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The "Soup of Casual Sex" or "Why the Kids Are Alright"

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Apparently the millennial generation, or at least most of them, "are just drifting in the cultural soup of casual sex," according to Jennifer Morse, nee Roback, a shill for the National Organization for [sic] Marriage. The exceptions not diving into this casual sex soup are "the religiously serious, college educated young adults [who] know what they are about. They are intentionally living a counter-cultural lifestyle."

The implications are that most young people are secular oriented hedonists and that the minority are "religiously serious." Morse is wrong that the young are just drifting in this "soup" she has concocted. But she is right about something. Larger and larger percentages of the young are openly rejecting religion.

A Pew Research Center report, Religion Among the Millennials, indicates that a post-Christian era is dawning on the United States, and it is most clear among the young. Pew looks at religious beliefs among the various generations of Americans. They break it down into the "Greatest," those born before 1928; the "Silent", born between 1928-45; "Boomers," 1946-64; "Gen X," 1965-1980; and "Millennials," born after 1981.

Only 5% of the Greatest say they have no religious affiliation. It is 8% for the Silent, 13% for Boomers, 20% for Gen X, and 26% for Millennials. While 81% of Americans, over the age of 30, say they are Christian, for those younger than that, the percentage drops 13 points to 68%. While it is now common for Americans of all ages to leave a religion and become unaffiliated, it is more common for young people to do so. Pew found that 18% of all young people, 18-29, have switched from affiliated to unaffiliated, whereas only 4% went in the other direction. For individuals over 30 years of age, 11% have left a religion behind to become unaffiliated.

The evangelically-inclined pollsters at the Barna Group found that "a new generation is more skeptical of and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age just a decade ago." The young are viewing Christianity far more negatively today than previous generations did at the same age. They found "nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative." And one thing driving this negative perception is "they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians." Of course, Morse, as a NOM operative, has been an active campaigner against equality of rights for gay people thus contributing the to very decline in religion that she laments.

But the very idea that Millennials are diving into a cultural soup of sexual hedonism is just wrong. Certainly, the Jenny Roback I knew, in both Chicago and Connecticut, was "living in sin" with her boyfriend at the time. Young people today may be more secular -- I prefer rational -- but they are also more sexually careful than the Boomers of Jenny's generation.

A National Institute for Health study finds that teens, 15-19 are relatively conservative in their sexual choices. Just over half of females said they had zero sexual partners in the previous year, while 24.2% of them said they had one sexual partner and 13.5% said they had two or more partners. The numbers were similar for males with 48.9% saying they had no partners, and 25.1% saying they had just one sexual partner. While 21% of males reported two or more partners, given the disparity between male reports and female reports, a good deal of this strikes me as adolescent male bravado.

What we have actually seen is that since Morse was in college the sexual activity rate of teens has been in fairly steady decline. "Data over the years on vaginal intercourse among never-married adolescents shows a steady decline since 1988," according to the Centers for Disease Control. But just as Morse has been abandoning her previous libertarian stands, the young of today, are picking up the values she has cast aside. They may be more conservative in practice but they more tolerant and socially liberal than previous generations.

The Public Religion Research Institute, in a report, Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality, found the young to be strongly libertarian in their policy prescriptions even if they are personally more conservative. Whereas only 58% of the general public believes abortion should be available in their community, 68% of the Millennials do. And 57% of the Millennials have no moral qualms about sex between people of the same gender. The report says: "Millennials strongly support gender equality and rights for gay and lesbian people and generally have more permissive attitudes towards sexuality issues." They found that 76% either supported gay marriage (57%) or civil unions (19%).

The shift in sexual values started before any misguided "abstinence" programs were pushed into state-run schools, so they aren't responsible. What we are finding is that each generation of Americans becomes more secular and more small-l libertarian in their social values, even if they become more conservative in their own behavior. Conservatives, such as Morse, may lament the state of youth culture today, but compared to her generation, I have to say that the kids are alright. As far as I can see they are adopting, in larger number than ever before, the values she once held. And I consider that pretty sensible.