Despite frequent handwringing about all of the casual sex that millennials are having and the perils of hook-up culture, a recently released survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reveals that millennials actually are more willing to engage in critical thinking concerning the ethics of sexual situations. Compared to previous generations, the report finds that millennials overall are less judgmental about the sexual choices of others, more likely to be accepting of same-sex couples and marriages, more willing to recognize the discrimination faced by transgender individuals, and more in favor of making contraception readily available. However, on the issues of sexual education and abortion, the attitudes of millennials vary widely between different religious groups.
As the PRRI survey notes, millennials are more likely than previous generations to identify as nonreligious. One-third of millennials in the US, as compared to 21 percent of the general population, are not affiliated with any religious tradition. Ironically, nonreligion was actually the most common religious identity of the individuals surveyed. This tendency of younger people to think for themselves about ethics, including sexual ethics, may explain why millennials in general tend to be more open-minded about issues concerning sexuality and gender.
For instance, the vast majority (75 percent) of millennials favor comprehensive sex education in schools, though 23 percent also reported that they themselves received no sexed in schools. (Not so startling, however, is that nearly a third of young adults who had no sex-ed attended religious schools.) Millennials, in general, are also likely to see the inefficacy of abstinence-only “education.” Sixty-seven percent told PRRI that they support classes emphasizing safe sex practices and birth control. The only demographic group that differed significantly in this assessment of sexual education was evangelical Protestants. Of millennials who were classified as evangelical Protestants, 40 percent thought that sex-ed should only teach abstinence, and 8 percent reported that sex-ed classes should teach about both abstinence and safe sex. Clearly, there is a wide disparity in attitudes concerning sexual education between millennials in general and millennials who identify as evangelical Protestants.
This disparity is also seen in millennials’ attitudes toward abortion. Nearly 80 percent of millennials who identified as having no religion were overwhelmingly in favor of abortion being legal in all or most circumstances. Even certain demographics of religious millennials were in favor of legal abortion, with 61 percent of black mainline Protestants and 63 percent of white mainline Protestants agreeing with unaffiliated millennials. However, white Catholics (49 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (80 percent) take the opposite view and believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances. When it comes to attitudes concerning a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy, religion or lack thereof plays a clear role in millennial’s outlooks.
Given the clear divide between the perspectives of nonreligious millennials and moderately religious millennials compared to the stances of conservative Christian millennials on issues of sexual education and abortion, the culture wars surrounding sex are probably far from over. We can’t yet know how millennials’ attitudes on these topics will play out in the cultural or political spheres, but given the open-mindedness of millennials in general toward sexual issues, especially same-sex marriage, the future could be promising, especially for the LGBTQ community. However, based on the statistics provided in the PRRI report, the fight for legal, safe, and accessible abortions and the battle for comprehensive sex-ed are far from over. Humanists will need to continue defending these rights from fundamentalist Christians wishing to legislate their morality.