In general, was X okay or not?

A sizeable percentage of evangelicals still wanted to push their unworkable religious rules on others, yes, but a lot may have recognized that other people don’t have to live by those rules. I approve completely. It’s like so many evangelicals think they can force other people to behave all the way up to their boring-ass Heaven — or disapprove at them hard enough to “convict” them of their “sins,” to use the Christianese.

Also, I wish Pew had asked why their unaffiliated respondents thought consensual sex was unacceptable for other consenting adults. The fact that Nones very specifically turned out to be more disapproving than atheists and agnostics might indicate a few tethers back to religious indoctrination. I’d love to see that possibility explored some more.

Kicking Over the Traces.

Overall, I’m actually really glad that more Christians are defying the will of their Dear Leaders here.

This shift might mean bad things ahead, sure. But I’m optimistic — a sunny sort of person. I can’t help it. To me, this survey indicates that Christians of all stripes might be slowly learning what a joke “purity culture” really is. Maybe they’re even starting to notice that there’s a big huge glaring link between purity culture and abuse: that the church leaders who drill down the hardest on gender roles and female subjugation and manly-man bro culture tend to be the ones caught in the worst scandals.

This survey also tells me that perhaps secular leaders need to talk more about consent and its importance.

So overall, this whole thing represents, to me, a good entry in our ongoing Chronicle of Evangelical Churn — and good news at that!

Love really does win!

NEXT UP: Another interesting study! This one’s about morality. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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