saving themselves for marriage?
i present a little attitudinal data on sexual norms while discussing surveys and response biases in my deviance class. it can be instructive to first ask the class each question before clicking to reveal the answer (survey says!) in my lecture slides. their estimates -- and group differences in such estimates by gender, race, and background -- can be revealing.
college students, of course, are much more sexually tolerant than the average american. if i'm reporting data from a representative sample of adults, such as the national health and social life survey, i remind them that grandma and grandpa complete surveys too. my class guesses fairly accurately about national attitudes on items such as premarital sex is always wrong (about 20% agreed or strongly agreed in 1992), they guess lower than the survey estimate of 65% on the same-gender sex is always wrong item, and they get pretty close on the women should be able to obtain an abortion indicators (88% if raped, 52% for any reason).
but my students are waaaaaaay off on one item: I would not have sex with someone unless I was in love with them. most guess that about 10 or 20 percent would agree or strongly agree with this statement. in the 1992 national health and social life survey, however, 66 percent of americans agreed or strongly agreed (the later chicago health and social life estimate was about 60 percent). the students were amazed and astonished. when they asked, "but what about hookups?" i replied that maybe grandma didn't have so many hookups. or maybe, i suppose, she just didn't approve of the many, many hookups that she had.
i panicked after this lecture last year, worrying that my students wouldn't experience romantic love at all. since i usually play music before class, i tried subjecting them to all manner of too-sweet love songs -- from al green to frank sinatra to jill scott. but this year i've changed my view. i was lamenting what i saw as a lost connection between sex and love, but i now appreciate the profound generational differences in the usage and meaning of the latter term.
i confess that i haven't read much of this literature, but my observations suggest that few 20-year-olds would toss off a casual "i love you." part of this might be due to generational cynicism, youthful ironic distance, and stephen colbert. but something else is at work as well. my students just might, in fact, take love more seriously than their parents or grandparents. in a real sense, they might even be saving themselves for marriage.