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Premarital Sex in America$

Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199743285

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199743285.001.0001

Red Sex, Blue Sex

Relationship Norms in a Divided America

(p.205) Seven Red Sex, Blue Sex
Premarital Sex in America

Mark Regnerus (Contributor Webpage)

Jeremy Uecker

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses how political culture is reflected in young Americans’ sexual choices. For liberal or “blue” young adults, preparing for their careers takes precedence. While more sexually permissive in perspective than conservative or “red” young adults, their actual sexual behavior is slower to develop, and when it does is disconnected — often for several years — from marriage and fertility. Among reds, sex is often experienced earlier than among blues, and is more closely connected to religion, marriage, childbearing, and family. While premarital sex is common among reds, it remains associated with the institution of marriage. Reds that take their religion and education seriously are among the least sexually active of Americans, however. Ramifications of conservative and liberal behavior patterns for the emergence of the Second Demographic Transition in America are discussed.

Keywords:   red sex, blue sex, conservatism, liberalism, Second Demographic Transition, fertility trends

When the New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot telephoned in Autumn 2009 to talk about the unplanned pregnancy of Governor Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter, our conversation revolved around the question of what shapes the sexual decisions of conservative Christian adolescents. We chatted about some of the themes in Forbidden Fruit, about how Christian parents tend to talk to their teens less about the details of sex and pregnancy than about sexual morality—what they want, or rather, don’t want their kids to do. But then our conversation wandered toward political culture in America and to this book and this particular chapter, which was just beginning to take shape. We were already planning to name it “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” but we informed Talbot that she could use that title for her article if she wished. She did, and her November 2009 story about the prolific reproductive lives of conservative American teens struck a nerve. It is, after all, in red states that we see the greatest number of churches, the strongest preference for abstinence-based sex education, and the highest teen-pregnancy rates. Liberal readers relished the irony: those who most disparaged teen sex and promoted “family values” were forced to recognize their own children’s precocious sexual behavior.

(p.206) Red Sex

The New Yorker article made it clear that conservative Americans—whom we call reds, despite the historical irony of that term—are mistakenly thought of as sexually prudish. It’s an honest mistake, though, since it’s from their leadership that we hear the loudest complaints about the sexual state of things in America. And that much is true: Cultural conservatives are more outspoken on matters of sex and family, their own personal behavior sometimes notwithstanding. We’re not talking here about the heart of conservative Christianity, but rather the more broadly conservative subculture of Americans. This subculture includes evangelicals but is not limited to them. At the University of Texas—despite popular opinions about how liberal an institution it is—there are lots of culturally conservative students, many of whom are very sexually active. Equating conservatism with Christianity in America must go. It’s a correlation and little more than that. Liberals don’t have the corner on sexual permissiveness and conservatives don’t own religion.

Martin can testify to that. He was a 19-year-old from Virginia when our research team spoke with him for the second time. He had tried college but had dropped out after a year. It just wasn’t for him. Instead, he settled comfortably back into his working-class roots, becoming an electrician: “We do everything from basic electrical to industrial, to commercial, to motor control, to power generation, security, to fire, cameras. We do a lot of stuff.” By ignoring the popular narrative that said he needed a college education to successfully navigate life, Martin had found his niche. And a girlfriend. Not terribly religious and yet very culturally conservative, Martin is one face of “red” America.

Although sexually experienced with a previous girlfriend, Martin wasn’t having sex at age 19 because he was dating Bethany, the 15-year-old daughter of a police officer. Indeed, sex with her would’ve been against the law, and he was well aware of that. But the two were hardly unsexual. Martin said they did “everything but,” a common revelation. A vocal opponent of homosexual behavior, Martin is more conservative about others’ sexual decisions than his own. Although he believes the Bible says that sex before marriage is wrong, he adds, “A lot of it, I think, has to do with society to a certain extent.” While it’s not exactly clear what he means by that, we suspect it’s a way of claiming that sex is normal relationship behavior today, regardless of what might have been acceptable in the past. Like many conservatives, he offers a nod to the standard while excusing his diversion from it: “I’ll tell you, I (p.207) believe in it. But I’m not perfect…. I mean nobody is. But I’ll be the first person to tell you I’m not.”

While premarital sex has largely dropped off the map of salient issues among many conservatives, marriage has not. Marriage is a central institution in Martin’s mind, not so much because it alone ought to contain sexual behavior, but because marriage is about children, and it’s “what good people do.” Martin sees himself as increasingly old-school, a hallmark of many reds and the plain definition of conservative: “I don’t think you should have kids outside of marriage…. That’s just somethin’ I’ve never believed in.” Sex—and even brief periods of cohabitation—are acceptable, but both must serve marriage, not subvert it. “I think marriage is, you know, that’s an agreement. That’s not something that should be broken up,” he asserted.

Fast forward to age 22, and Martin is still seeing Bethany—she’s now his fiancée. Three years older, he waxes nearly verbatim on the subjects of marriage and morality. Since she’s no longer underage, the two are sexually active. He stays over at her house on weekends and sleeps in her bedroom. Her parents are fine with it.

Martin nevertheless asserts that the right thing to do would have been to wait, but that was unrealistic “in this day and age,” and he never really gave it much thought. Instead, he too is living out the story of emerging adulthood, albeit more rapidly than many of his college peers, whose fun and “rebellion” against institutional expectations is delayed:

I was raised … [like] what I’ve seen: You’re born, you go through your teenage years, you have your fun, you settle down, you get married, you have your family, you raise the family, the cycle starts over. It’s just, it’s the way things go. And it’s just the cycle of the world, I guess would be the best way to put it.

Martin hopes to marry Bethany in two years. Building some financial security before marriage and children is important to him—he currently lives at home for free—and Bethany will help. In fact, Martin is counting on her income not just now but far into the future. In that, he’s like 74 percent of unmarried American young men who agree that “any woman you would consider marrying should be able to work steadily and contribute to the family’s income.”1 Married women with children in red America value—or at least need—employment no less than those in blue America.

This is red sex, or at least one very common representation of it. It is the face of the rural and small-town South, Midwest, and West. It’s (p.208) romantic. It’s fairly relational. It’s quick to sex and nearly as quick to marry. It’s mindful of and deferential toward organized Christianity. It bears children early and more often than does blue sex. It publicly balks at abortion yet experiences no shortage of them. It tolerates divorce—sometimes several of them—because a happy marriage is a key piece of the American good life.

Although Martin’s story may look more like redneck sex than anything else, his is not the only form of red sex, as we will shortly reveal. But it’s certainly one common pattern repeated regularly in our interviews with emerging adults. And although we will spend time here documenting the differences between red sex and blue sex, where reds and blues differ most profoundly is not in the sex itself or the sexual partners. Where they differ more obviously is in the place of sex in life, the relative importance and order of sex vis-à-vis marriage and family, and the appropriate ages for each stage. For conservatives—whether they’re evangelical or Catholic or not very religious at all—sexual relationships are meant to foster or follow marriage, even if they don’t. Their cohabitation patterns more closely predict subsequent marriage than do those of other American religious traditions.2 And plenty of reds are cohabiting, especially the less religious among them.

While we have suggested elsewhere3 that conservatives are uniquely subject to the cultural collision of old-world, family-focused values with the new world’s sexualization of youth, there’s another, simpler explanation to their sexual behavior that is often overlooked. It’s hard to be antisex when you’re pro-marriage and pro-family. American conservatives are a relational bunch. Whether they’re religious or not—and there are plenty of both types—conservatives really like ideas and ideals like that of a man and a woman together, romance, home, togetherness, kids, and family—all of which imply sex. This is not to say that their relationships do not struggle and break apart. Many of them do. In that way they are vigorous supporters of the American narrative of serial monogamy. Reds value loyalty and dependability, even if—and perhaps because of—their experiences of veering off of those pathways. In fact, conservative Americans are now regularly reminded that their marital relationships are collapsing at a pace either comparable to or exceeding those of their more liberal and less religious cousins. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, since one cannot get divorced if one is not married, and more liberal Americans are increasingly likely to delay or avoid marriage and cohabit instead. A mature sense of responsibility and marital realities is simply more scarce early in (p.209) emerging adulthood, whether you’re red or blue. And since a developed ethic of marital responsibility eludes many young married reds, plenty divorce. (But not so many as you might think, given the numbers outlined in the last chapter.) With less romanticized views, blues tend to anticipate these sorrows and marry later than reds, thus experiencing fewer divorces.

