Yes to gay marriage and premarital sex: a nation strips off its conservative values


ANALYSIS:There are signs of liberal consensus on once-divisive issues such as homosexuality

HAVE WE cast off the shackles of Catholic guilt over sex? Or are we as conservative as ever about life between the sheets?

If the results of the Irish Times/Behaviour Attitudes poll are anything to go by, the ground has shifted in the direction of a more liberal attitude to issues that were recently considered taboo.

As ever, there are age-related differences. Younger and middle-aged people are much more liberal. Older people are more likely to adopt a more conservative approach, though not in the numbers that might be expected.

In general, however, there are signs of consensus emerging across once-divisive issues such as cohabitation, same-sex marriage and the age of sexual consent.

Take homosexuality, which was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993. The poll shows the vast majority of people (91 per cent) would not think less of a person if that person were to reveal they were gay or lesbian. These numbers are consistently high across all age groups, and in urban and rural areas.

The Government has rejected gay marriage on the basis that a referendum to allow it would be divisive and unlikely to be approved by the electorate. Not according to this poll. It shows some 67 per cent of people feel gay couples should be allowed to marry.

Again, this majority extends across most age groups (with the exception of over-65s, who are divided on the issue). Even a large majority of Catholics (66 per cent) support the idea. Twenty-five per cent feel gay couples should not be allowed to marry – opposition that is concentrated among older people and those living in rural areas.

Similarly, most people (60 per cent) do not feel the recently enacted civil partnership legislation – which provides marriage-like privileges for same-sex couples – is an attack on marriage.

This liberal attitude does not extend in the same numbers to gay couples being given the right to adopt children.

Support for such a move falls to almost half (46 per cent), while more than one-third (38 per cent) are opposed.

Again, support is strongest among younger age groups and in urban areas, but falls away dramatically among older people.

Another area where liberal opinion prevails is in attitudes towards sex before marriage.

A large majority (79 per cent) do not think sex outside marriage is immoral. This majority extends across all age groups. When broken down by religion, most Catholics – again, 79 per cent – are not concerned about “living in sin” either.

In fact, when asked about the impact of cohabitation on marriage, a majority (57 per cent) believe cohabitation before marriage is more likely to result in stable marriages. A majority of all age groups agree, apart from those aged 65 or more, who are divided on the issue.

While many have a relaxed attitude towards sex before marriage, people have very mixed views about the value of virginity in a potential partner.

Half see it as a virtue, while the remainder either do not (36 per cent) or say they do not know (13 per cent). Those least likely to value virginity are young and middle-aged.

There are similar attitudes towards those who choose long-term celibacy for religious or moral reasons.

Just under half admire those who choose this life. Older people are much more likely to admire celibacy, while younger and middle-aged people are significantly less likely to do so. While almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of over-65s admire celibacy, this level falls to between 40 and 47 per cent among younger age groups.

Even among Catholics, respondents are just as divided.

While 51 per cent of Catholics admire celibacy, the remainder either do not (33 per cent) or say they do not know (16 per cent).

While there are signs of a liberal groundswell in general, this does not extend to all issues.

Most people believe it is only appropriate for young people to begin having sex when they reach 18 years of age.

Across all age groups – even among young people – 18 is the most popular age cited for young people to begin having sex.

Of the minority of people who believe the age of consent should be below 18, the numbers are highest among young people themselves. About 20 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 believe the age should be 17, while a similar number support the age being lowered to 16.

In contrast, just 5 per cent of those aged 65 or more say the age of consent should be set at 16 or 17.

There has been some concern over laws adopted in recent years which provide that boys can be prosecuted for having sex with girls under 17, even if the sex is consensual.

Girls cannot, however, be prosecuted for having sex with underage boys.

When asked about this, an overwhelming majority (87 per cent) feel our age-of-consent laws are incorrectly framed.

The extent of opposition is high among almost all age groups. Surprisingly, it is strongest among middle-aged and older people. In total, just 7 per cent say the laws are correct, while 6 per cent say they do not know.