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Abstract

Objective To describe social attitudes towards sex of Australian adults and correlates of a scale of sexual liberalism.

MethodsComputer-assisted telephone interviews were completed by a representative sample of 10,173 men and 9,134 women aged 16–59 years. The overall response rate was 73.1% (69.4% men, 77.6% women). Respondents were asked about their agreement with nine attitude statements. Factor analysis and examination of internal consistency resulted in a six-item scale of liberalism. Correlates of attitude statements and the liberalism scale were examined.

Results Most people agreed that premarital sex was acceptable, that oral sex was considered ‘sex’, that sex was important for a sense of well-being and that extramarital sex was unacceptable. Men were more likely (36.9%) to disapprove of sex between two men than women were to disapprove of sex between two women (25.1%). Higher levels of education were associated with increased liberalism for men and women, as was speaking English at home, identifying as homosexual or bisexual, vaginal intercourse before age 16, having had more than one sexual partner in the year before interview, having had heterosexual anal intercourse, having no religion or faith, smoking tobacco, and drinking more alcohol.

Conclusion Sexual attitudes of Australians largely support a heterosexual paradigm with no sex outside the relationship. High levels of approval of premarital sex are consistent with decreasing age of first intercourse in Australia. Higher levels of liberalism were associated with greater sexual adventurism and health risk taking.