Many reds are even fine with homosexuality, although plenty profess to neither understand it nor wish to think about it too much. Most cultural conservatives are committed individualists rather than collectivists. As a result, they may think homosexuality as an idea is wrong or at least suboptimal but would never claim that people should always suppress their desires. In general, most reds want to be perceived as tolerant of other people’s sexual relationships and choices. Lesbianism is arguably more palatable to them than relationships between men. Like many reds, Andy (20, from Nevada) is far more conservative on the subject of male homosexuality. He offers a porn-shaped dichotomy with which many men overtly or covertly agree:

I said to this one girl, Pamela, I was like, “Yeah, lesbians are so cool.” She’s all, “Yeah, gay guys are cool.” So I said, “Hell no. That’s sick. That’s wrong.” She’s all … “Well, what’s the difference?” She always asks me that. So, I don’t know. I don’t know. [It’s] because I’m a guy.

Red emerging-adult men know they shouldn’t like pornography, but many do. Led by Utah, eight of the top 10 states in terms of online porn consumption voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.4 Blues don’t offer an emphatic opinion about porn, while red women disparage it the most. When we interviewed Hannah, she was a 19-year-old from Alabama who had hooked up extensively for a short period of time in high school. She thought porn was the biggest social problem today:

People just aren’t paying enough attention to what their kids are doing. They’re not paying attention to what they’re watching. They’re not paying attention to what they’re doing on the computers. I’m extremely against any type of pornography but it’s so overspread these days that you know, 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds are getting a hold of it.

Even if their men are quietly enjoying lesbianism online, reds are no fans of real lesbians marrying. Their opposition to gay marriage is not because they’re inherently hostile to homosexual sex—some are, but most are not. Gay marriage is not subject to negotiation, however, because marriage as an idea cannot be for reds about anything besides (p.210) a man and a woman. Civil unions? Fine. Legal rights for partners? Not a problem. But reds perceive that the battle over the definition of marriage is more than simply over legal standing. It’s a symbolic lunge for their throat, a contest over their identity and the historic centrality of marriage in American and western civilization. Gay marriage is comparable in that way to concerns about gun control, contesting parental rights, demilitarization, and the notion that government can run things better than the people themselves can. It’s a package deal for conservatives, who perceive blues as largely favoring all of those things.

Blue Sex

Jeff is a freshman at a state university in Minnesota, a blue state. He’s an overachiever, very future focused, and gifted. He has had little trouble steering clear of temptation. But he doesn’t intend to always steer clear: “I’m not perfect, you know. I like to enjoy myself. I am at … the number-one party school, so I’m gonna have some fun.” Jeff has not had sex yet, which is in consonance with his persona and academic orientation, and is typical of younger blues. He has no real qualms about losing his virginity, either—another blue trait. Unlike Martin, Jeff feels no need to make deferential remarks about marriage or morality. While he hopes to marry someday, he also considers the idea “kind of corny.” He passively notes, “Hopefully I’ll find someone that I’m in love with and happy with and all that garbage. I don’t know.”

Like many blues in college, Jeff is utilitarian about life and insists that relationships right now must take a back seat to grades, enjoying college, having some fun, and preparing for a career. Love and marriage can wait. The delay in pursuing sex so far is about his future focus; nothing is worth getting sidetracked in school. Indeed, relationships must play a secondary role in emerging adulthood—that’s a basic rule among blues. When asked about the purpose of dating and relationships, Jeff’s opinion became clear: “Have fun. Learn about someone else. I mean, not get too hardcore committed or anything like that.”

Not all blues are in college, of course. Allison is 18 and dropped out of college after a year at a state university in Illinois. There are two men in her sexual history, one of whom is her current boyfriend, Brendan. Allison met him while she was with Jason, who was several years her senior. She had tired of Jason, and wanted a change and Brendan (p.211) looked inviting: “I have a great body, so I’m going to show it off, and all these clothes I really shouldn’t be wearing.” It worked. Although unreligious, she nevertheless struggled over the morality of just dropping Jason:

I thought I could probably marry Jason someday … but then I met this new guy, and I like him. But I don’t want to break up with Jason, because I do love him. I want to be with him, too. And, like, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And I’m young, and you know you only live once. Guys come and guys go…. I was just like, “You gotta look out for yourself sometimes,” you know? Not just other people.

Allison is largely dissociated from her family and childhood friends: “I just hang out with [Brendan] all the time.” She sleeps over at his house—and with him—frequently, and uses condoms “every single time…. I probably should get on birth control, but I never have the time to make appointments. I just always forget.” Her daily routine is simple: “Work [as a waitress], boyfriend, work, boyfriend, work, boyfriend, work, boyfriend.” She hopes to get back into college with Brendan and take classes with him, but is not actively working toward making that happen. What are the long term prospects with Brendan? “I’m just trying to play it as it goes. I don’t want to be like, ‘We’re going to be together for a long time.’ Or you know, whatever happens, happens.” Her dialogue around sex and relationships is filled with common normative claims, and repeated one cliché after another. In a few short sentences, we detect several norms:

  • If you don’t follow your heart, you’ll always wonder what might have been.

  • Men tend to move on in relationships. If women don’t, they’ll eventually get hurt.

  • What matters most is you. A relationship can only augment the self.

  • Sexual relationships just happen, and they run their course in due time.

  • Youth shouldn’t be wasted. It’s the best time to try on new experiences and relationships.

These norms are not the propriety of blues alone. Reds often believe them too, since they draw on what we call “romantic individualism,” a powerful American narrative that knows no social-class boundaries. The generation of romantic love and excitement is popular among (p.212) reds and blues, rich and poor. Dozens and dozens of films annually bring in untold billions of dollars in service to its themes: love, the pursuit of romance, sexual fulfillment, the quest for a soul mate.

Red and Blue Differences

In emerging adulthood, the point of sex for most blues is enjoyment. Reds like sex no less than blues, but they feel compelled to motivate sex for reasons beyond that. For reds, sex is supposed to serve some overarching relational purpose, as Hannah articulates (in hindsight):

I don’t see having sex as just getting into bed and doing the deed. I see it as, you know, just showing your affection and your love for somebody. It’s an important thing in a relationship. It’s making love. Not, you know, just humping somebody’s leg or something crazy like that…. It’s a very emotional connection between two people, not just a physical need.”

So just how different are the sex lives of emerging-adult reds and blues? Table 7.1 displays Add Health sexual outcomes, sorted by gender, self-identified political orientation (a range from very conservative to very liberal), and current educational status.5 As we’ve already noted in chapter 4, emerging adults who never went to college see a great deal more sexual action than those who have finished their schooling or are currently enrolled. Indeed, being red or blue pales in significance to pursuing or avoiding higher education. Other patterns emerge as well. First, conservative, educated, emerging-adult women are the most likely (by far) to remain virgins, are the least likely to report having had anal sex, are the most likely to have used contraception at last sex, report the fewest number of partners either in their lifetime or in the past year, and generally have the least amount of sex. In other words, red, educated women are the most sexually conservative and risk averse. That doesn’t mean they don’t have sex. The data suggest that most of them do, but they do in relational patterns that emphasize commitment. On the opposite end of the spectrum, blue men and women who didn’t go to college at all are among the most sexually permissive emerging adults, by most of the indicators here. They have the most lifetime partners. Less educated red men, however, don’t trail by much and display the highest number of recent partners (2.5 in the past year, on average). Reds aren’t as positive about anal sex as blues, but all of the groups indicated that fewer than one in three have tried it.

