Irish attitude to sex undergoes dramatic shift over 30 years

There has been a dramatic change in the attitude of Irish people to a range of sexual behaviours, including sex before marriage…

There has been a dramatic change in the attitude of Irish people to a range of sexual behaviours, including sex before marriage, over the past three decades, according to new research.

The first large-scale study of sexual health and relationships in the State, published yesterday, found just six per cent of people now think premarital sex is always wrong, compared to 71 per cent of people back in 1973.

The survey of almost 7,500 people aged 18 to 64 years was commissioned by the Department of Health and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and carried out by the ESRI and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

It shows that over time people have also become more accepting of sex education in schools. At least 92 per cent of those surveyed supported sex education for young people on the subjects of sexual intercourse, sexual feelings, contraception, safer sex and homosexuality. Approximately 90 per cent of people who supported sex education favoured it being taught in school and around 80 per cent believed it should be provided in the home.


However, The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships found that 44 per cent of people had received no sex education at all, but most under 35s had received some.

Of those who received some form of sex education, just 29 per cent reported receiving it at home. A minority found talking to either parent about sex easy.

The research shows 40 per cent of the population consider one night stands to be "always wrong". Among the other 60 per cent, 16 per cent felt they are never wrong, 30 per cent believe they are sometimes wrong and 14 per cent believe they are mostly wrong.

The survey also confirms that attitudes to homosexuality in Ireland "have significantly softened in recent decades". It found the proportion of under 25s who hold the view that same sex relationships are never justified decreased by 66 per cent between 1981 and 2005. The proportion of those aged 55 to 64 with the same attitude decreased by 40 per cent over the same period. "This suggests that liberalisation has been most pronounced among younger Irish people," the report said.

The study also looked at issues like knowledge levels about risk of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV by asking three basic questions about the condition. About 30 per cent of the population got at least one answer wrong. "It is worrying that over two-fifths of men and around half of women with primary education alone do not have accurate knowledge about the risks of HIV," the report stated.

It also expressed concern that levels of knowledge about female fertility in Ireland "are poor" and falling. Just 31 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women could identify the time at which a woman is most fertile - half way between periods.

On issues around contraception some 32 per cent of women said the cost of the contraceptive pill would discourage them from using it and 15 per cent of the whole cohort said the cost of condoms would discourage their use.

The research found that among those using contraception the most common forms are condoms and the contraceptive pill. "Among married people, sterilisation is almost as common as use of the pill," it said.

Among those who did not use contraception, the most common reason cited was being post-menopausal. But among younger age groups the most commonly cited reason was drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

And some 14 per cent of those having sex for the first time with a partner they had just met said they did not use a condom because "they trusted" their partner would not have a sexually transmitted disease.

Overall some 2.7 per cent of men and 1.2 per cent of women identified themselves as homosexual or bisexual, but 7.1 per cent of men and 4.7 per cent of women reported a homosexual experience at some time in their life so far.

The study also established that most men who currently have sex with men have a similar number of partners as heterosexual men, but women with homosexual experience tend to have lower numbers of partners than the general female population.

Sexual health survey: main points

Most people believe young people today should receive sex education in school and in the home.

Only 6 per cent of the population now think sex before marriage is always wrong.

Just 40 per cent of Irish people consider one-night stands to be always wrong.

Some 64 per cent of the population believe abortion is acceptable in at least some circumstances.

52 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women think the morning-after pill should be available without prescription.

6.4 per cent of men say they have paid for sex at some stage in their life.

The age at which men first have sex has fallen by five years in the past four decades. The age at which women first have sex has fallen by six years. The median age at which under-25s now have sex is 17 years.

Some 2.7 per cent of men and 1.2 per cent of women in the State identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual.

Cost of contraception would discourage some from using it.