Why Republicans are in a box: their base, and nobody else, thinks unmarried people shouldn’t have sex.

Republican self-destruction on birth control has a fairly simple explanation: a majority of Republicans, and no one else, think that unmarried people shouldn’t have sex. That explains a lot about Rush Limbaugh’s tirade—but also about Mitt Romney’s equivocation.

Those who’ve been following the birth control brouhaha may be wondering what on earth Republicans think they’re doing. The answer is that they’re expressing an opinion regarding sexual morality that’s popular among their voters but nobody else: namely that unmarried people shouldn’t have sex at all.

Gallup for many years has been polling Americans on whether certain things are “morally acceptable” or “morally wrong.” Regarding “sex between an unmarried man and woman,” the latest figures I could find (from 2011) show that 60 percent regard that as “morally acceptable” and only 36 percent “morally wrong.” (According to the .pdf of the whole survey, that 24-point spread is up from only 11 points in 2001.)

One reason old Republican men are so out of touch on this is that there’s a huge age gap in attitudes. The Gallup figures show that premarital sex is considered acceptable by 71 percent of 18-34-year-olds, but only 47 percent of those 55 and older. This makes premarital sex the third-most divisive moral issue by age, after pornography and gay or lesbian sex.

But the fascinating part is the partisan split. Gallup in 2011 didn’t break the figures down by party. But it did in 2010 (when the overall “acceptable” figure was almost identical, 59 percent). The result was (press release here, full .pdf here)

67 percent of Democrats think premarital sex is morally acceptable;

64 percent of Independents;

only 47 percent of Republicans.

If one did a separate breakdown by age and sex, I’m sure this would jump out even more. Probably a very small minority of older Republicans think that premarital sex is OK, but an overwhelming majority of young Democrats and Independents think so.

This makes sex and contraception, as I’ve said before, the perfect wedge issue (as well as, I’d add, the perfect issue to motivate the base—a two-fer). No Republican candidate dare imply that it’s OK if young people have sex before marriage. No one hoping to appeal to younger independents dare imply that it isn’t.

That explains why Rush Limbaugh thinks he’ll get a free pass for calling Sandra Fluke a slut: she is, after all, “an [unmarried] American woman who uses contraception.” But it also explains why Mitt Romney, even before he cravenly changed his position on the Blunt Amendment, said that he didn’t want to get involved in contraceptive decisions  “within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife.” Emphasis added. Romney may believe in his heart of hearts (stipulating that he still has such a thing) that it’s not his business whether unmarried couples have sex and use contraception. But he quickly caught himself, because he knows that the Republican base believes no such thing. He’s aspiring to lead an Ozzie and Harriet party in a Big Bang Theory world.

Oh, as for why the Catholic hierarchy is feeling so boxed in on the question: ordinary Catholics are substantially more liberal than the average American on these questions. Orthodox Catholics know this perfectly well, and aren’t happy.

Update: It looks as if Eleanor Clift agrees with me (without having the numbers).

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

25 thoughts on “Why Republicans are in a box: their base, and nobody else, thinks unmarried people shouldn’t have sex.”

  1. I’m not sure what your point is. Each party’s base has beliefs, attitudes and preferences that are outside the political mainstream. That of course doesn’t make them right and it doesn’t make them wrong. It’s just a reality of electoral politics.

    And each party has somehow found a way to win roughly 50% of the state and national elections held in the US over the past 50 years or so. In any given cycle one party or the other may be more hurt by the negative associations that the mainstream has with that party’s base. Both Republicans and Democrats are constantly calling the other party extremists based on what that other’s party’s base holds and yet both the Democrats and the Republicans seem to continue to be electorally viable year in, year out.

    The pendulum swings back and forth time and again. One can wallpaper one’s house with pieces of political punditry from the last few decades asserting that either the Democrats or the Republicans are doomed (Doomed!) because the political winds are Just This Close to breaking against them.

    1. I’ll bite. “Each party’s base has beliefs, attitudes and preferences that are outside the political mainstream.” Cite three such beliefs in the Democratic base. Unions are necessary? Affirmative action? Foreign aid? The UN? Guns? Drugs? High taxes on billionaires? The stereotypical progressive lines on each of these has, I think you’ll find, pretty wide if not majority popular support. My impression is that the currently inchoate Democratic Party, a broad church from Alinsky to Nelson, in its diversity reflects the American mainstream pretty well. The Broderist “centrist” – actually Rockefeller Republican – press is looking at its own navel not that of America. And the centre of gravity of the Congress is ridiculously to the right of the nations’s, since it represents money as much as voters.

