Sexual attitudes over time #2: Same-sex relations

While attitudes to premarital sex have been fairly stable since the early 1990s, attitudes to homosexuality have changed a lot. In 1993 more than half of the respondents to that year’s National Social Science Survey – 56% – though that sex between adults of the same sex was ‘always wrong’ and only a quarter thought that it was ‘not wrong at all’.

By 2009 the proportion of adults thinking that same-gender sex was ‘always wrong’ had decreased to 37% and those believing that it was ‘not wrong at all’ had increased to 47%, with another 10% thinking that it was wrong only sometimes. Still, a very large minority retains significant reservations about the morality of homosexuality.


All surveys, with minor variations in the opening: What do you think about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex?
1984 NSSS, 1993 NSSS, 1999-2000 International Social Survey, 2009 AuSSA:

Unsurprisingly, religous beliefs – or lack thereof – significantly influence opinion. At least pluralities of all people who describe themselves as religious think homosexuality is wrong, while at least pluralities of the non-religious think that homosexuality is not wrong at all.


Source: Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009

Also unsurprisingly, attitudes vary significantly by age, with those born before 1940 mostly believing homosexuality is wrong, while those born after 1960 mostly thinking that it is not wrong.


Source: Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009

These attitudinal shifts help explain why gay marriage has become a live issue, though unfortunately the AuSSA 2009 doesn’t have a question on it. While we would expect a high correlation between positive attitudes to homosexuality and gay marriage and vice-versa, the history of these issues suggests that people’s moral views don’t always drive their political views. Majorities were in favour of decriminalising homosexuality by the mid-1970s, despite majority moral approval being still 35 years away.

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Ryan Heath speculates on how the Gillard Cabinet would vote on gay marriage. If the decriminalisation of homosexuality is a guide, politicians will lag about seven years behind public opinion on this issue.

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Update 16/11: Roy Morgan trends:

18 Responses to “Sexual attitudes over time #2: Same-sex relations

  • 1
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    July 26th, 2010 20:23

    The mechanics of sex is not a moral issue. It is a religious taboo parading as a moral issue. So the connection to religious belief is to be expected.
    Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah captured how much of this is gay and lesbians becoming “just folks” when he wrote:
    In much of Europe and North America, in places where a generation ago homosexuals were social outcasts and homosexual acts were illegal, lesbian and gay couples are increasingly being recognized by their families, by society and by the law. This is true despite the continued opposition of major religious groups and a significant and persisting undercurrent of social disapproval. Both sides make arguments, some good, most bad. But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of “openly gay” people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people. Hence the attempts of religious conservatives to keep queer folk out of the public sphere (e.g. TV series): the more they become “just folks”, the more attempts to worry about the mechanics of sex look like an attack on people (as it is). The line of attack on them being that they have “betrayed” their humanity by failing to conform to the strictly binary identification of sex and gender. A case of blaming people for existing because folk have a theory that they shouldn’t, as in the Vatican’s position that they are metaphysically deformed: “objectively disordered” by virtue of being oriented towards “an intrinsic moral evil”. But progress is progress: the Vatican no longer burns people alive for getting married.

  • 2
    john malpas
    July 27th, 2010 13:40

    Quite a speech warby.

    the graphs could well just show the increasing skill in political correctness in thr general population.

    After all the gays have become an agressive and politically powerful force.

  • 3
    Baz (Da ordinary aussie)
    July 27th, 2010 14:09

    What you do in the bedroom….well I couldn’t really care less (so long as its consenting adults).
    But that doesn’t mean it aint weird. You can spin it all you want, but nature says no. You just aint meant to do it.
    And I think it shows to – that the ‘alternatives’ know what there doing is a little weird. Hence they run around saying and doing outlandish things, just begging for the attention. As I said, what do I care, but you have to agree most of em are a little funny.
    Interestingly, I’ve never subscribed to the theory that civilisation has gotten smarter over time. Technologically progressed, YES, but not smarter. And it wasn’t so long ago that the white coat brigade thought that the ‘alternatives’ were a little differrent – that they were mentally ill. Now all of a sudden, it’s not a mental illness and is perfectly normal. Suddenly all these past giants of science had it wrong. Pah-lease!

  • 4
    jtfsoon
    July 27th, 2010 14:17

    who were these giants of science who thought gays were mentally ill, baz? psychiatry was for the most part a pseudo science. people used to think bad parenting caused autism too. what a stupid argument.

    alan turing who helped win WW2 through his participation in enigma and gave us the modern computer committed suicide because of these ‘giants’.

  • 5
    Baz (Da ordinary aussie)
    July 27th, 2010 15:24

    Alan Turing committed suicide because he was mentally weak. Rest assured, no giants were involved.