Table 7.1 Red and Blue Sexual Indicators, Never-Married 18- to 23-Year-Olds

Percent virgin

Percent have had anal sex

Percent that used birth control at last sexa

Mean lifetime partners

Mean partners in last year

Mean frequency of sex in last yeara


Liberal, not in college







Liberal, in college or college grad







Conservative, not in college







Conservative, in college or college grad








Liberal, not in college







Liberal, in college or college grad







Conservative, not in college







Conservative, in college or college grad







Source: Add Health

(a) Among those who have had vaginal sex

(p.213) Despite the rhetoric about conservatives avoiding contraception, we see little difference in their usage patterns. Collegians are simply far more likely to use it, regardless of their political colors. Among college students and graduates, blues tend to report slightly higher numbers of both lifetime and recent sexual partners than reds do. Both (p.214) reds and blues like sex, and—save for educated, conservative women—tend to have sex at comparable frequencies. None of the groups averaged below 52 times per year, or above 66 times.

Red and blue differences over sex, then, are less about sexual practices than mentalities. They’re about ideals, attitudes, and stories—the ways people are “supposed to” think about sex. One example of this is in the evaluation of others’ sexual choices. While reds no less than blues have been well educated into the American ethic of tolerance, blues are simply more accepting of others’ sexual decisions than are reds. Plenty of blues with whom we spoke reject short-term sex for themselves, but they don’t extend that judgment to the decisions of other people. If their friends want to hook up, they don’t stand in the way. In fact, Dahlia and Natalie (below) have been far more conservative in their own sexual behavior than Martin and Hannah and many other reds. When our research team last spoke with Natalie, at age 22, there was only one person with whom she’d had sexual intercourse, and that just last year:

He was the only one I felt comfortable enough with and wanted to [have sex] with. All the other guys that I dated, even though I did other things with them … I just didn’t feel like they were the person to [have sex with]. I wasn’t ready with them. I wasn’t comfortable enough with them. So I knew that for myself, I didn’t want to. And they were all really great, and they were all very okay with me not wanting to, so I think that I did choose the right guys, because nobody pressured me to do anything, so that was good. But I did do other things with them. You’ve gotta have a little fun.

Reds and blues both hook up, as Natalie implies, but reds are more apt to regard hookups as wrong or regrettable or to report ambivalence about them. Blues don’t.

Blues are pragmatic about sex and marriage. Reds are idealistic about them. Thus for blues, cohabiting is fine. End of story. It’s the default, expected option among the majority of them. Marriage will often follow, but pressure toward that end will most likely emerge slowly, over several years. For reds, cohabiting can be a long-term arrangement—especially among less-educated reds—but it continues to be imagined as a temporary fix, with traditional marriage understood as the preferred arrangement. Since blues are more likely than reds to pursue advanced education, they tend to be more strategic about their relationships, slower to sex, less likely to draw a strong link between sex and marriage, more supportive of abortion (but hardly flippant (p.215) about actually getting one), and perceive fewer direct connections between their religious beliefs and their sexual decision-making. They’re also far more paranoid about pregnancy than reds are. While they wouldn’t judge someone for having a child outside of wedlock, they will for having a child so early in life. Natalie declares that it would be “a horrible thing” if she were to get pregnant right now: “I don’t care what other people would think, but I just, I want certain things in my life, and a baby would just not be part of it right now. It would definitely not help my career.” Children and family are important to blues and reds alike, but they’re important at different times. For blues, it’s later. For Dahlia, now 21, everything points to the essential norm of using birth control: “If they knew that I didn’t [use contraception], I’m sure most people in my life would ask me what I was doing!”

Reds and Blues: Same Goals, Different Timetable?

As ought to be inferred by now, red and blue emerging adults aren’t living on two different planets. They share much in common. Both drink from the same stream of modernity, whose tributaries—individualism and consumerism—reach every American community. Reds and blues often chase similar things: they both like sex, they’re serial monogamists, and they esteem marriage. For both, sexual attraction and romantic love, once considered too fragile to sustain marriage, have instead become the primary criteria both for entering and exiting the institution. Some blues object to marriage and will intentionally form permanent cohabitation arrangements, while some reds will accidentally do the same (minus the ideological objection). Educated young reds see the realities of the marriage market and tend to commit comparatively early. Blues are more apt to ignore it or insist that it doesn’t matter because they dislike key aspects of it: the double standard, the gendered fertility schedule, and the train of emotional sentiment in sexual relationships. Both still marry in comparable numbers—just at different ages—and both expect a great deal from marriage. Reds have more children, but not double the number blues do. And reds tend to have them earlier.6 The evidence, then, suggests that blues and reds have plenty in common but place themselves on different timetables.

Sexual experimentation for reds is primarily reserved for the mid-to-late teenage years, and for blues, it is the decade of the 20s. Blues (p.216) are more positive about the idea of sexual experimentation—including sex with different people and possibly members of the same sex (especially among women)—if not always the reality. Reds prefer to confine sexual experimentation to a more circumscribed set of contexts and period of time, and they are more apt to avoid same-sex sexual behavior as part of the experimental repertoire. Most reds believe they ought to be done with it by their early 20s, at which point it’s time to settle down and assume adult roles and responsibilities. Hannah is one of these. As a 19-year-old, she was pleasant, attractive, and a self-professed redneck: her friends drove pickups, and she would see them at the community college, at work, at the “mud hole,” or at Wal-Mart. Her parents were divorced, and her father had recently remarried—for the fourth time—and relocated to South Carolina. Her mother had fared similarly:

I wouldn’t call my mom promiscuous, but she hasn’t exactly been with the same guy for years and years and years. So she didn’t show a real value in staying with the same man. She seemed to be always looking for something better. I feel that she has the inability to actually settle down with what she’s got.

Like her mother, Hannah too played the hopeless romantic. She had experienced a brief period of consecutive short-term sexual relationships, and was very fond of Kevin, her first fiancé. She was interested in “settling down” with him. As with Kevin, she had hoped that each of her earlier sexual relationships would turn into something stable and long-term. No luck, in keeping with the fruitless approach we noted in chapter 3.

Like plenty of reds, Hannah began having sex early. She took pride in what she believed to be delaying her first experience of intercourse: “I waited until such a late age of 17,” she said, betraying a red culture in which early sex is common. Hannah is a clear cultural conservative, with a dash of occasional Christianity thrown in. Kevin’s parents were high-school sweethearts, and in rural Alabama, Kevin too hoped to find his wife while still in high school.

Hannah was very positive about the idea of children in her future—indeed, she had her heart set on that role—and wasn’t on the pill (but did use condoms, most of the time) with Kevin. Kevin, she dreamed, could be “the classic dad. I want him to throw the kids around and tickle them and have fun. I want him to help them out with their homework if he can, and if we have a son, teach him how to throw a baseball. If we have a little girl, preach to her about boys.”

(p.217) When Hannah was interviewed three years later, she was pregnant—by her husband, the tenth sexual partner of her life. And it wasn’t Kevin. Hannah and Kevin didn’t last, but Hannah and Ben, a sailor in the navy, have lasted about a year so far, save for a two-week separation following his stressful return from a long deployment. She speaks lovingly of Ben, as she did Kevin, and notes widespread social support for having wed:

Everybody was ecstatic (when we announced our engagement). We probably didn’t have a single negative opinion. Everybody’s always seen that we’ve been really happy with each other, and I guess he’s always, his family’s always seen him as the type to just get married and start a family right away. My family’s always seen me as the type to get married and start a family, and it just kinda fit.

