Most Americans do not cheat on their spouses, but a new study reveals surprising trends among those who do. Middle-aged Americans in their fifties and sixties are more likely to have sex outside of marriage, and there are many reasons why.
Since 2004, older Americans are cheating more, and younger Americans are cheating less. By 2016, 20 percent of those older than 55 reported having sex outside of marriage, while only 14 percent of those under 55 said the same, according to the Institute for Family Studies’ Nicholas Wolfinger. Importantly, this difference cannot be explained by differences in sex, age, race, or education.
Only 16 percent of Americans report having sex outside of the bounds of matrimony, a number which has been relatively steady during the last 30 years of the General Social Survey (GSS). Three out of four Americans say that extramarital sex is always wrong, while less than three percent say it isn’t wrong at all.
Even so, Americans in their fifties and sixties — correlating with the Baby Boom generation — are reporting sex outside of marriage more than those in their twenties — the millennial generation. Most of the Baby Boomers engaging in extramarital sex have been married for between 20 and 30 years. Americans in their seventies, however, reported less adultery.
The numbers come from the GSS answers to the question, “Have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” This question has been asked since 1991.
There are many possible reasons why Baby Boomers cheat on their spouses more than millennials. Three major factors could contribute, Wolfinger explained: age; period, the social influences people experience at the time of the GSS; and cohort, the influences people experience while growing up.
Wolfinger illustrated the differences with this question, “Do people in their fifties and sixties have the most extramarital sex because they’re in midlife and have been married for 20-30 years, or because they came of age at a time that fostered greater sexual exploration?” While he suggested the answer is probably “both,” it is hard for social scientists to discover exactly what the most likely explanation would be.
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“Perhaps the propensity for extramarital sex is a product of what people experienced while growing up, not a question of how old they are,” Wolfinger wrote. “People born between 1940 and 1959 report the highest rates of extramarital sex. These are the first generations to come of age during the sexual revolution, so it’s understandable they are more likely to have sex with someone without their spouses.”
Since Boomers’ formative years came in the 1970s, when the sexual revolution was in its stride, they may have experienced different kinds of sexual encounters. Those born in the late 1950s may have even had swingers for parents. Indeed, people in their fifties and sixties have had more sex partners in their lifetimes than their older or younger fellows.
After hitting a high mark around 1990, teen sex has actually declined in the past 25 years. Millennials, growing up in an atmosphere unlike the swinging 1970s, are more likely to remain faithful to their spouses. They are also more likely to embrace traditional marriage.
But besides these cohort explanations, there are reasons why Baby Boomers might engage in more extramarital sex now. Viagra and other medications for erectile dysfunction only came on the market 20 years ago. Furthermore, Americans in almost every age group disapprove of adultery less strongly than they used to.
Interestingly, those in their forties and fifties have actually grown less approving of adultery in the last 16 years. Social scientists have often discovered that people’s attitudes don’t match their behavior. Alternately, while some Americans have more sex outside of wedlock, their envious peers might have become more disapproving of it. This makes sense in America’s increasing cultural divide.
As divorce rates overall have fallen in recent decades, there has been a surge in “gray divorce” among the middle-aged. The rise in midlife adultery fits into that story.
But Wolfinger ended his report on a more hopeful note. While the sexual revolution may be weakening the marriages of Baby Boomers, its effects might be lessening over time. Millennials are more likely to stay faithful to their spouses, and this bodes well for the institution of marriage going forward. While millennials are often mocked in media and other quarters, they could be the silver lining of the sexual revolution.