Sexual attitudes over time #1: Premarital sex

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009 has some questions on sexual attitudes, which lets us track some trends since the 1980s. Today, attitudes to premarital sex.

The figure below shows that when the National Social Science Survey 1986-87 was taken casual sex wasn’t viewed positively by most respondents, but when the couple were in love a small majority thought that it was ok. The 1993 NSSS and the 2009 AuSSA show that attitudes have become more liberal since the 1980s, though it is not clear whether respondents in 1993 and 2009 would have distinguished between casual and relationship sex if asked.


1986-87 NSSS: A man and a woman who are in love have sexual intercourse before marriage / And if they are just casual acquaintances?: Mostly right / Almost always right / Absolutely right combined to total ‘approve’.
1993 NSSS: Do you think it is wrong or not wrong if a man and a woman have sexual relations before marriage?: Not wrong at all taken as ‘approve’
2009 AuSSA: Same as 1993 NSSS.

Though pre-marital sex was acceptable by the mid-1980s provided there was love involved, it took longer for these attitudes to be reflected in related behaviour, such as living together before marriage as these ABS statistics show.

There has also been a slow but steady increase in the proportion of children born outside of marriage:

The slow-moving response of relationship and reproductive behaviour to changed sexual attitudes is interesting. There seems to be a gap between people accepting that marriage does not need to come before live-in sexual relationships and having children and being willing to do so themselves. Possible reasons include holding personal (eg religious) views on the subject but not believing that these should apply to others, or not personally having any objection but deferring to the views of important others (eg parents).

6 thoughts on “Sexual attitudes over time #1: Premarital sex

  1. Hi Andrew –
    There may indeed be a “slow-moving response of relationship and reproductive behaviour to changed sexual attitudes”, but that data doesn’t show it: having premarital sex and living together are very different things. The first isn’t seen as a threat to marriage as an institution, but the second is – so when I was younger it was common for people to be quite relaxed about sex (even casual sex) but strongly disapproving of cohabitation.

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  2. Charles – True, but approval of a premarital sex is a precondition to approving of cohabitation. I’ll see if there are questions on cohabitation attitudes.

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  3. Interesting results.

    The Case for Marriage reveals how cohabitating couples are more likely to divorce for a number of reasons. Bad news for children.

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  4. Ben – Divorce implies marriage, not cohabitation. Irresponsible parentage is the real problem, regardless of martial status – though continuing a broken marriage “for the children” is probably the worst outcome for kids overall.

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