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Sex and Its Discontents: How Moral Incongruence Connects Same-Sex and Non-Marital Sexual Activity with Unhappiness

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A growing body of research has demonstrated how the link between pornography use and various manifestations of psychological distress and dissatisfaction is explained by moral incongruence—the experience of violating one’s deeply held moral values. The predictive power of moral incongruence, however, has yet to be applied to other sexual activities. Drawing on data from available waves of the General Social Surveys (1988–2018: nmen = 6590, nwomen = 7047; 1989–2018: nmen = 3558, nwomen = 4841), this study extended moral incongruence theory by testing whether engaging in same-sex or non-marital sexual activity when one rejects either as morally wrong is associated with a greater likelihood of reporting unhappiness. Analyses demonstrated that American men (but not women) who reported engaging in same-sex sex in the previous year were more likely than other men to say they were unhappy, but only if they viewed homosexuality as “always wrong.” Analyses also showed that American women (not men) who reported higher frequencies of non-marital sex in the previous year were more likely than other women to report being unhappy, but only if they viewed non-marital sex as “always wrong.” Though nuanced by gender, findings affirmed expectations from moral incongruence research: Sexual behavior per se is not associated with unhappiness, but moral inconsistency or conflict regarding one’s sexual behavior is.

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  1. Though related, moral incongruence is conceptually distinct from “cognitive dissonance” (Festinger 1962). Following Perry (2019a), moral incongruence is a more sociological concept describing a situation in which persons violate core values inculcated from their moral reference group. Cognitive dissonance refers to the acute psychological distress resulting from that value-behavior inconsistency. Moral incongruence, in other words, is a situation that provokes cognitive dissonance.

  2. To be sure, much of this finding may be attributable to the fact that studies have often drawn on clinical samples (Stein, Black, Shapira, & Spitzer, 2001) or samples of individuals who have already self-identified as having problems with their pornography use (Cooper, Griffin-Shelley, Delmonico, & Mathy, 2001). Others are based on samples of adolescents who might already be disposed to experiencing bouts of emotional instability, given common physical and social transitions during that stage in their life course (Owens, Behun, Manning, & Reid, 2012; Peter & Valkenburg, 2006, 2011; Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2007).

  3. While the authors acknowledge that other more comprehensive measures of subjective well-being or even depressive symptomatology might be preferable here, the GSS has rather infrequently asked questions about unspecified mental health problems (e.g., For how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?), and thus, asking about unhappiness is the best available indicator.

  4. As explained in the results section, sensitivity analyses were run with the original ordinal coding using ordinal logistic regression. Though the proportional odds assumption was violated for each model, affirming this study’s approach in dichotomizing the outcome, substantive findings are nearly identical (see Online Appendix Tables 3A and 4A).

  5. Since 2008, the GSS has also asked participants to indicate their sexual orientation. Ancillary analyses were conducted to assess whether significant numbers of persons who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual reported significant moral conflict. It was determined that almost no individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual report believing homosexuality is “always wrong.” This is likely because if a person is comfortable identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, they have reached a level of moral comfort regarding their sexual orientation. Thus we limit moral incongruence regarding homosexuality to behavior.

  6. In terms of actual numbers of men and women who reported situations of moral incongruence, 62 self-identified men reported having sex with a man in the previous year while also believing homosexuality is “always wrong.” For self-identified women, 43 reported having sex with a woman in the previous year while also believing homosexuality is “always wrong.” For incongruence regarding premarital sex, 47 unmarried respondents (17 males, 30 females) reported having sex 4 + times per week in the previous year while believing premarital sex was “always wrong.” All other cells for unmarried sex frequency (“not at all” to “2–3 times per week”) × believing premarital sex is always wrong had higher cell counts.

  7. As explained in the results section, sensitivity analyses were run in which the moral rejection coding was expanded for both homosexuality and non-marital sexuality to include anyone who said homosexuality or non-marital sex was 1 = always or almost always wrong, 0 = other. Results presented in Online Appendix Tables 5A and 6A were largely consistent with what is presented in Tables 3 and 4.


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Perry, S.L., Grubbs, J.B. & McElroy, E.E. Sex and Its Discontents: How Moral Incongruence Connects Same-Sex and Non-Marital Sexual Activity with Unhappiness. Arch Sex Behav 50, 683–694 (2021).

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  • Moral incongruence
  • Pornography
  • Non-marital sex
  • Homosexuality
  • Happiness