Realistically, we’re not optimistic about Hannah and Ben’s chances. She lacks parents and peers capable of showing her how a marriage works through the universal challenges that assail it. Most of the social institutions that could help reinforce their marriage—religious community, close friends, and extended family—are largely absent from their lives. One—the military—remains. She and Ben are living near a naval base several states away from where they grew up. He’s on a schedule that includes long deployments. They have few exemplars and few places to turn to when times get tough. They’ve dodged one bullet already. And she’s only 22.

Kari, an 18-year-old from Texas, is a freshman in college. She grew up Catholic but isn’t actively practicing. She is dating—and sexually active with—a 25-year-old colleague from work (she’s a part-time restaurant hostess). Like Hannah, she too exhibited a brief period of sexual hookups for which she now feels profound regret. She thinks she was too young to have lost her virginity at 16 but nevertheless asserts that she was “with that person for a long time,” a total of two years. For reds, duration matters. It makes sex more defensible, more moral. Blues, who arguably hook up less than reds, are more intellectually tolerant of relationshipless sex. Reds may do it, but they make apologies for it. Kari’s hookups occurred mostly “on the rebound” from serious relationships, signifying that even such deviant sex (for her) is still connected to the centrality of committed, romantic relationships. Her hookups threaten not only her own self-image, but—more importantly for Kari—how others perceive her: “I don’t want people to think of me in a way that I’m not.” She is not what she did, she contends.

(p.218) Kari is a traditionalist who definitely senses clear categories of right and wrong—and fully believes that she violated those. She regrets the months-long sequence of sexual partners that she experienced and vows to never do that again. She’s familial, maternal, and marriage-minded, like Hannah. She doesn’t think sexual faithfulness—a clear value—will be a problem for her anymore. She’s comfortable in her current relationship, just like Hannah was. Unlike Hannah, however, Kari won’t think of giving up work or education for marriage. She’s come too far and worked too hard in high school to put so much stock in relationships to carry her through into the future.

Reds—even those that value and pursue higher education—seem to take on substantial relationship commitments more rapidly than blues. Table 7.2 displays the percent of college graduates in the Add Health dataset—up to age 27—who said they had ever gotten married or were currently cohabiting. The results are striking evidence of red-blue differences in relationship settings. Fully 39 percent of all college-educated, politically conservative women reported having already gotten married, but only one percent of them said they were currently cohabiting. For them, marriage is 30 times more preferable than cohabitation. Blue women who are college graduates, however, tip way in the other direction: 19 percent of them are currently cohabiting, while 12 percent report having married. Seldom do social scientists witness such stark contrasts as this one. Among men, the same pattern continues, although here again, the differences are not as striking as among women. Triple the share of red males are married, compared with cohabiting, and slightly more blue males are cohabiting than are married. Blue men seem in no hurry to marry, at seven percent.

Table 7.2 Percent of College Graduates Ever Married or Currently Cohabiting, by Gender and Political Leaning

Ever Married

Currently Cohabiting

Male, political conservative



Male, political liberal



Female, political conservative



Female, political liberal



Source: Add Health

Cultural conservatives are more likely to get married—and sooner—than are cultural liberals. And they link their personal happiness more (p.219) closely to family and marriage than do cultural liberals. (But we suspect cultural liberals obsess about their romantic and sexual relationships no less than conservatives do.) In a country where well over 90 percent of married people have had sex before they say “I do,” it’s pretty clear that cultural differences don’t influence how much Americans enjoy sex. Some may prefer to avoid it for a time and save it for a more committed relationship, but there’s no evidence that blue Americans somehow like sex more than do reds, or that they have more sex, more orgasms, or a more satisfying sex life.

Other cultural differences do exist. Cultural conservatives tend to be more relational in their sexual attitudes and tend to stake boundaries about the moral legitimacy of sex within certain relationship forms. They may break their own rules and transgress their own boundaries—and we know they do—but they aren’t interested in rewriting the rules or moving the boundaries, even if they can’t articulate why those rules and boundaries are there in the first place.

One way in which reds and blues are quite distinguishable is in their marital-timing norms. For blues, it is not normative to marry before age 25, though some do. They aim first for other goals, such as completing college, securing a good job, or pursuing graduate education. For reds, marriage by 25 is more common, and failure to attract a spouse by then can be perceived as a modest risk (of having trouble finding a spouse). During early adulthood, then, these two moral claims—establishing an acceptable career trajectory and finding a spouse—often conflict with each other for reds, since getting married too young is viewed by many as an impediment to one’s life chances. Red emerging adults must navigate this time of life by managing the competing demands of two different narratives with different conceptions of the ideal life trajectory.

Geographic Mobility and the “Politics” of Sex

Since political education or perspective formation is hardly very deliberate among most emerging adults—most young Americans think like their parents think, or else slowly shift away during college—we suspect there’s more to the story about red and blue sex than meets the eye. In other words, we’re not so sure that red and blue sex differences are really about partisan politics, despite how we’ve dubbed them. It’s far more likely that the measure of political orientation we use here is (p.220) what social scientists call “endogenous.” That is, one’s political orientation is itself the product of other things, including region of residence, race, religious affiliation, their parents’ political attitudes, etc. In other words, the influence of red and blue perspectives on shaping sexual decision-making is not simply testimony to the power of politics over the private sphere, but instead suggests the power of an overarching cultural orientation in people’s lives.

For example, it’s difficult to separate religion from political culture in the United States. Hannah can miss months of church on end and still feel like she retains and exhibits the values of Christianity. We can run statistical models—as we often do—to distinguish what social scientists call the “independent effects” of, say, living in the South. We would control for other factors like religious involvement, political affiliation, or evangelical Protestant congregational membership. But while statistical models can technically separate out such effects, human beings never experience such separation of important and compelling influences upon their lives. The factors are always bundled.

So what are we to make of Hannah and her brief experiment with multiple sexual partners and her relationship-go-round? Is this pattern the product of her parents’ divorce that spurred her to seek out stability in romantic relationships? Is it her parents’ visible sexual blunders? Did her modest religious socialization bring it about? Is it the Southern, conservative cultural valuing of marriage? Is it the Christianity in the air? In truth, for Hannah it’s all of these, for she doesn’t experience them independently. Nobody does.

Thus it’s likely that the red and blue sexual-norm associations are in part the product of other things. One of those things, we believe, is mobility: an event—or series of events—that results in one or more location changes.7 And it alters people more than we might think. Very many children, youth, and young adults change addresses—that is, they move around either within a state or between states, typically at the behest of a parent or parents. And when they do so—especially if repeatedly—something shifts in how they approach relationships, both with friends and romantic partners. They get used to breakups. And they get used to meeting new people. They become familiar with cultural change as well as exposure to different worlds. They become a bit more cosmopolitan, even flexible. All of these are associated with blueness. Among emerging-adult women, being politically conservative—and again we’re convinced that this measure is at least as much about personal culture as it is partisan conviction—is significantly associated (p.221) with staying in one place. For men, it’s associated not only with fewer in-state moves, but fewer between-state moves as well.

The fewer times men and women reported having moved in the past six or seven years, the more likely they were to identify as political conservatives. The most conservative women occupied, on average, 1.8 addresses in seven years, compared with 2.7 addresses among the most liberal women. Moderates reported exactly two addresses. Women who moved across state lines more often are also more likely to say they’re politically liberal: the bluest report 1.5 states of residence, compared to the reddest, at 1.1 states. The same goes for men: the most conservative report 1.6 addresses, moderates 2.1 addresses, and liberals 3.1 addresses.

