What’s Happening to Young Evangelical Women?

Tracking an alarming rise in lesbian and bisexual relationships

We have grown accustomed to a great deal of concern over the recent trajectory of males, particularly boys and young men. These concerns are well-founded. Addiction to porn and video games, the lack of fathers modeling positive masculinity in the face of high divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates, and lower levels of academic achievement for men are all well documented. So are men’s higher levels of suicide, substance abuse, crime, and delinquency.

However, there are frightening trends among females that deserve our attention as well. Nowhere is this clearer—at least for conservative Christian believers concerned with transmitting a sound, biblical sexual ethic to the next generation—than in matters related to beliefs about sexuality and sexual practice. Here especially we often assume that females are at least doing better than males, even while recognizing decline among both. Yet overall, this is not true, and in a handful of important ways women are doing worse. Regardless, there are serious problems among religious females. Those charged with providing moral direction for young believers, including not only parents and Christian school teachers but also pastors and youth workers, need to pay more attention to what is happening among young Christian women.

Allow me to set forth a sampling of facts from my own, recently published work on sexual activity and beliefs, focusing on professed Evangelicals: the largest conservative wing of Protestantism.1 I do this not to scandalize or humiliate, but to inform.

First, let’s take a look at behaviors. As I set forth in my just-released Against the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical (Lexham Press, 2022), in the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a huge survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-third of evangelical girls ages 15 to 17 admitted to having had sexual intercourse. This compares to 22 percent of evangelical males of that age. By ages 23 to 32, 83 percent of both unmarried evangelical males and females had engaged in sex.2 Among all evangelical women, regardless of marital status, who had ever had sexual intercourse, 9 percent had begun by age 13, 18 percent by age 14, and 33 percent by age 15.3 To be sure, on this last point, males didn’t do much better (or surprisingly, worse). However, considering the greater risks this activity poses to women, especially at these ages, this should be a matter of great concern not only spiritually, but practically.4

Same-sex sexual relations among evangelical women are quite concerning, and dramatically more common among them than among evangelical males. As I documented recently in the pages of this publication, 17 percent of evangelical women ages 15 to 44 in the most recent NSFG admitted to having had sexual relations with another female, up from 13 percent only about six years earlier. For those 23 to 32, at least one in five had. Male percentages had changed little and stood at about 5 percent. Meanwhile, while evangelical males 15 to 44 were more a bit more likely to identify as homosexual or gay (1.7 versus 1.1 percent), evangelical females were much more likely to identify as bisexual (1.4 versus 4.6 percent). Combining these, we see that at least 5.7 percent of these evangelical females claimed something other than a heterosexual orientation, compared to 3.1 percent of the males.5

With regard to sexual beliefs regarding heterosexual sex outside of marriage, the moral drift among young evangelicals is alarming, but do not show clear gender differences. The vast majority of professed evangelical older teens and younger adults no longer believe that consensual heterosexual sex outside of marriage is always morally wrong.6

The NSFG provides a detailed look at the degree to which evangelical teens and young adults believe that same-sex sexual relations are morally wrong.7 55 percent of females either thought that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “alright,” or took a middle or agnostic position on the issue. This compares to 46 percent of males holding similar positions on this issue. Moreover, while both genders have become much more liberal on gay sex since the NSFG first started tracking this in their 2006 through 2010 cycle8 (among evangelicals, 22 percent of males and 28 percent of females approved of same-sex relations in that period), females have consistently been more likely to be so. The gap between the sexes on this for the five NSFG surveys conducted between 2006-10 and 2017-19 had been as high as 14, and never lower than 6, percentage points.

But this is nothing compared to what we see among the youngest groups of evangelicals on this issue. In the latest NSFG, 70 percent of females ages 15 to 17, and 63 percent of those 18 to 22, refused to say that gay sex was immoral. This compares to 45 and 50 percent among males, respectively. In every age group I examined between 15 and 49 years of age except those 23 to 27 and 43 to 49, females were more likely to hold the liberal view. And it was only among the last group of evangelical women that a majority of females held a conservative position (62 percent rejecting the idea that gay sex is alright, versus 57 percent for males).

A decisive majority of young evangelical females reject the biblical teaching that same-sex relations are sinful. Yet I see few evangelical leaders speaking about this, and little being done directly to fix it.

Overall, as both my aforementioned book and article underscore, sexual orthodoxy in belief and practice is much higher among those evangelicals who show higher levels of commitment to their faith. For example, those who attend church more regularly, and rate their faith of greater importance in guiding their daily lives, do markedly better.

