Sex, Cheating and Gambling: Where Americans Draw the Moral Line
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The Fiscal Times
April 16, 2014

Sex, alcohol and abortion.

Now that we’ve gotten your attention, let us explain why we’re tossing around such terms: Those issues, and five other potential touchstone topics, are the subjects of a new Pew Research Center report on global morality released Tuesday.

Pew surveyed more than 40,000 people across 40 countries on what is morally acceptable or not — and whether those hot-button topics are even moral issues. Besides premarital sex, alcohol use and abortion, Pew also asked about extramarital affairs, gambling, homosexuality, divorce and contraception use.

Related: The Disturbing Economics of America’s Sex Trade

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that views on those subjects varied widely across countries, but some broader trends held true. Extramarital affairs, for example, are widely seen as morally unacceptable – with the notable exception of France, where 40 percent said it was not a moral issue.

“Generally, African and predominantly Muslim countries tend to find most of these activities morally unacceptable, while in advanced economies, such as those in Western Europe, Japan, and North America, people tend to be more accepting or to not consider these moral issues at all,” Pew said.

How does the U.S. compare with other countries? Contraception and alcohol use may be no big deal for Americans, but we don’t take cheating on a spouse or abortion lightly. Only 7 percent of Americans called the use of contraceptives morally unacceptable, following by alcohol use at 16 percent and divorce at 22 percent.

Related: A Guide to Filing Taxes After a Divorce

Extramarital affairs represented the most morally unacceptable issue for Americans at 84 percent, followed by abortion at 49 percent and homosexuality at 37 percent. Views on those issues were subject to a wide partisan divide, with 68 percent of Republicans calling abortion morally unacceptable, compared with 39 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Independents. On homosexuality, 54 percent of Republicans said it was morally unacceptable while just 31 percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Independents agreed.

Click through for a more detailed look at how the U.S. compares with the other countries surveyed:

Slideshow: How U.S. Morals Stack Up Against the World

Extramarital Affairs
84 percent of Americans find such relationships morally unacceptable, putting the U.S. in the top 15 countries finding it the most immoral. Bolivia and Brazil had the same percentage on the issue. Only 4 percent of Americans said they think extramarital affairs are morally acceptable.

There is a consensus across the 40 countries polled that having an extramarital affair is morally unacceptable as more than half of surveyed people in all but one country saying this is the case, Pew noted. But there is one notable exception in France, where 47 percent consider an affair immoral.

Abortion
Abortion is another hot topic in America, with nearly half of surveyed Americans who said they believe it to be morally unacceptable, a percentage similar to those found in Poland, Turkey or Senegal. Pew noted that globally, there’s little variation on this question by gender.

Homosexuality
Despite progress made in the U.S. on gay marriage, 37 percent of Americans still believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable. Generally speaking, half or more in most of the 40 nations polled say that homosexuality is unacceptable, but Europeans are much less likely to say so.

Premarital Sex
If Russians and Americans agree about one thing, it’s premarital sex. The survey found that 30 percent of Americans as well as 30 percent of Russians think premarital sex is morally unacceptable.

Again, people in predominantly Muslim nations agree that engaging in sex before marriage is unacceptable, while people in Western Europe are more accepting.

Gambling
The U.S. is at the bottom of the list of the countries finding gambling morally unacceptable, with 24 percent, ahead of France and Canada only. Gambling is generally less acceptable to those 50 and over and to women across much of the globe, noted Pew.

Divorce
A median of only 24 percent across the 40 countries polled say divorce is a moral wrong, with Africans countries like Ghana and Uganda finding it the most morally unacceptable and European nations finding it more acceptable. In the U.S., 22 percent of people think divorce is immoral.

Alcohol Use
Whether it’s a glass of Pinot with dinner or several beers at the pub, Americans like their booze, and only 16 percent of Americans believe drinking alcohol is morally unacceptable. Again, Muslim countries take the lead in the list of places where alcohol is frowned upon, while in Japan, 66 percent say drinking is morally acceptable.

Contraception Use
Few people in the 40 countries surveyed said the use of contraceptives is morally unacceptable. The percentage of people who hold this view is in the single digit in 17 nations, including in the U.S., where 7 percent of Americans think using contraception is immoral.

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Marine Cole has been covering finance and business for a decade and has written for publications that include The Wall Street Journal, Crain's New York Business, and AdvertisingAge.