Trends and Countertrends in Sexual Permissiveness: Three Decades of Attitude Change in the Netherlands 1965-1995

Article excerpt

Using longitudinal data from 8 surveys on attitude change in the Netherlands, I tried to clarify trends in sexual permissiveness since the 1960s. In explaining these changes, time-period effects proved most important, whereas cohort replacement appeared to be of minor significance. Hence, changing attitudes toward permissiveness are best understood in terms of structural developments (period effects) through which everybody in society is affected. Furthermore, this study found that churches are successful in keeping their members from developing progressive opinions. With respect to age, the growing-conservative-when-- growing-older argument also holds for sexual permissiveness. A description of gender-specific trends revealed that gender differences were relatively constant over time. Only with respect to `sex before marriage in a stable relationship', was a convergence of the gap established.

Key Words: attitudes, gender, permissiveness, sexuality, trends.

The `sexual revolution' is a much-used metaphor in discussions on social changes that have taken place since the late 1960s. This so-called revolution seems particularly meaningful in the explanation of changing attitudes on issues associated with the emancipation of sexuality. With regard to the United States, a large body of empirical studies on sexual permissiveness is available. Yet, although much research has been done on the subject, surprisingly little is known about how attitude change in sexual permissiveness should in fact be understood, and how socioeconomic, religious, and demographic characteristics affect a person's opinions. So far, research on sexual permissiveness often remained rather descriptive (King, Balswick, & Robinson, 1977; Robinson, Ziss, Ganza, Katz, & Robinson, 1991; Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, & Kolata, 1994; Thornton, 1989), and only few studies employed nationally representative samples (King et al., Robinson & Jedlicka, 1982; Thornton & Camburn, 1989). Recently, the prominent study of Michael et al. proved to be informative on present sexual practices and preferences in the United States. Despite its importance, the study did not address questions of social change, and the researchers did not apply multivariate techniques to unravel the social differentiation of normative orientations on sexuality.

A central issue in research on sexual permissiveness is the observation that opinions are subject to change over time (Petersen & Donnenwerth, 1997; Robinson et al., 1991; Smith, 1990; Thornton, 1989). Regarding premarital and extramarital sexuality, it may be stated that liberal opinions gained support over the last decades. At the same time, however, only few studies acknowledge that two competing explanations of this trend can be conceived. Attitudes in society may change as a result of cohort replacement, time-period effects, or both (Alwin & Scott, 1996; Glenn, 1977). Cohort replacement involves the entrance in, or exit from, society of people with distinctive opinions (as a consequence of birth and death), whereas the time-period effect involves net shifts in attitudes among all individuals present at a certain time in society.

First, this study considers the attitude change in sexual permissiveness that has occurred in the Netherlands since 1965 and also addresses the question to what extent these changes can be attributed to cohort replacement on the one hand and to overall societal developments (period effects) on the other. To unravel the separate influences of cohort and period, I applied the method of specifying theoretical relevant indicators of cohort-specific experiences, as suggested by Rodgers (1990) and Menard (1991). In providing a proper test of both mechanisms of social change, I controlled for composition effects as well (Alwin & Krosnick, 1991; Firebaugh, 1989). Unlike previous research, which was rather limited in considering explanatory factors for the subscribing to liberal opinions on sexuality, this study includes several socioeconomic, religious, and demographic features. …