However, this makes the gender breakdowns we are seeing—both where the views of the sexes are about the same and especially where the females are more liberal—more puzzling. After all, women are generally more religiously active and committed than men. For example, in the last NSFG, among evangelicals 15 to 49 overall, females were significantly more likely than males to attend church at least weekly. Although it is not as different or statistically significant, this pattern continued to be true among younger believers 15 to 22. And for both those 15 to 49 overall, and for those 15 to 22, evangelical females are much more likely than males to consider their faith to be very important to their daily lives, and much less likely to consider it unimportant.

We can confidently say that on any sexual area where evangelical females are more liberal or sexually active than males, gender differences are not due to women being less religiously committed. Quite the contrary.

Moreover, even when we look only at those who claim to be more religiously committed, evangelical females are not doing that well. For example, in the most recent NSFG, among those who claim to attend church once a week or more, an incredible 14 percent of those 15 to 17 have already had sex with another female, then 11 percent at ages 18 to 22, 8 percent for those 23 to 27, then up to 12 percent at ages 28 to 32 and an astounding 16 percent for those 33 to 37. As for sexual intercourse among the unmarried, among evangelical females who attend church at least weekly, 37 percent have done so by ages 15 to 17, and well over half of those 18 to 22 and 23 to 27, respectively. Among those who are still unmarried by ages 28 to 32, and 33 to 37, the percentages are 88 and 97, respectively. How well are evangelical pastors grasping, much less responding to, these kinds of statistics among their regular church-going young people and singles?

So, what to do? Certainly, the correct answer is not “nothing.” Nor is the correct answer “modify our teachings on sex outside of marriage between one man and one woman to accommodate modern sensibilities.” Not if we want to be faithful to biblical teaching and, by extension, to our Lord. Pundits claim that evangelical churches that soften the biblical sexual ethic will better keep and attract more young people. Not only should we reject this kind of crass pragmatism, but we should counter by asking how that has worked out for liberal, mainline churches. The number of liberals attracted to a church that adopted a liberal sexual ethic would be far less than the number of biblical conservatives driven away. In my most recent book, I cover a wide range of theological, cultural, and social factors that have undermined adherence to biblical sexual beliefs and practices. At the end, I pull them together in a succinct chapter setting forth action plans for churches and parents. It would be too much to address those in detail here. These include making sure that all the saints receive firm instruction in biblical theology and anthropology—including the true nature and deadliness of sin, the awe-inspiring holiness of our God, and the degree to which he desires we pursue “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:4, ESV). This means directly confronting the poison of moral relativism and the warped, “small” view of God that characterizes “moralistic therapeutic deism”—God as a chum and therapist who just wants us to be “happy”— the view held by a growing number of evangelicals. Regular attention to the basic disciplines of the Christian faith, including church attendance, Bible study, prayer, transparency, and accountability, are vital for anyone who wishes to grow as a believer.

Churches need to provide direct teaching on sex, including why and how God has morally tied it to covenantal, heterosexual, monogamous marriage bonds rather than its being acceptable whenever it is simply consensual, “safe,” and non-abusive. This means understanding its beauty within God’s design and perversion outside of that. Christians need to know about the true dangers and consequences of premarital sex, especially when it is promiscuous and begun at young ages. These go well beyond sexual diseases and pregnancies in ways few lay people are aware of.

Then there needs to be attention paid to strong marriages, deeply committed and wise parenting, paying healthy attention to peer relations, media influences, unnecessarily delay of marriage, and the like.

In short, I recommend a comprehensive strategy rooted in sound theology, cultural awareness, and wise practicality, informed by and rooted in Scripture. Social science, interestingly, supports the efficacy of all of these approaches. But that is just to say that reality is consistent with the word of God, and that we do best when we do things God’s way.

What about our young women in particular? I would like to advance four ideas that reflect what we know about the differences between men and women in light of our current cultural moment, while suggesting strategies that make sense in addressing them.

First, compared to males, females are much more nurturing, sympathetic, and sensitive, wanting harmony and unity in relationships. Meanwhile people increasingly view rejecting others’ sexual behaviors, and particularly calling out gay sexual relationships and orientation and things such as transgender identity, as hating, personally attacking, and rejecting the persons who practice such things. The claim that challenging LGBTQ+ ideologies denies the existence or humanity of such people is now commonplace. Because of the good and natural bent of women towards maintaining social harmony, the modern framing of LGBT issues is particularly effective in swaying women. When expressing a firm moral stance in areas as politicized as sexual expression is viewed by so many as cruel rejection, particularly when these others are so often viewed as victimized and hurting people, it is not hard to see that those who are more nurturant, interpersonally sensitive, and desirous of harmony would find it especially hard to do so.