Table 7.3 Mean Number of Sex Partners among Never-Marrieds, Lifetime and in the Last Year, by Geographic Mobility since June 1995, Age 21 and Under




Last year


Last year

Number of Addresses

Lived at 1 address





Lived at 2 addresses





Lived at 3–4 addresses





Lived at 5–6 addresses





Lived at 7–10 addresses





Source: Add Health

Now for the leap to sex: We tested whether moving frequently when younger is associated with more sexual partners. Since people may move to live with sex partners, we restricted our analysis to respondents who were no older than 21 (the age after which cohabitation patterns seem to swell). Table 7.3 displays the association between sex partners and youthful relocations. Women who still live in their hometown report an average of just under four lifetime sexual partners, while women who’ve moved three or four times report five partners, and those who’ve moved seven or more times report just over seven lifetime sexual partners. For men, a more pronounced pattern emerges: the least mobile men report just over four partners, and the most mobile men over 12 partners. The same association (p.222) works whether we evaluate lifetime sexual partners or more recent ones.

Perhaps we should still be more skeptical about respondents’ possibly moving in order to cohabit. Moreover, a skeptic might presume that the pattern is a simple age function: the older you are, the more likely it is that you’ve moved. In more advanced statistical models (shown in Table A7.1, in appendix A, p. 263), we tested whether mobility either within or between states is significantly associated with having more sexual partners. Even after controlling for age, race/ethnicity, education, region of residence, and whether one comes from a two-parent, intact family, the association remains statistically significant. In other words, it’s not simply explicable by age, social class, or parental divorce. Mobility, it seems, not only expands one’s cultural—and as a result, political—horizons, it also helps fashion mentalities about relationships that are more inclined to their cessation and generation than to their continuity.

The reason for the mobility, of course, matters. Some mobility is the result of parental divorce, in which case the cessation of friendships and relationships by moving may pale in significance to the cessation of the nuclear family form.8 (But the association of number of sex partners with mobility remains significant in spite of that).

Indeed, the biologically intact two-parent family of origin emerges as a very important influence on emerging adults’ lives and decisions. The act of divorce deconstructs ideas about the stability of romantic and sexual relationships and contributes to the powerful narrative that proclaims that all significant relationships come to a natural end. Even blue, irreligious respondents who’ve had the security of an intact family seem to fare much better in their relationships. They delay first sex longer, and they choose partners and a mate more wisely than do emerging adults who’ve experienced breakdown within their nuclear family unit. The interviews replay this theme powerfully, even though most of the emerging adults with whom we spoke weren’t conscious of the connection.

Thus just as people learn sexual behavior, they also learn lots of other things. And when they move from place to place with increasing frequency, they increasingly learn that relationships are tenuous. Their own sexual histories reflect it. Of course moving frequently doesn’t guarantee such a mentality or history. But mobility in general—for whatever reason—makes the mentality more possible, plausible, and understandable.

(p.223) The Big Difference for Reds: College and Religiosity

Andy is a 20-year-old high school dropout who lives in rural Nevada. He is red like Martin, but with more pronounced problems. Like a misfit, hapless character out of a dark version of Napoleon Dynamite, Andy lives with his mother and stepfather, despite his own paternal status. His mother met and married his stepfather in Las Vegas, where—according to Andy—he had worked as a motivational speaker. His siblings’ lives are in various states of disarray, with one just out of jail. Andy has trouble keeping a job, and he is the father of a three-month-old girl, the product of a year-and-a-half-long sexual relationship with Brenda, his on-again, off-again girlfriend. He doesn’t live with her; she lives with her parents. He tried living there but got in a fight with Brenda’s father, who threw him out. He helps out financially with formula and diaper expenses, and he keeps his daughter on weekends. He genuinely loves the child: “Everybody says she looks like me, the poor thing.” Yet on two occasions during the interview, he remarked that he was “stupid” for not wearing a condom that time. Although he has had sex with several different women, he claims he’s been faithful to Brenda since the two started seeing each other. The aversion to consistent contraception among the least-educated emerging adults fits Andy’s story well.

The birth of Andy and Brenda’s daughter evoked mixed emotions from their families. Andy’s dad, who lives in Wisconsin, didn’t know “whether to say congratulations or sorry,” Andy said:

And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess ‘congratulations’ kind of would … make me feel kind of better.” And he’s all, “Okay, well, congratulations, son.” And then he’s like, “Well, did you tell your mom?” And I was like, “Hell, no!” And he’s all, “Oh geez.” He’s all, “Well, I ain’t telling her.” [So what did she say when you told her?] She shit a brick…. I don’t even remember what she said to me, but it wasn’t nice. It wasn’t pretty.

Brenda’s family reacted about as well: “Her dad told me … ‘You’re a dumb ass’ [laughs]…. He just laughed at me. But her mom is like, ‘Time to get a job, mother-fucker,’ because I hadn’t had a job for like the last month.”

The presence of Andy’s daughter within his life provides practical motivation for improving his own behavior and character. Andy is thinking, for instance, about the example he sets of substance use. The (p.224) harder drugs he reported a few years before are behind him now: “I don’t want my daughter to grow up watching me smoke pot [and] say, ‘That’s cool. I’m gonna try that shit.’” Andy also claims that he’s in the process of “getting right with God,” a common red mantra. He was baptized recently in his mother’s Methodist church and says he is now trying “to obey the Lord.” What exactly he means by that is unclear to us and perhaps to him as well. While he now regularly attends the church with his mother, he just doesn’t seem to catch what’s going on there. Together with many reds, he values religion. But he isn’t sure what it really entails or about his own future stake in it:

I don’t even, you know, read the Bible. I mean, I do, but not as much as I should. I don’t, you know, I don’t pay as much attention at services as I should. So I’m thinking I might just, you know, just go to work and just totally forget about it.

What the future holds for Andy is about as clear as his past has been stable. He seems to have trouble anticipating consequences from his sexual decisions, though he does his best to handle the consequences as they arise. Despite his lack of job prowess, his poor relationship skills, and his modest interest in religion, abortion was never a valid option for this red:

It’s up to God to take lives, you know. If God didn’t think we were ready to have a kid, then He would have, you know, not necessarily killed the baby but I mean, not let it live, you know. So I just said, “We’ll just let it go through and see what the Lord has to say, you know, see what the Lord does…. [But Brenda said,] “The hell with that…. I think it’s murder.” She just thinks straight out that [abortion] is murder: “I ain’t doing that.” So, we’re both on the same page. And her mom is like, “You guys are dumber than shit.”

When we had spoken with Andy two years prior—before Brenda and before their daughter arrived—he had stated plainly that when pregnancies occur, babies are born and somehow supported: “That would be messed up not to, you know?” So his thinking on the subject has not changed.

Despite the morality Andy confers upon abortion and homosexuality, he doesn’t really consider his own sexual behavior as a moral issue, or at least not one that he gives much thought to. Andy displays what we call selective permissiveness, a hallmark of some cultural conservatives, first noted in chapter 2. This perspective holds the general population to traditional gender roles and restrictive sexual and (p.225) relationship standards while exempting themselves from adherence to those standards. In fact, Andy doesn’t express regret about any of his sexual decisions, only about practical matters like contraception. He also illustrates a compelling example of what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls confabulation, the human tendency to more easily fashion a strong moral judgment than the ability to rationally defend it.9 As we noted earlier in the chapter, Andy thinks gays are sick and lesbians are cool. He doesn’t really know exactly why that’s the case, but the feeling is unmistakable. He knows it in his gut, and no argument will change his mind.

While Andy and Martin display a common face of emerging-adult conservatism, other reds look dramatically different. They are more optimistic, more ambitious, and slower to have sex, in fact. The experience of college and the commitments of Christian faith tend to make a monumental difference in the lives of reds. Some semblance of Christian morality may have prompted Andy and his girlfriend to keep their baby rather than elect abortion, but beyond that, the evidence of religious influence on his sexual decision-making is slim.

