Despite what you’ve seen on your favorite TV dramas, most married people aren’t cheating on their spouses. That’s according to about 30 years of data from the General Social Survey, an unbiased questionnaire from the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. The number of Americans who report having sex outside of their marriage has hovered pretty steadily at 16 percent, and three out of four adults say extramarital sex is always wrong.
What is interesting, however: who’s actually engaging in sex outside of marriage. Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, analyzed the data for the Institute for Family Studies. He writes: “Starting after 2004, Americans over 55 began reporting rates of extramarital sex that were about five or six percentage points higher than were being offered by younger adults. By 2016, 20 percent of older respondents indicated that their marriages were nominally adulterous, compared to 14 percent for people under 55.” By the time survey participants had reached their 70s, though, rates of extramarital sex declined considerably.
Wolfinger explores a couple of possible explanations. For example, he writes, people in their 50s and 60s may be driving the trend toward extramarital sex because of how they grew up, not because of their age. People born between 1940 and 1959—among the first to come of age during the sexual revolution—reported the highest rates of extramarital sex; therefore, he suggests that these individuals may be a product of their environment and “may have firsthand experience with 1970s-era experiments with nonmonogamy.”
Another factor compounding these findings is that older Americans only recently started having extramarital sex in recent years. Wolfinger suggests the proliferation of Viagra, Cialis, and other erectile-dysfunction medications might have something to do with it.
Wolfinger also adds that these figures don’t paint a perfect picture of adultery rates. Because the survey question asks specifically, “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” it’s possible some of those who answered yes practice polyamory or some other forms of consensual monogamy. Since his analysis was published in July, Wolfinger says he’s received a number of queries, including one from a writer who asked, “How do you prevent adultery?”
“Well,” he tells Brides, “you pick a good partner. That’s not an exciting or interesting answer, but probably there’s a lot of truth to that.”
He also says his findings reflect well on younger people. “Older generations love to talk about what’s wrong with the younger generations and assail the morality and that type of thing. ‘Oh, those kids and their hookups and Tindering and Bumbling and all that.’ First of all, people don’t even agree about what hooking up means. Second, whatever it is, most people aren’t doing it.”
“There’s always conflict between generations,” he continues. “If younger people ever wanted to criticize the older generations as hypocrites, they could say, ‘See, I told you so.’”