It is therefore especially important to stress to evangelical young people that real love and sympathetic care require holding to and stating the truth, no matter what most people believe. True love seeks to protect others from physical, relational, and spiritual harm. With this, we need to teach and model concrete strategies for being kind and gentle while remaining direct and honest on sensitive topics. Communicating the real love and care involved in confronting sin, and sound strategies for doing so, are biblical and constructive solutions.

Second, increasing numbers of women say their relational connections with males are not satisfying, drawing them toward other women. Broken romances and viewing males as emotionally distant and relationally undependable seem to contribute to this growing disconnect. Then, as same-sex sexual identification and behavior becomes more common among young women, it becomes further reinforced within their peer networks.9 This is a dangerous cycle.

Another thing that is increasingly turning young women off to men are their soaring levels of pornographic usage and even addiction, as psychologist Leonard Sax has noted. This impacts male-female dating and romantic relationships, and the degree to which females trust and respect men, in powerfully negative ways. As Sax, reflecting on this issue, put it, “Are there so many girl-girl couples out there because the guys are such losers?”10

Is that an issue among evangelical males? Absolutely. Josh McDowell Ministries and Barna Research found that, among those they called “practicing Christians”—which at least include religiously involved evangelicals—41 percent of males ages 13 to 24, and 23 percent 25 and older, seek out porn on the Internet at least monthly. Of these, about 4 in 10 are perfectly comfortable with doing so, and another 2 in 10 want to reduce, but not eliminate, their porn usage. Meanwhile, in the GSS for 2010 through 2018 combined, over half of never married evangelical Protestant males had watched a pornographic film at some point during the year in which they were surveyed.11

These above factors “turning off” women to men could not only contribute to their increased willingness to consider sexual intimacy with other women, but also to men’s more conservative views on homosexuality not influencing women as much as might be expected.

Major “fixes” focus on men, not women, and involve the church discipling young men. That includes encouraging young Christian men toward emotional and relational maturity, civility, kindness, gentleness, appropriate strength, and integrity overall, and especially toward women. This includes addressing, teaching, discipling, and establishing accountability to help men repent and turn away from pornography. The latter is an especially urgent need. Let’s face it: women are increasingly turned off by young men acting and thinking in these ways.

Third, we need to be honest about the fact that young women often have a type of emotionally passionate relationship with others of the same sex that would be uncomfortable for and foreign to most men. We also need to recognize how common physical attraction between women is.12 This make overtly romantic or sexual relationships with other women seem to be just a short step, given how agents of today’s highly sexualized, LGBTQ+ heavy, culture have conditioned young people to view such attraction. In the NSFG since 2011, among evangelicals 15 to 44, between 94 and 96 percent of males claimed that only females sexually attracted them. But among females, the percentages only sexually attracted to males were 87 to 89 percent. In the latest NSFG, less than 1 percent of evangelical women ages 15 to 49 said that their sexual attractions were exclusively directed towards women. However, this left 11 percent sexually attracted to both men and women.13 Overall, social scientists have long known that the sexual identification of women is more “malleable” than it is for men.14 NSFG data for evangelicals clearly reflects this.

These realities about the ways women relate to and view close female friends suggest that we need to find ways to talk honestly to young women about their feelings about and perceptions of other women. In doing so, we should help them to frame their uniquely feminine approach in biblical ways. Just as in today’s world young women need to understand that being a tomboy does not mean they are transgender, so also they need to understand that appreciating female beauty and being comfortable with emotional, and even various types of physical, intimacy with other women does not mean that they are bisexual or gay. Similarly, none of this is a greenlight for them to move into overtly romantic or sexual relationships with other women.

As a father of four daughters and two sons I have observed the ways that my daughters relate to their closest friends differently. I think of my time in South Korea, where women who are close friends still hold hands or lock arms as they chat, walking down the street. I cannot imagine my sons’ male friends fixing each other’s hair, but women do this kind of thing all of the time. In our sexualized culture, with so much LGBT pressure, this can take on an unnatural meaning and lead to unnecessary confusion. Certainly, a lot of people today—peers and even friends, within and outside of the professing churches—will encourage our young women to think of such things in sexual terms. We can be more attuned to that peer pressure, and help our young women make sense of this in ways that honor God while also appreciating those perfectly healthy aspects of femininity.