Table 7.4 reveals a stark contrast in the sex lives of two types of white, conservative American. Andy’s type—male, white, conservative, only modestly religious and not currently pursuing a college degree—is among the most sexually active of emerging adults: They’ve had (on (p.226) average) between seven and eight sexual partners already, and they report a frequency of sex that averages just under once every four days, a rate not far below married young adults. Women who fit this profile similarly distinguish themselves from their fellow white conservatives—women who are more religious and more educated—by averaging over three more sexual partners, fewer than one-third the number of virgins, and more than double the frequency of sexual intercourse. Moreover, this less-educated, less-religious type of conservative is also among the most likely to get married, have children, and get divorced—all by age 23.

Table 7.4 Sexual Activity among White, Conservative, Never-Married 18- to 23-Year-Olds



Mean lifetime partners

Percent virgins

Sex in past yeara

Mean lifetime partners

Percent virgins

Sex in past yeara

Modestly religious, not four-year college student or graduate







Religious, four-year college student or graduate







All others







Source: Add Health

(a) Among nonvirgins

It’s important for social observers, then, to distinguish among the conservative masses. Most of them are not terribly religious during young adulthood. Age 22 is the least religious year of the entire life course, on average. Many of our survey respondents and interviewees, blue and red, are currently religiously unplugged.10 But among those who do display religiosity, it’s quite clear that faith plays a role in shaping their sexual decision-making. It doesn’t mean that our religious interviewees were ubiquitously virgins; they weren’t. But it does mean that their sexual behavior tends to be less prolific. More devoutly religious emerging adults tend to exhibit fewer partners and less sex, as Table 7.4 suggests. The association between religiosity and sexual conservatism here does not hold for blues, however (results not shown). It only appears among reds. In other words, political conservatism and religiosity seem to coalesce and reinforce each other in shaping sexual decisions. Where only the latter exists, its influence is weaker.

Dalton is a 20-year-old evangelical from Texas and a junior at a Christian university. Likable and confident, he has not had sexual intercourse yet. He even displays the abstinence pledge ring he wore to our first interview. Unlike many other young men, though, Dalton thinks he’s not as sexually driven as some of his peers. He has had two relatively long-term girlfriends, but has always stopped before going “too far.” For him, the line is intensive kissing, and no further, though he notes that the topic of what is too far is a perennially popular one among fellow Christian students. The damage he anticipates that sex would cause his self-image (via guilt) is reason enough to stop well short of intercourse. In fact, he drew the line with a previous girlfriend out of a sense of both maintaining his own personal code and “protecting her character.” Dalton is both very religious—a devout evangelical Christian—and very culturally conservative, having been raised in an Air Force family that stressed obedience and the importance of family and honor. He told us he would never consider cohabiting with a woman before marriage. Not (p.227) only would it be immoral, “my grandma just would go nuts.” In fact, he thinks of girls in terms of how his family would receive them. Certain girls are “ho bags” and off limits, while others are just the type to “take home to Mom.” And dating ought to have a clear end in mind:

I’ve always been taught that dating is a precursor to getting married, and you can’t treat it … like off and on and off and on. So you need to take it serious with the people that you’re dating. I know people that are like boyfriend and girlfriend that have no plans on getting married whatsoever. And I think that’s completely pointless.

A former short-term missionary, 19-year-old Danielle just started her freshman year at a state university in the mid-South. She plans to be active in campus ministry and to date only Christians. She’s also a virgin and intends to remain that way until she marries. She went to a True Love Waits rally in high school, which she describes as “awesome.” Her parents told her that they waited for marriage, and she feels enabled to do so as well.11 Unlike some women who are holding out (but aren’t very marketable to begin with), Danielle has no trouble attracting men: she’s had two long-term boyfriends, including one who’s now 23 and just out of the navy. She’s also begun taking birth control pills to relieve a recurrent problem with cysts. While all of these indicate elevated sexual opportunity, Danielle seems firm in her commitment. It helps that her boyfriend attends another college. Boyfriends elsewhere can be a convenient excuse for women to pay little attention to the local sexual marketplace.

She articulates just how sexualized American culture has become: “I just think we keep compromising.” Sex “just adds more drama to life and more confusion. And it’s just sad.” Drama is right, if chapter 5 is any indicator. If she could change one thing about today’s society, it would be “how guys and girls view themselves and … [how they] treat each other and their bodies…. It’s like, so sad that girls think that they have to like, parade around just to make someone like, fall in love with them.” She has no false expectations about the challenges facing her virginity, however: “It just seems so impossible sometimes.” Indeed, religious tension over sexual decisions seems more evident among women than men. Journalist Paula Kamen remarks about her interviewees: “When discussing sexual issues, the women I met brought up no other topic more often than religion. They mentioned religion as a factor in how they were dealing with almost every sexual issue, such as homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, openness when discussing sex, the family, and especially sexual pleasure and guilt.”12

(p.228) Many Christian emerging adults openly admit that they push the boundaries of their community’s sexual morality. Kaci, a 19-year-old evangelical college freshman from Texas, confesses her criteria are probably indefensible religiously; she just elects not to think about it. She describes the rules in her relationship with her boyfriend, a youth pastor in training: no vaginal intercourse, no mouth on anyone’s genitals. But hand jobs and fingering are fine. And “both of our clothes are never off at the same time.” Recall that in chapter 2, we pointed out that “technical virginity” becomes a religious thing over time. In high school, it was the domain of the most ambitious teens—the ones who wanted to have sexual experiences but feared pregnancy and its life-wrecking capacity. In college, the technical virgins are devout Christians who dread the guilt of trespassing across that final boundary.

While Christian emerging adults draw the line over what’s moral and what’s not in different places, most of them recognize that even a generous reading of relevant biblical texts won’t favor the morality of having a series of nonmarital sexual partners. Thus their sex is far more likely to be relational than associational and to develop less rapidly and after greater displays of commitment. Like other young Americans, they too are living out the powerful story of serial monogamy. They just try to keep the serial part short.


Kendra is a sophomore at a university in California, but she commutes from home, which limits her interaction with campus culture. Kendra is a virgin, pretty confident about it, and very comfortable with it. She intends to abstain from sex until she’s married. And she’s a very planful person, a trait that is consistently associated with delaying sex among teenagers: “I tend to overanalyze things in life instead of just living in the moment or living for the day.” She wants to make a career out of planning other people’s weddings—perhaps the perfect job for a conservative, domestic, planful idealist. Like Dalton, Kendra seems disinterested in sex. What has not been introduced into her plan yet, however, is a boyfriend. That may change everything, as it has for so many emerging-adult women.

Kendra attends a nondenominational evangelical church, but ironically doesn’t exude religiosity and isn’t involved apart from attending church on Sundays (which of course is far more than most collegians do). In listening to her, it becomes clear that her sexual conservatism is more cultural and familial in its sources than religious. This can be (p.229) detected in part by her use of terminology that has little to do with distinctively religious motivation:

I don’t tend to hang out with people who have different morals than I do. It just, I think that would be a very difficult situation. But the people that I am friends with, they have the same beliefs, the same morals, so … we keep each other in check.

Like many reds, Kendra is big into terms like “core beliefs,” “morals,” and “values.” They are religious derivatives that serve as indicators of cultural conservativeness. Like the evolution of those now-infamous mortgage-backed derivatives (in the Great Recession), religious derivatives emerged from traditional religious ideas but are no longer obviously religious in nature. All people have core beliefs and values, but reds are more apt to speak of them, label them, and identify them with morals. They are personal principles which can be transgressed but never denied. As such they provide a window into red perspectives on relationships, sexuality, and responsibility. What exactly they mean is not always clear, but morals as a class emphasize traditional themes, including monogamy, fidelity, loyalty, and family.

