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Premarital sexuality: a five-year follow-up study of attitudes and behavior by dating stage.

The primary purpose of this study was to examine the state of premarital sexual attitudes and behavior among college students during the 1980s. Respondents surveyed in 1988 were compared to those studied in 1983. Data from both studies permit us to judge the direction in which the "sexual revolution" moved in the 1980s and to assess the degree to which concern about contracting AIDS affected premarital sexual attitudes and behavior.

Studies conducted in the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s indicated a growing permissiveness in premarital sexual attitudes and behavior (Bell & Chaskes, 1970; Ferrel et al., 1977; King et al., 1977; Mahoney, 1978; Glenn & Weaver, 1979; DeLamater & MacCorquodale, 1979; Bell & Coughey, 1980; Roche, 1986; Earle & Perricone, 1986). However, recently some have contended that public concern about the spread of AIDS in the heterosexual population has halted and reversed this trend toward greater permissiveness (Chapple & Talbot, 1989). Others believe that college-age heterosexuals are not too concerned about AIDS. It is said that young men and women believe and act as if AIDS could never happen to them (Rubin, 1990).

Even before there was concern about the spread of AIDS in the heterosexual population, some felt that young people in the 1980s were becoming more conservative in their attitudes toward premarital sex. One study done in 1980 found an increase in the percentage of students who regarded premarital sex as immoral or sinful (Robinson & Jedlicka, 1982). However, these researchers did not find any decline in the frequency of reported sexual behavior. Also, a review of the literature and a study of 280 students in our 1983 study did not find any significant evidence of a decline in the liberalization of the 1970s and early 1980s. Still, some writers sense that there has been a movement in the conservative direction since the early 1980s.

This 1988 follow-up study allowed us to measure the direction and magnitude of change in premarital sexual attitudes and behavior during the 1980s. It provided information regarding respondents' views as to what they think is proper sexual behavior, what they do, and what they think others are doing at five dating stages. The influence of social factors such as age, gender, religion, father's education, mother's education, nationality, residence, and, religiosity was examined. Respondents' views and experiences regarding cohabitation, changes in behavior and attitude since learning about AIDS, and views as to the morality of premarital sex were also explored.


The sample for this 1988 survey consisted of students enrolled in undergraduate social science classes at a state college in southern New England. The characteristics of the 268 students included in this 1988 sample reflect the general composition of the college's student body. The sample was 97% white and almost 80% Roman Catholic. Approximately 70% of the students were of Italian (37%), Irish (21%), or French-Canadian (12%) background. About 60% lived at home with their parents and commuted to college. Thus, this sample included a high percentage of Roman Catholics, commuters, and students of urban ethnic and working-class backgrounds. The composition of the 1988 and 1983 samples was quite similar. The 1988 sample was nonrandom and therefore tests of significance were used in an explanatory sense. Results indicate relationships that appear to be significant, but further research is needed before these findings may be confidently asserted.

The questionnaire used in the 1988 study was essentially the same as the one used in the 1983 research. The only significant difference was that the 1988 questionnaire contained more detailed questions regarding oral-genital contact and several questions regarding AIDS. The 72-item questionnaire gathered basic demographic information and asked respondents what they thought was proper premarital behavior at five dating stages, what they did at these five dating stages, and what they thought others were doing at these stages. General attitudes regarding the respondents' moral view of premarital sex and attitudes toward and experience with cohabitation were examined.

Respondents were informed that the questionnaire was to be used in a study of premarital sexual attitudes and behavior. Questionnaires were administered in the classroom with a faculty member present. Students were asked to fill out the questionnaires in a conscientious manner. Students placed the questionnaires in a large envelope at the back of the classroom. Approximately 98% returned completed questionnaires.


Respondents were asked to select a behavior which they thought was appropriate at each dating stage. The eight dating behaviors were: (1) no physical contact, (2) a good-night kiss, (3) several hugs and kisses, (4) prolonged kissing and hugging, (5) light petting (above the waist), (6) heavy petting (below the waist), (7) mutual masturbation, and (8) sexual intercourse. A separate series of questions was used to ascertain when respondents thought oral-genital contact (giving and receiving) was appropriate, because such behavior was not consistently ranked as more or less intimate than coitus.


Proper Behavior

Table 1 shows the percentage of respondents who thought a given sexual behavior to be proper by dating stage and gender. As expected, both males and females showed an increase in permissiveness at each succeeding dating stage. However, males were clearly more permissive in their attitude as to what was proper sexual behavior in the early stages of dating. By Stage 4, however, this "gender gap" had largely disappeared. A similar pattern was found among the 1983 sample.

In the early stages of dating, males and females were often "out of sync" and must have experienced some disagreement, frustration, and TABULAR DATA OMITTED conflict. One recent study also noted the major role that conflict played in the early stages of dating (Christopher & Cate, 1988). In the present study, males expected sexual intimacy sooner in the relationship than did females. Many females continued to associate intimacy with commitment and caring. For example, only 15% of the females thought that intercourse was proper at Stage 3 (dating and being in love); however, by Stage 4 (dating one person only and being in love), 52% of the females thought that sexual intercourse was proper. Virtually no females thought that sexual intercourse was proper in the first two stages of dating, but 17% of the males felt that such activity was appropriate. These findings regarding proper conduct among the 1988 sample were consistent with the pattern found in the 1983 study.

