Millennials are more accepting of premarital sex than earlier generations, although they're probably having less of it.
Researchers from San Diego University, Florida Atlantic University and Hunter College analyzed data from the General Social Survey, involving more than 33,000 adults over many years, to understand views about premarital sex and homosexuality across generations. Their research found a growing acceptance of premarital sex from the early 1970s up to present day. The percentage of adults who believed premarital sex was "not wrong at all" was 29 percent in the early 1970s, climbed to a steady 42 percent throughout the 1980s and 90s, and then jumped to 58 percent by 2012.
But even though the millennial generation (defined as those born between 1982-1999) is less likely to have moral objections to premarital sex, the survey also found that millennials had fewer sexual partners than previous generations. Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and GenXers (born 1965-1981) were shown to have the most partners of any age groups, with an average of 11.
Millennials, with an average of eight sexual partners, reversed the trend somewhat, though they were not nearly as restrained as adults from the Greatest Generation, born in the early 1900s, who had an average of two sexual partners.
"I was surprised that millennials were the most accepting of premarital sex in their attitudes, but are choosing to have sex with fewer partners as adults," report author Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of the book "Generation Me," told CBS News. "They are tolerant, but perhaps more cautious. This could be due to fears of STDs, including HIV, or it could be because they choose 'friends with benefits' relationships over sex with different partners."
The research, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, also found a dramatic shift in attitudes towards homosexuality. In 1973, just 11 percent expressed acceptance of relationships between adults of the same sex; by 2012, that figure quadrupled to 44 percent. The data shows a significant gender gap, with 51 percent of women in 2012 approving of same-sex relationships, compared with 35 percent of men.
Twenge said that the change toward more accepting behavior took place over generations, not just time, meaning that the population does not shift its attitudes in unison. Rather, a younger generation moves in to replace the old, bringing their new perspective to the forefront.
"Cultures change," Twenge said, "and people absorb the culture as children and adolescents, leading to generational differences."
Twenge noted that the most prominent cultural change of the last few decades has been an increase in individualism, which means more individual freedom and less group authority. She listed a number of recent trends that she believes fits this pattern: less religious affiliation, the push for legal marijuana, tolerance for difference, and more open attitudes around sexuality.
"Overall, millennials are fine with making their own choices even if they believe others can behave differently," she told CBS News. "In 'Generation Me,' I find that the most prominent theme of the generational and cultural changes is more individualism. That can mean more self-focus, but it can also mean more tolerance toward others who are different."