Why Red and Blue Matters: Sex, Marriage, and the Second Demographic Transition

Talk of red and blue sex has import beyond the lives of the particular emerging adults who illustrate their themes. Red and blue values form the locus of institutional struggle over what the United States will become. Western societies’ lengthy economic prosperity—all recessions aside—is believed to have brought about a scenario in which men and women alike are losing traditional motivations to marry. Marriage no longer anchors the adult life course in several European countries, and some demographers are now projecting that the United States is on track for the same destination, albeit more slowly. In other words, they think America is turning blue. Marriage is no longer perceived as the economic asset (or cultural requirement) it once was, especially to women. In step with later and fewer marriages, fertility declines as well.13

Nonmarital births, however, are on the rise, climbing from 4 percent of all births in 1940 to 40 percent in 2009. In the early 1960s, over half of all first births were to married couples who had conceived the child before they were married (in, most likely, a “shotgun” wedding). (p.230) By 1990, that number had dipped down to 27 percent. It wasn’t that far more babies were being conceived within marriage but that far fewer first births were occurring there.14 The age groups of 20–24 and 25–29 are driving this trend, moreover, something heretofore unprecedented. (By contrast, teenagers previously characterized most nonmarital births.) Additionally, an increasing share of nonmarital childbearing is to intentionally cohabiting partners—forerunners perhaps of more permanent cohabitation arrangements in which fathers are believed to be present at rates exceeding temporary cohabitations.15

Meanwhile, the financial risks of divorce loom large among young men who operate—in their minds—with a “50 percent chance of success” mentality about marriage.16 Imbalanced sex ratios in colleges, congregations, and some workplaces continue to undermine women’s chances of finding the sort of ideal mate they’d prefer. And yet expectations for how a marriage ought to look and feel remain very high.17 No one wishes to settle. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised that expectations about marriage are so high, since women and men no longer have to enter it to live a fulfilling life. Since most can make it economically on their own, fewer elect to “settle” than ever before.

Demographers identify these as symptoms of the second demographic transition (SDT).18 The first demographic transition occurred in the West well over 100 years ago when the death rate began to drop, mirroring an earlier decline in the birth rate. Those two declines are thought to be central to the economic development of nations.

Before the Industrial Revolution, families needed children not simply because parents loved kids but because they needed help around the house and farm. Children were necessary for household production. Today, however, children are objects of consumption, not production. When children are no longer economic assets, the optimal economic behavior of women changes. In other words, it becomes more economically efficient for women to earn money to buy things than to produce those things themselves (or with help from their children).

While the last stage in the demographic transition is believed to be one of stability—where both birth and death rates are low and population size remains relatively stable—some scholars sense more change afoot for postindustrial economies. Birthrates have fallen so dramatically that, were it not for immigration, they would eventually lead to population decline and an imbalanced age structure in which the relatively few young would soon bear a significant financial burden in caring and providing for the comparatively many aged. A variety of (p.231) countries in Asia and Europe are in this state already, experiencing what’s called the “low fertility trap,” the point at which expectations of low fertility become so entrenched in the social system that they become self-perpetuating and very difficult to emerge from.19 That trap is believed to spring when a country’s total fertility rate (TFR) falls to 1.3.20

The Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Hungary, and Singapore are in the trap already, while several large powers—like Russia, Germany, Italy, and Spain—teeter just above it, with a TFR of around 1.4. The United States’ TFR of 2.05 is now above that of Iran, Chile, and Thailand—countries most of us perceive of as much less-developed—and not far below such countries as Mexico, Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, and Argentina. The globe’s average woman has 2.55 children, a figure far lower than most of us have been taught to presume.

Even if the worst projections about population decline don’t come true and the trap fails to spring as advertised, the imbalanced age structure of many Western countries will remain pronounced, prompting tough calls to either increase the tax burden on the young or cut benefits to the aging. (The Greek austerity measures of 2010 come to mind.) Demography really is destiny, but it’s hardly ever recognized as such, because demographic challenges—in this case, fertility reductions—are slow to develop, difficult to alter, and are the unintended byproducts of often rational and optimal decisions by regular people to have fewer children and a life richer in economic success and personal experiences.

Moral Hazard and the SDT

Low fertility is a good example of a moral hazard, an unintended situation that occurs when people are insulated from risk—in the American case, by the actions of the federal government to provide Social Security, unemployment benefits, and Medicare. Such hazards arise when individuals (or institutions) don’t bear the full consequences of their actions and as a result, tend to act differently than they otherwise would. In this case, since we’re confident that the federal government has our back should we fall on hard times, we’re less likely to have larger families (in order to spread the cost of our own care among our more numerous children). Instead, we rely on the government to bear some responsibility for our care. This is truer in most European countries than in the United States, where social welfare benefits are far (p.232) more modest. We’re not making a moral or political claim here about the wisdom of larger or smaller families or of federal provision of social security and health insurance to the aged. It’s simply an observation that when an institution ensures the public’s future well-being, their fertility behavior will change toward a greater and increasing reliance on that institution and a lesser reliance on children for elder care.

All of this points to the fact that getting worked up about lower-than-replacement-level fertility is very, very hard. Too many of us have enjoyed its fruits: greater career success, fewer limitations, higher income, mobility, freedom. Those are worth a great deal. Any potential penalties or unintended consequences seem just too far down the road—and with too many possible alterations along the way—for the average person to care about. And since any individual’s personal fertility contribution is but a drop in the bucket, the rational actor continues to pursue the path of maximal freedom and options, in consonance with the most compelling scripts about the ideal emerging-adult life.

Regional Variations in the SDT

Although we’re familiar with entire states being tinted red or blue while watching presidential election coverage, the second demographic transition is far more subtle in its coloration of America. Blue states—or more accurately blue regions, cities, and metropolitan areas—typically display more traits associated with the SDT. They have higher rates of cohabitation, higher average ages at first marriage, lower and later fertility rates, lower divorce rates, and higher abortion rates.21 Red locales typically have lower rates of cohabitation, lower average ages at first marriage, higher fertility rates, and lower abortion rates. SDT indicators, however, cut through states as well: there are SDT regions and metropolitan areas within traditionally red states as well as communities that resist the SDT within blue states. Indeed, America continues to witness an increasing geographic clustering of social values concerning marriage, fertility, politics, and religion.22 Overlay five different county-level maps portraying (1) support for marriage, (2) actual fertility, (3) cohabitation rates, (4) political affiliation, and (5) religious adherence, and you will quickly realize that you’re looking at five very similar maps.

But not all SDT indicators cluster together—another indication that the SDT will look different in the United States than in Europe. Economists Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert point out that there are (p.233) states and counties that appear red by SDT indicators yet display comparatively low levels of teen pregnancy and nonmarital childbearing. The Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah exemplify this tendency. Nevada, Florida, Delaware, and California, however, display the reverse pattern: though blue by SDT indicators, each displays an elevated teen pregnancy and nonmarital childbearing rate, both classic red traits.

The second demographic transition is related to our sex lives, because our sexual relationship patterns do more than simply reflect existing interests in smaller families. They structurally help cause declining fertility. Prevailing contemporary norms about serial monogamy, the normalization of pre-premarital sex, and widespread contraceptive use are consonant with the SDT, such that some analysts are tempted to conclude that any larger ideological conflict about sex, marriage, and family is over.23 Not so fast, we say. We’re not so sure that the United States’ marital and family future is tracking unequivocally toward that of Europe’s. It very well may be, but a handful of variables could delay or even alter its eastward drift. One way in which the United States does not mimic Europe and the SDT is in its persistent prioritization of marriage, albeit at different preferred ages. Americans enter marriage, exit, and then repeat the process.24 And yet the vast majority of emerging adults in America still wish to marry and most of those will. Indeed, few among them display what demographers would label as a key indicator of the SDT in Europe: the tolerance of permanent cohabitation arrangements. Such permanent arrangements remain comparatively rare in the United States, although our relationship patterns are slowly trending in that direction.

Is the United States Becoming Bluer or Redder?