      1. The mainstream supports very strong (indeed draconian) action against illegal immigrants. The base of the Democratic party does not.

        The mainstream is strongly opposed to affirmative action in university admissions and employment. The base of the Democratic party is not.

        The mainstream thinks that brutal torture of suspected terrorists is an appropriate tactic in the effort to prevent terrorist attacks. The base of the Democratic party does not.

        The mainstream thinks that that mandatory waiting periods before abortion are appropriate. That parental notification laws before abortion for minors are appropriate. The mainstream thinks that abortion in the 2nd trimester (and especially in the 3rd trimester) should not be legal. The base of the Democratic party disagrees.

        Indeed, in your laundry list of issues you list at least two (affirmative action, foreign aid) and potentially 1-2 more (The UN, guns) where the “stereotypical progressive line” is way outside of the mainstream of public opinion. Now of course you also include in your list issues (unions, high taxes on billionaires) for which the progressive line is probably very much aligned with mainstream public opinion. But that’s the point – both parties advocate a mix of populist and elitist positions. Its just that the “elitist” component thereof is very different.

        Again, nothing here proves that the mainstream is right, or that the base of the Democratic party is wrong. But it is wishful thinking in the extreme for a liberal to entertain the comforting fantasy that those eeeevil Republicans are way outside of the mainstream of public opinion whereas the Democrats are in alignment with what the median voter thinks on every issue of importance. Because if that’s the case, tell me why the Republicans kicked the Democrats’ collective asses in 2010, 2004, 1994 and 1988 (acknowledging, as is plain as day, that the Democrats kicked the Republicans’ collective asses in 2008, 2006, 1998 and 1992; 2002, 2000 and 1996 being a mixed bag for both parties).

        1. Any chance of data to back up your assertions about the “mainstream?” The best explanation for the electoral split, by far, is that people don’t actually vote on any of these issues–they vote their pocketbooks. That explains wide swings in electoral results, without having to claim that the voter base has wildly different policy preferences every two years.

        2. evidence for your first point is very unclear–

          so too for your second point–


          so too for your third point


          as for your fourth point, given that a majority of self-identified democrats favor waiting periods and parental notification, i’m not sure who you’re talking about when you talk about the democratic base.

          on the other hand, if you replace the word “mainstream” in each of your sentences with the words “self-identified republicans” then your statements do reflect reality.

          beyond this statement, i respectfully decline to further participate in your delusions.

    2. The big point here is that anything to do with sex in america is a thorny issue. When it comes to abortion most peole are so conflicted they aren’t sure how they feel and besides, who is planning to have an abortion, so it becomes a back burner issue politically. But contraception? Now you are messing with something that is an everyday part of most peoples’ lives and a settled issue.
      People are going to remember this one. The GOP has just grabbed americans by the the private parts and they will never see those jerks the same way. You can’t poke people in the crotch and expect them to come to your party.

    3. Here is what sd is missing, even if he is right about “mainstream” views: To a very large degree, when people are asked about sex outside of marriage their answer takes into account their OWN experience and that of their friends, siblings, and children in a way that responses about immigration and even abortion don’t (the latter being too hidden, unfortunately, so many people don’t understand how prevalent it is). This isn’t an issue where you can “other” a small group of people and make them the scapegoat for draconian policies. So if I am an independent, maybe I don’t hold the immigration policy views of the base of either party, but because I am most likely not an immigrant, this may not have a lot of effect on the way I vote. However, in the USA, today, an overwhelming majority of people are sexually active outside of marriage (I won’t even say “before” marriage, because lots of people never get married). They might take this kind of contemptuous not to say abusive slurs more personally. I certainly do.

  2. It’s an even bigger divide than the bare numbers indicate. Many of the older Republican base think that sex before marriage is wrong, but they don’t think that contraception in marriage is wrong. And, if their unmarried children are having sex, they’re not happy about it, but they also know those young people should use contraception, because the consequences of not using it are so dire.

  3. I don’t think you’re quite correct. I think what enrages Rush Limbaugh and his ditto-heads is the thought that unmarried young women are allowed to have sex without fear of consequences. And what’s worse, they get to choose their partners.

