Sex Research Update

By McKay, Alexander | The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Sex Research Update


McKay, Alexander, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality


This installment of Sex Research Update summarizes recent research on attitudes towards non-marital sex in 24 countries; perceptions of what behaviours constitute "having sex"; the prevalence and predictors of sexual dysfunction in the United States; gender differences in sexual risk behaviour after an STD diagnosis; a community-level HIV intervention in 5 cities; and the effectiveness of abstinence-based sexuality education.

Widmer, E.D., Treas, J., & Newcomb, R. (1998). Attitudes toward nonmarital sex in 24 countries. The Journal of Sex Research, 35, 349-358.

Although all cultures seek to regulate some aspects of sexual behaviour, particularly out of wedlock, they appear to vary in their moral attitudes toward premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality. It has been difficult to draw definitive conclusions about cultural differences on these issues because there has been little cross-cultural or cross-national research using identical questionnaire items and available studies have often not used nationally representative samples. Widmer, Treas, and Newcomb report on newly available survey findings on extramarital sex, homosexual sex, premarital sex, and teen sex from 24 countries. The nationally representative data were collected in 1994 as part of the International Social Survey Program. The total sample consisted of 33,590 people. Survey respondents were asked four questions about sexual morality: "Do you think it is wrong or not wrong for a man and woman to have sexual relations before marriage?"; "What if they are in their early teens, say under 16 years old?"; "What about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her husband or wife?"; "What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex?" For each item, respondents were asked to choose either "always wrong", "almost always wrong", "wrong only sometimes", or "not wrong at all".

For the entire sample of 24 countries, 61% of respondents believed that premarital sex is "not wrong at all". Sweden was the most accepting of premarital sex with 89% saying that it was not wrong whereas the Philippines was the least accepting with only 11% saying premarital sex was OK. In Canada, 69% of respondents believed that premarital sex was not wrong at all while only 41% of respondents from the U.S.A. held this view. Overall, 58% of respondents felt that sex before age 16 was always wrong. Northern Ireland was the least accepting of sex before age 16 with 81% saying it was always wrong whereas East Germany was the most accepting with only 27% saying it was wrong. In Canada, 55% felt it was always wrong compared to 71% in the U.S.A. Overall, 66% of respondents said that extramarital sex is always wrong. For this item, the Philippines was least accepting with 88% saying it was always wrong whereas Russia was most accepting with only 36% saying it was wrong. In Canada, 68% felt extramarital sex was always wrong compared to 80% in the U.S.A. Overall, 59% of respondents said that sexual relations between people of the same sex was always wrong. Once again, the Philippines was the least accepting with 84% saying it was always wrong and the Netherlands was the most accepting with only 19% saying it was always wrong. In Canada, 39% said it was always wrong compared to 70% in the U.S.A.

The authors use their findings to place each country into one of six clusters characterizing the countries' moral standards related to sexuality. The authors note that although countries with conservative moral standards toward sexuality tended to have a large proportion of people who are religiously conservative, not all countries with large populations of religious conservatives were conservative with respect to sexual norms (e.g., Italy). The results also indicate that with respect to the issues under investigation formerly communist countries do not have uniform moral standards related to sexuality.

In their concluding comments the authors suggest that:

   Because our analysis focuses on a relatively homogeneous subset of largely
   industrialized and Western nations in an increasingly globalized world, the
   potential for overlap in moral judgements about sex is undoubtedly high. … 

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