The question of whether the United States is turning colors is like that posed by economists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their study of data from the omnibus World Values Survey.25 They asked whether the world was becoming more or less secular. And the answer they offer is “yes.” More people are becoming secular than ever before; religious-service attendance in the West continues to decline. Yet Norris and Inglehart also confidently stated that the world is becoming a more religious place, because the religious citizens of the world are more interested in reproduction than are the secular.

(p.234) The same concept holds true with our question. More and more Americans are turning blue in how they understand the morality of sex—dominated by the idea of serial monogamy and the importance of cohabiting before marrying and having children. Reds think comparably about sex but cohabit less and for shorter durations, and they marry earlier and have more children. Blues grow more swiftly by conversion, often in the form of higher education and social class mobility. Reds tend to grow by reproduction.

Take no strong cues about a blue or red future from elections, since those primarily reflect economic questions (especially the perennial “Am I better off than I was four years ago?”). Nor should you read too much into policies and decisions about abortion or gay marriage, perennial culture-war subjects. Take your cues about our blue or red future instead from data on sexual-partnership patterns, cohabitation rates, and trends in age at marriage and fertility. Those will shape the future of the United States and will determine whether we will look more like Europe in 30 years, or not. Our bet is that our nation will slowly continue to grow bluer yet will display even more distinctive regional colors than it does today. Our confidence in this projection is modest, however: too many variables could likewise propel us in a redder direction. And no prediction can account for the powerful redirections that could accompany global events or catastrophes.


One way in which we map how culture shapes emerging adults’ sexual decision-making is in their political culture. Reds and blues exhibit distinctive mentalities about sex and relationships. Blues hold fewer strong attitudes about sex and relationships and are less quick to evaluate the decisions of others. They are more pragmatic about sex and relationships, recognizing that their highest calling at present is to pursue the development of the self, preferably in the form of higher education and a career. Along the way, relationships are meant to augment that journey, not supplant it. Reds, on the other hand, struggle more over the ranking of these priorities. Politically, culturally, and often religiously conservative, reds tend to be more idealist than realist. Christian faith is supposed to be paramount—or at least respected—and yet it often competes with sexual and material desires. Some pursue higher education; others don’t. They romanticize relationships (p.235) and marriage, and often experience more of them—and at earlier ages—than blues do.

Reds and blues share much in common, including their commitment to serial monogamy and romantic individualism, two ubiquitous narratives among emerging adults. While reds and blues both hook up, reds feel guiltier about it and tend to explain the events as aberrations.

While the red sex–blue sex dichotomy can be a helpful binary tool, more significant sources of influence are found in emerging adults’ decisions about higher education, religiosity, family structure changes that they’ve endured, and even such experiences as mobility during adolescence.

At a higher level of observation, many demographers suspect that the United States is beginning to look more like Europe in its relationship and fertility patterns. And yet the development of this second demographic transition here may continue to look different than on the Continent, primarily because we remain a “marrying” country. Even blues like the idea and tend to marry, albeit later than reds and typically following at least one stint of cohabitation. Americans also tend to have more children than do most Europeans, where abortion and contraception are more readily available and affordable. Whether America will look redder or bluer in the future is the subject of educated guesses that balance projections (based on fertility rates and immigration patterns) with the diffusive power of widely shared mentalities about the place of sex and relationships in the pursuit of the good life. We will just have to wait and find out when we get there.


(1) . Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, The Marrying Kind: Which Men Marry and Why (New Brunswick, NJ: The National Marriage Project, 2004).

(2) . David Eggebeen and Jeffrey Dew, “The Role of Religion in Adolescence for Family Formation in Young Adulthood,” Journal of Marriage and Family 71 (2009): 108–21.

(3) . Mark Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(4) . Benjamin Edelman, “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 23 (2009): 209–20.

(5) . The respondents we include here are either in college, already graduated from college, or not in college at all, which (intentionally) leaves a segment of the sample population out of (p.289) this analysis—those who dropped out of college and those who are pursuing an associate’s degree. The conservative/liberal label comes from answers to the question, “In terms of politics, do you consider yourself conservative, liberal, or middle-of-the-road?” We grouped together those who said they were “conservative” or “very conservative,” as well as those who claimed to be “liberal” or “very liberal.” For these tables, those who identified as middle-of-the-road are not included.

(6) . Nevertheless, waiting to bear children will typically issue in modest fertility differences, as we certainly see in red and blue states. While such differences may seem minor, they compound over several decades and across generations, leading in part—together with relocation trends—to the political realignments we’ve begun to see as bluer states continue to grow at much slower rates than red ones. Texas, Arizona, and Nevada—which boast total fertility rates (TFR) above 2.2—have each added Congressional representatives since the 2000 census, while New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin—each of whose TFR is 1.9—lost seats in Congress. Vermont, whose TFR is below 1.7, cannot lose any seats, since it only has one. See Joyce A. Martin, Brady E. Hamilton, Paul D. Sutton, Stephanie J. Ventura, Fay Menacker, and Martha L. Munson, Births: Final Data for 2003, National Vital Statistics Reports Vol. 54 (2) (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2005).

(7) . For similar arguments applied to family breakups, see Paul J. Boyle, Hill Kulu, Thomas Cooke, Vernon Gayle, and Clara H. Mulder, “Moving and Union Dissolution,” Demography 45 (2008), 209–22; Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009).

(8) . The correlation between living in a two-parent, intact family of origin and having moved within state is –0.11 and significant. There is no comparable association, however, with having moved between states.

(9) . Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

(10) . Jeremy Uecker, Mark D. Regnerus, and Margaret Vaaler, “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood,” Social Forces 85 (2007): 1667–92.

(11) . While Danielle gets along better with her mother than her father—a very typical story among young women—her parents have been married for 25 years and set a good example for her, including how to fight: “There’s always hard times, but it doesn’t really feel like that with them. Even if they bicker, it’s so funny, ’cause like they get over it, ’cause like my dad jokes about it and then, I don’t know, my mom laughs, and then we’re all laughing.”

(12) . Paula Kamen, Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 193.

(13) . For an excellent review of the issues and figures surrounding fertility decline, see S. Philip Morgan and Miles G. Taylor, “Low Fertility at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,” Annual Review of Sociology 32 (2006): 375–99.

(14) . Tom Smith, GSS Trends in American Sexual Behavior (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2003); Lawrence Wu, “Cohort Estimates of Nonmarital Fertility for U.S. Women,” Demography 45 (2008), 193–207.

(15) . Patrick Heuveline, Jeffrey M. Timberlake, and Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries,” Population and Development Review 29 (2003): 47–71.

(16) . Just under 80 percent of 25- to 29-year-old men in the National Marriage Project survey agreed that “the divorce laws favor women over men.”

(17) . Andrew J. Cherlin, “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004): 848–61.

(18) . Ron J. Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert, “The Second Demographic Transition in the United States: Exception of Textbook Example?” Population and Development Review 32 (2006): 669–98; Dirk J. van de Kaa, “Europe’s Second Demographic Transition,” Population Bulletin 42 (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 1987).

(p.290) (19) . Francesco C. Billari and Hans-Peter Kohler, “Patterns of Low and Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe,” Population Studies 58 (2004): 161–76.

(20) . A country’s total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if she were to experience the exact current age-specific fertility rates throughout her lifetime, and if she were to survive from birth through the end of her reproductive career.

(21) . Lesthaeghe and Neidert, “The Second Demographic Transition.” Interestingly, however, the authors note that early fertility is no guarantee of resisting subreplacement levels: Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Wyoming all exhibit early “fertility schedules” that are nevertheless below 2.05 children, on average.

(22) . Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Mariner, 2008).

(23) . Ruy Teixeira, The Coming End of the Culture Wars (The Glaser Foundation: Center for American Progress, 2009).

(24) . Cherlin, The Marriage Go-Round.

(25) . Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).