Sexual attitudes over time #3: Extramarital sex

While attitudes to premarital sex and homosexuality have become more liberal over time, by contrast attitudes to extramarital sex seem to have become slightly more conservative.

Over time the question has changed from one which is gender specific to one that is not, but with both asked in the 1993 National Social Science Survey it seems that it does not make much difference. Both questions pick up on the same attitude to adultery.


1986-87 NSSS: A man and a woman who are in love have sexual intercourse before marriage…if the woman is married to someone else. Absolutely wrong/ Almost always wrong / Mostly wrong combined to ‘wrong’; Sometimes wrong sometimes right; Mostly right/ Almost always right / Absolutely right combined to ‘right’.
1993 (1) NSSS: same as 1986-87 NSSS
1993 (2) NSSS What about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her husband or wife, is it…? Always wrong / Almost always wrong combined to wrong; Wrong sometimes; Not wrong at all taken as ‘right’.
2009 AuSSA: Same as 1993 NSSS

Looking at the same-question 1993 and 2009 surveys, we can see that the increase in the proportion of population believing that extra-marital sex is wrong is driven by the ‘always wrong’ category.

Perhaps not surprisingly those who are married are most against extramarital sex, but not by much.


Source: Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009

According to stereotype, women are against playing around more than men, but both sexes overwhelmingly think that it is wrong.


Source: Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009

I am not surprised that views on this issue remain conservative. The trend in sexual attitudes is to reject the old taboos where they stop pleasure but do not prevent harm. Premarital and homosexual sex do not harm others, and so the old prohibitions have faded. But the emotional betrayal in extramarital sex can still hurt. The Sex in Australia survey found that 96% of people (same result for both sexes) in a heterosexual relatoinship expect their partner not to have sex with anyone else. It serves the interests of almost everyone in a relationship for this norm to be maintained.

The actual 12-month outside-of-relationship sex rates reported in the same survey are quite low: overall 5% for men and 3% for women, but only 2.5% for married men and 1.2% for married women.

I am not sure why attitudes seem to have changed since the early 1990s. An initial hypothesis was that people who have suffered from marriage breakdowns might be more against it, but that isn’t obvious when the results are presented by current marital status (though in cases where the relationship breakdown was due to adultery, we might expect very polarised views). Another related hypothesis which I can’t directly test from these data sources is that the children of broken relationships may be particularly attuned to the costs of sexual betrayal.

Whatever the explanation, this is a sexual attitude that has survived the sexual revolution. It seems very unlikely, as Bill Muehlenberg claims, that open gay relationships could undermine a norm that serves the emotional interests of most couples.

—–

The SMH on couples who practice ‘polyamory’.

3 thoughts on “Sexual attitudes over time #3: Extramarital sex

  1. With divorce becoming more common, the proportion of couples in a loveless marriage would presumably decrease.

    This would mean that there is less sympathy or understanding of an affair (from what sympathy existed in the first place), consolidating its position as “wrong”.

    My opinion circles tend to support your “minimal harm” approach to permissiveness (IMHO).

    Like

  2. llengib – I think that is an interesting idea, but do you think that it would explain a change since the early 1990s?

    Like

  3. If human-centred ethics, based on what people want, is becoming stronger, then betrayal of trust because even worse. But why that would shift over the last 16 years specifically is a bit harder to explain: maybe it is a Bill Clinton “I did not have sex with that woman” effect đŸ™‚ given that Hillary has been prominent during that entire period.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s