  • 6
    Jeremy
    July 27th, 2010 20:08

    Any ideas as to why opinion changed so much over time?

  • 7
    Andrew Norton
    July 27th, 2010 20:22

    “Any ideas as to why opinion changed so much over time?”

    General liberalisation of sexual attitudes, which was in turn due to a decline in religion and reduced sexual risks (contraception, effective treatment of common STDs). Increased understanding that prevailing laws and norms caused huge misery – to gay people and their partners in sham marriages – for no good reason. General cultural moves against harsh treatment of minority groups.

  • 8
    john malpas
    July 28th, 2010 08:38

    And what is the current line on the percentage of people that are actively homosexual?
    Are they being denied anything more than say divorced heterosexual men

  • 9
    Jeremy
    July 28th, 2010 10:05

    Divorced heterosexuals can marry.

  • 10
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    July 28th, 2010 15:06

    After all the gays have become an agressive [sic] and politically powerful force. What, like the Jews? That was how Christian conservatives explained away Jews being treated as legal equals and becoming socially accepted: malign politics.
    Were black civil rights a case of political correctness? Equality for women pc? Or is that just abuse parading as analysis? Particularly as the graphs clearly show a long term trend extending well back before pc even evolved.
    Any ideas as to why opinion changed so much over time?
    Urbanisation meant various forms of diversity could hit “critical mass” in concentrations and permitted more anonymous living. The Jewish, female and black emancipation provided examples for aspiration and activism.
    Technological change, particularly female-controlled contraception, weakened the utility of church attendance as a signaling device.
    The expanding status of women included legitimising women’s sexuality. Social change begat more change, as the perspectives and issues permitted open discussion changed and expanded. In particular, sex became something between equals: and few things are more equal than same-sex activity. (Hence paedophilia becoming the great evil.)
    The general undermining of the authority of religion weakened the “you shouldn’t exist and it’s your fault you do” outlook and encouraged the notion of sexual ethics based on respect for others (indeed, a more human-centred ethics generally). If religious authority was not setting the framing, then what folk wanted, what they consented to, became the authority. Much followed from that alone.

  • 11
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    July 28th, 2010 15:47

    And what is the current line on the percentage of people that are actively homosexual?
    Complicated. In a recent large CDC study, of people aged 18-44, 6% of men and 12% of women had engaged in sexual activity with their own sex. But only 2.3% of men stated their orientation to be homosexual, another 1.8% said they were bisexual. Only 1.3% of women stated they were homosexual, another 2.8% said they were bisexual. On the other hand, 90% of both men and women stated they were heterosexual.
    It is interesting watching religious conservatives simultaneously claim it is only a small percentage BUT they are hugely powerful and corrupting. It is the same dynamic as one saw against Jews and for much the same reason: if they are not some great malign, corrupting force then it is just a large majority monstrously bullying a small and vulnerable minority by telling them they are against God, shouldn’t exist, for them to be treated as equals is outrageous, prey on children, corrupt whatever they touch, seek to undermine and destroy the society around them etc. (That Jew-hatred and queer-hatred engage in the same accusations is actually very revealing.)

  • 12
    Andrew Norton
    July 28th, 2010 20:33

    Similar numbers were recorded in the Sex in Australia Survey 2001-2. 6% of men and 9% of women reported some homosexual experience. But only 1.6% of men gave homosexual as their sexual identity, and another .9% said they were bisexual. 0.8% of women said they were homosexual and 1.4% bisexual.

  • 13
    Baz (Da ordinary aussie)
    July 29th, 2010 06:51

    All out of the system Michael?

  • 14
    john malpas
    July 29th, 2010 07:51

    Does not getting an orgasm ( from whichever) count as a definition ?
    And does not this all count towards the view that western society is totally debauched and should be replaced

  • 15
    Jeremy
    July 29th, 2010 11:47

    john – no and no.

  • 16
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Sexual attitudes over time #3: Extramarital sex
    July 30th, 2010 04:52

    […] attitudes to premarital sex and homosexuality have become more liberal over time, by contrast attitudes to extramarital sex seem to have become […]

  • 17
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    July 30th, 2010 08:58

    And does not this all count towards the view that western society is totally debauched and should be replaced
    Only if you are weirdly obsessive about sex.
    All out of the system Michael?
    I take it that you are totally bereft of anything resembling evidence and argument then?

  • 18
    Peter Patton
    August 5th, 2010 22:05

    Oscar Wilde said ‘there is no such thing as an immoral or moral book. Books are either well-written or badly written.’

    Similarly there is no such thing as right or wrong sex. There is only good sex or bad sex.

    I suspect a lot of the anti-gay brigade are projecting. 😉