Fourth, to the extent that same-sex behavior is more common among girls, and then also more known and normalized within their peer networks, more liberal attitudes about same-sex relationships are almost inevitable. One of the great truisms in social science is that our morals and behaviors tend to align over time with those in our social circles, and that our values tend to reflect what is common among our friends. If same-sex relationships are more accepted and common among females, it is also more likely that they will become more liberal on this issue.

Addressing this last factor involves doing something else we should be doing anyway, namely remaining tuned in to our children’s peer relationships, and making corrective interventions when necessary. That includes having honest communications with them about what their peers think, what they talk about, the kinds of pressures and challenges they are facing from their peers in thinking and living as a Christian.

I know that in this article I am tackling sensitive subjects and presenting pretty dismal facts. However, we have never fixed problems by hiding from them, nor do we repent of sin without acknowledging it. Certainly, the Bible tackles sensitive subjects with honesty and grace and speaks to every culture and time period from the standpoint of God’s unvarying moral laws, and therefore so should we.

The sexual dimension of human existence is absolutely central to God’s design. It is profoundly beautiful, life-generating, and it deepens the bonds between husbands and wives. The sexual arena has become deeply contested and perverted in modern culture because Satan himself knows that by striking at this—by stirring up sexual confusion, apostasy, and disobedience—he is undermining a vital element of human life and thus bringing devastation on the human race and God’s people. Our children are facing sexual onslaught well beyond anything that the majority of an older generation ever dealt with in our youth. We can and must do all we can to help them.

*Image Credit: Pexels

  1. For how I define and measure “Evangelical Protestant,” please see my book and article cited below.
  2. See After the Revolution, table on page 109 versus the one on page 108.
  3. After the Revolution, page 110. Those who started by 13 are included among those who began by 14, and so on.
  4. I will not get into the dismaying level to which unmarried evangelicals are engaged, even at young ages, with other forms of heterosexual sexual activity, some of which are degrading and even dangerous. The NSFG collects a lot of details on them, as one would expect the nation’s premier public health agency to do. I address those in my latest book. Suffice it to say that the facts are alarming.
  5. Especially given that many survey respondents, particularly more religious ones, are reluctant to admit to these things, the actual percentages are almost certainly higher than the NSFG shows.
  6. After the Revolution, pp. 79-81 on those 18 to 29 based upon the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS only goes down to age 18, and if broken into too many subgroups (example: evangelicals ages 18 to 22) the sample becomes too small to provide accurate estimates.
  7. It not only addresses this directly (but does not do so for attitudes about non-marital heterosexual sex) but uses much larger samples within which subgroups can be examined with more confidence. Again, this is from my recent piece in American Reformer, hyperlinked above.
  8. The NSFG surveys are administered over a period of about two years normally, but in the first one that asked about acceptance of homosexuality, this was a four-year period.
  9. A prescient article in the Washington Post by Laura Sessions Stepp on January 4, 2004, called “Partway Gay” dove into the disproportionate rise in bisexual identity among young females and addressed these factors, drawing on experts and published research. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/2004/01/04/partway-gay/ef7bd193-a83b-42ad-9f6b-657116a706b4/
  10. “Why Are So Many Girls Lesbian or Bisexual?,” in Psychology Today, April 3, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sax-sex/201004/why-are-so-many-girls-lesbian-or-bisexual
  11. After the Revolution, pp. 121-23.
  12. See the above Streep and Sax articles, and many other sources.
  13. 7.5 percent “mostly males,” 3.1% “equally males and females,” and .4 percent “mostly females.”
  14. See the Sax article, above.

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David Ayers

David Ayers David Ayers is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Social Work at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, where he has been employed since 1996 as a faculty member, as well as former Dean of the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He and his wife Kathy have been blessed with six children, three son-in-laws, and six grandchildren. Ayers has written two brief Sociology textbooks, then most recently Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham, 2019), Why Would Anyone Want to Get Married? (Core Christianity, 2022) and the recently released After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical (Lexham, 2022). He contributed a chapter to John Piper and Wayne Grudem's award-winning Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway, 1991, 2012), his article on cohabitation among evangelicals appeared in the April 2021 Christianity Today, and Ayers writes for outlets including The Gospel Coalition, Modern Reformation, Crisis Magazine, and the Institute for Family Studies.