Have you ever had sex with someone of the same gender?
Data collected from 28,000 adults between 1989 and 2014 found that more and more Americans answered “yes” to this question. In fact, in the early 2000s, twice as many U.S. adults reported having had at least one same-sex partner in their lifetime as compared to the early 1990s. (The study, which I co-authored with Ryne Sherman and Brooke Wells, was published today in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.) The percentage of men who had had sex with at least one man rose from 4.5% to 8.2%, and the percentage of women who had sex with at least one woman went from 3.6% to 8.7%.
Almost all of this increase is due to more people having sexual partners of both genders—bisexual behavior. People generally felt freer to have sex with both men and women if they chose. Acceptance of same-sex sexuality also shot up, with 49% saying it was “not wrong at all” in 2014, compared to 13% in 1990. Millennials—those who were 18-to-29 in 2014—were the most accepting, with 63% reporting that same-sex sexuality was “not wrong at all.” This reflects an enormous cultural change in a relatively short period of time. It is partially due to a time period effect—with all generations growing more accepting over time—but also partially to a generational shift, with a continuing generation gap between millennials and older generations.
Why has this happened? We all know that society has embraced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) causes in the last few decades: Same-sex marriage, banned as of 1996, was the law of the land in 2015. When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, she faced a furious backlash and her sitcom was cancelled. Just six years later, in 2003, her talk show debuted and it’s been a success ever since. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters have regularly appeared on TV shows since the late 1990s, from "Dawson’s Creek" to "Modern Family." More and more LGBT individuals have had the courage to come out, and more of those announcements have been greeted with acceptance (or even yawns) instead of derision.
But that still doesn’t really answer the “why” question. Why has our culture opened up to LGBT individuals? Many other cultural shifts occurred in the nation during the same time period—growing gender equality, more self-focus, more emphasis on uniqueness, and less reliance on traditional social rules. In short, American culture has become more individualistic—more focused on the self, and less on social rules. (This is the primary thesis of my book, Generation Me.)
My colleagues and I (and many others) have found evidence of a shift toward individualism in everything from the language used in books (including pronouns) to the names we give our children to the decline in religion to our self-views. It has implications for sexuality as well: In a society where the individual self is paramount, sexuality becomes more free and open. You don’t need to marry someone to have sex. Your sexual partner doesn’t have to be a different gender to make it OK. The modern idea is "do what's right for you," and that has meant more freedom for people to engage in same-sex sexuality and to accept it among others.
I’ve written a lot about the disadvantages of individualism, which can include narcissism and disconnection from others. So it’s nice to highlight one of the biggest advantages—more freedom for people to explore their sexuality, and more acceptance of those who do. The idea of “do what’s right for you” can be taken too far, toward a self-centered morality that doesn’t take others’ feelings into account. But when “do what’s right for you” means expressing your sexuality and love with someone else, regardless of gender, it’s a phrase of openness, not selfishness. And when this openness means that LGBT people can live their lives without public censure, individualism shines as its best self.
When I talk about cultural change, people often say, “It sounds like you want to go back to the 1950s.” But I don’t, and this is one of the primary reasons. We have plenty to improve in our society: We’re often focused on material gain rather than relationships, and often distracted by bright shiny narcissistic people rather than getting civically engaged. But individualism also means less hate. It means women have more choices. And it means LGBT people can finally live full lives.
When love wins, we all win.