    1. What enrages them is that the only way they can get any is to pay for it.
      Sandra Fluke is the kind of pretty, clean, smart girl Rush always lusted after. A girl who wouldn’t even think of touching a grotesque sweathog like him.

      1. Sandra Fluke is the kind of pretty, clean, smart girl Rush always lusted after. A girl who wouldn’t even think of touching a grotesque sweathog like him.

        Here in the Reality-Based Community, evidence is our only lodestone.

        1. = = =
          fallibilst “Here in the Reality-Based Community, evidence is our only lodestone.”
          = = =

          Well, as I recall the evidence it showed Mr. Limbaugh debarking a return flight from the Dominican Republic without a spouse or significant other but with a gallon ziploc full of unprescribed Viagra.


        2. Just sause for the goose.
          And please don’t blame the other thoughtful folks posting here for my boorish BS. I’m just an entertainer.

          1. At this time I think I should apologize for the insulting terms I used to describe Rush Linbaugh. I called him (oh how can I say it? I’m so ashamed) “a grotesque sweathog”.
            I feel I must revise that statement. Rush is a wet fart of a human being who is also as has been noted by many a Big Fat Idiot.
            There, I’m so glad to have cleared that up. Confession is good for the soul. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
            Take note that the big difference between my comments here and Rush’s is that my statements have some relationship to reality where as Rush’s comments about Ms. Fluke are products of his twisted imagination. Oh and don’t forget Rush is a grotesque sweathog.

  4. I was thinking along the lines of EB. Those who still believe against sex before marriage are a much larger group than those who are against non-procreative marital sex, which I believe is a tiny fraction of the population considering the percentage of women who have used contraception (99% among those who have had sex). Furthermore, most people are smart enough to realize that it’s not going to stop despite their beliefs so it might as well be done in a safe and healthy manner. What I can’t figure out is how the anti-abortion crowd doesn’t see how logically inconsistent it is to be anti-contraception too. I think the next step on the far right is pro-chastity belts. Maybe they can come with signed by Santorum with a complimentary sweater vest.

    1. Heck, I figure if the republicans get elected, every woman of child bearing age will be issued personal, engraved vaginal probes.

  5. If they are simply against contraceptives, doesn’t that suggest that they don’t want any women, married or not, to have sex other than for procreation?

    I see this anti-contraception ranting as more a war against all women, not just the unmarried ones (although they pretend that’s their focus and use them as their examples). In fact, these prigs simply cannot abide the idea of any women having sex for pleasure, free of consequences, and this is what has the knickers in a twist. That’s how it seems to me, anyway: it’s not limited to unmarried women. We’re all under attack, and are seen by these Taliban-wannabe prudes as existing as nothing but incubators to be controlled by men.

    1. There are a substatial group of men who are aware that this affects them too. You have to be pretty dumb to think unwanted prenancies don’t affect everybody involved and I think that includes the guys too.

    2. I do not disagree with Anomalous: the decent men of this world stand with women (and I hope I did not imply that they didn’t). Clearly the unwanted pregnancies affect the kids themselves too.

      But the “war” being waged is specifically against women, all women, especially against those who would dare to engage in sex for the pleasure it brings, but also against those who are raped or who have sex only to satisfy their mates: all women, married or not.

      Their intent is that all non-procreative heterosexual sex had by women be punished severely by society.

  6. So 36% of Americans believe pre-marital sex is morally wrong, yet 95% of Americans have indulged in pre-marital sex.

    That means 31% believe pre-marital sex is morally wrong, and that’s what makes it so much fun.

    1. Those are the people who had all that crazy, irresposible sex in their wayward youths and now they know how wrong it was so they want to save everybody else from making their mistakes. It’s realy big of them to be looking out for the young people that way, don’t you think?

      1. You must be right, I was looking at the “over 55” part of the article and thinking to myself “hmmmm, over 55, that means that they were young in the 60s and 70s, just as I was.” And I am quite certain that most people in that demographic did NOT abstain from premarital sex then, nor did they do so when they were between marriages (and therefore technically “unmarried”) in later years. I don’t know who they they think they’re kidding with this phony piety, surely not the rest of us in that age group who haven’t lost our memories yet!

  7. Most younger Christians don’t believe that there is anything wrong with premarital sex as long as it’s between who care about each other and take precautions against pregnancy and STDs. There is a big divide within the church between attitudes regarding premarital sex.

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