Premarital Sex Rises With Economies

05/22/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

I have been analyzing Pew data on acceptance of premarital sex around the globe to see whether it fits in with the ecology of modern life. Is acceptance of premarital sex higher in developed countries? What about the risks of pregnancy, and disease? What about female participation in the workforce?

Acceptance of Premarital Sex Around the World
For the sake of simplicity, I looked at Pew data on disapproval of premarital sex (respondents having the option of saying it is "morally acceptable, morally unacceptable, or not a moral issue." Disapproval of premarital sex ranged from a high of 97 percent in Indonesia to just 6 percent of respondents in Germany and France selecting the "morally unacceptable" option.

Why is premarital sex almost universally condemned in Indonesia and almost universally tolerated in France? There are a great many possible influences, not all of which are yet known. Yet, one of the more obvious possibilities is economic development, based on attitudes to casual sex. France is a much more developed economy than Indonesia with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person (corrected for consumer prices) of $40,400 in France compared to $10,200 in Indonesia.

More developed countries have greater acceptance of premarital sex for various reasons related to the changing economic roles of women. GDP was strongly correlated with disapproval of premarital sex and this correlation explained half of the differences (52 percent).

Even with GDP statistically controlled, countries with more women in the workforce were more accepting of premarital sex. The underlying rationale seems fairly obvious. As more women pursue education, paid employment, and careers, the age of marriage gets pushed up. This means that it is not unusual for a first marriage to occur 15 years after a woman becomes sexually mature. It is rather unlikely that women would postpone sexual activity until after marriage under such conditions. In less developed countries, where women typically mature later, and marry earlier, postponing sex until after marriage is more doable.

Developing countries have stronger marriage in the sense that people generally marry young and remain married for much of their lives. I subtracted the divorce rate from the marriage rate in each country to develop a measure of the strength of marriage. This variable accounted for 40 percent of the differences in attitudes to premarital sex. In countries with stronger marriage, rejection of premarital sex was higher. This effect was independent of economic development.

More people reject premarital sex in countries where residents see religion as important in their daily lives. This correlation accounted for 53 percent of the variation in attitudes to premarital sex. This might be because such countries are more religiously conservative, (or tolerate less diversity of opinion), have stronger marriage, are less economically developed (with statistical control of GDP substantially reducing the effect), or because more women' stay out of paid employment.

Premarital sex is less acceptable where the potential costs are higher. Acceptance of premarital sex is correlated with high contraception use and hence lower risk of unwanted pregnancy. Rejection of premarital sex went along with a high risk of infectious diseases. Countries with more population employed in agriculture were more opposed to sex before marriage, possibly because marriage plays a more vital role in organizing the household economy in such countries. All of these effects disappeared with GDP controlled, implying that economic development is what really matters.

So What?
Attitudes to sexual behavior can be a frustrating topic of research because people may behave very differently, and because behavior often determines attitudes rather than vice versa.

As far as acceptance of premarital sex is concerned, the big influence is economic development with weak marriage, the proportion of women in the workforce, and religiosity, playing smaller independent roles. As countries become more developed, there will thus be greater acceptance of the sexual freedom of young adults. Ditto for weakening marriage and religion and increased labor force participation by women.