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In a paper called ” From Shame to Game in One Hundred Years ,” three economists provide an economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatization. From the abstract:

Societies socialize children about many things, including sex. Socialization is costly. It uses scarce resources, such as time and effort. Parents weigh the marginal gains from socialization against its costs. Those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale indoctrinate their daughters less than others about the perils of premarital sex, because the latter will lose less from an out-of-wedlock birth. Modern contraceptives have profoundly affected the calculus for instilling sexual mores, leading to a de-stigmatization of sex. As contraception has become more effective there is less need for parents, churches and states to inculcate sexual mores. Technology affects culture.

A particular counterintuitive finding was that behavior often precedes societal attitudes:
In 1900, only 6% of U.S. women would have engaged in premarital sex by age 19. Now, 75% have experienced this. Public acceptance of this practice reacted with delay. Only 15% of women in 1968 had a permissive attitude toward premarital sex. At the time, though, about 40% of 19-year-old females had experienced it. The number with a permissive attitude had jumped to 45% by 1983, a time when 73% of 19-year-olds were sexually experienced. Thus, societal attitudes lagged practice.

Some historical examples of how premarital sex was stigmatized:


In 1601, the Lancashire Quarter sessions condemned an unmarried father and mother of a child to be publicly whipped.8 They then had to sit in the stocks still naked from the waist upwards. A placard on their heads read “These persons are punished for fornication.” In early America, a New Haven court in 1648 . . . ned a couple for having sex out of marriage.9 The magistrate ordered that the couple “be brought forth to the place of correction that they may be shamed.” He said that premarital sex was “a sin which lays them open to shame and punishment in this court. It is that which the Holy Ghost brands with the name of folly, it is wherein men show their brutishness, therefore as a whip is for the horse and asse, so a rod is for the fool’s back.” These were not isolated cases. The prosecution of single men or women either for “fornication”, or of married couples who had a child before wedlock, accounted for 53% of all criminal cases in Essex country, Massachusetts, between 1700 and 1785. Likewise, 69% of all criminal cases in New Haven between 1710 and 1750 were for premarital sex. In the Chesapeake Bay, when an unmarried woman gave birth to a child, she was levied a large . . . ne or, in case she could not pay, publicly whipped (see Fisher (1989).

The otherwise moderate and paci . . . c Quakers found that the English Crown decided in 1700 to suspend their Pennsylvania Law Code of 1683 against fornication because it was unreasonably harsh, a revealing judgement since the English crown was not particularly progressive in its views about crime and punishment. It is also telling that in colonial America, abortion was punished when it was intended to cover adultery or fornication; however, it was overlooked when it was used as a device to control fertility within a marriage. In Pennsylvania, the law was taken even one step further. If a bastard child was found dead, the mother was presumed to be guilty unless she could prove otherwise, overriding the general English law principle of presumption of innocence. This change in the principle of the law was particularly harsh, as the punishment for the crime was hanging.


(Via: Freakanomics )

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