Reported Behavior

As expected, the more intimate the sexual behavior, the smaller the percentage of males and females reporting it at each stage of dating. As dating moves from Stage 1 through Stage 5, a higher percentage of the sample consistently reported more intimate behavior. Both males and females engaged in more permissive behavior than they believed was proper. The only exception was found among the small number of males who had reached the engagement stage.

The reported behavior of males and females varied widely in the first three stages of dating, with males being considerably more permissive than females. For example, by Stage 3, 60% of the males reported experiencing intercourse, while only 16% of the females reported such behavior. By Stage 4, the percentage of females reporting that they had experienced intercourse increased significantly. Also, at this stage, males and females reported similar levels of light and heavy petting. By Stage 5 (engaged), male-female differences were slight; in fact, a higher percentage of females reported heavy petting and intercourse.

This male-female difference in reported experience with sexual intercourse has been found in other studies (Schulz et al., 1977; Knox & Wilson, 1981; McCabe, 1987). The difference may be explained by the small number of females engaging in sex with numerous males, by males including experiences with prostitutes, by males having sexual relations with noncollege women, or by males and females having a different sense of the particular stage at which they were dating when intercourse occurred. Perhaps some females believed that they were at Stage 4 in the relationship, while their male partners perceived the relationship to be only at Stage 3.

Perception of Others' Behavior

Table 1 indicates that the respondents were most conservative in what they thought was proper behavior, more permissive in their reported behavior, and most permissive in what they believed others were doing. However, in the early stages of dating, males saw others as having about the same standards as they had themselves. By Stages 3 and 4, males saw others as slightly more permissive. Females, on the other hand, consistently perceived others as more permissive in their premarital behavior than they themselves thought was proper or reported about their own behavior. For example, at Stage 3, only 16% of the females reported experiencing intercourse, but they believed that 58% of others have had such an experience. The indication is that many of the respondents, especially females, had an inaccurate image of the extent of premarital sexual behavior, or their perception of what others are doing is focused on male behavior. If others can be seen as a reference group, the pull is toward permissiveness.

Oral-Genital Contact

The 1988 survey differentiated between giving and receiving oral-genital stimulation. With regard to receiving oral-genital contact, only 1% of the males and 0% of the females believed it was proper to engage in this behavior during casual dating. However, 37% of the males and 5% of the females reported that they received oral sex at this stage. Males thought that 40% of others received oral sex while females believed that 16% of others did so. By Stages 2 and 3, 36% and 56%, respectively, of males thought such behavior proper, while only 4% and 20% of females agreed. By Stage 3, males believed that 91% of others received oral-genital contact, while among females, 73% thought others received such stimulation.

A similar pattern was found among the respondents regarding the appropriateness of giving oral-genital stimulation. Males were considerably more permissive in their attitude during the first three dating stages. For females, the big change occurred during Stage 4 (in love and dating only one person). The percentage of females who believed giving oral-genital stimulation was proper rose from 14% (Stage 3) to 65% (Stage 4). Also by Stage 4, what was thought to be proper was very similar to reported behavior for both males and females. Again, the differences between reported behavior and proper behavior were greatest during the early stages of dating. For all five stages, both males and females believed that a higher percentage of others were giving and receiving oral-genital stimulation.

Another significant difference between males and females was in the percentage of those who reported giving and receiving oral-genital contact. For example, at Stage 2, 59% of the males reported that they received oral sex, but only 8% of the females reported giving oral sex. Thirteen percent of the females reported receiving oral sex at Stage 2, but 49% of the males claimed that they gave oral sex at this stage. Since 99% of the students in this sample reported that their sexual orientation was heterosexual and 1% bisexual, this finding is puzzling. Again, perhaps some of the difference could be explained by a small number of females engaging in oral sex with many males, by some males including experiences with prostitutes or noncollege women, and by some respondents engaging in this behavior when their partner perceived their relationship to be at a different dating stage. Nevertheless, the difference remains largely unexplained and is worthy of further investigation.

A substantially higher percentage of males reported receiving oral-genital stimulation at each dating stage. This was especially true for the first three stages. Females closed the gap somewhat at Stage 4. A higher percentage of males also reported giving oral-genital stimulation at each dating stage. Again the gap narrowed at Stage 4, but it still remained. By Stage 5, 87% of the males reported that they gave and received oral-genital stimulation, while 74% of the females reported receiving and 72% reported giving such stimulation.

Comparison of 1983 and 1988 Findings

A comparison of the data presented in Table 1 with similar data from the 1983 sample shows a generally consistent pattern. A major exception was that, in the 1988 sample, a higher percentage of males reported more intimate sexual behavior in the early stages of dating than did males in the 1983 sample. For example, among the 1988 sample, 23% of the males reported intercourse at dating Stage 1 and 33% reported intercourse by Stage 2. This compares to 15% and 18%, respectively, among the respondents in the 1983 sample. Also, 37% of the males in the 1988 study reported receiving oral sex during Stage 1 and, by Stage 2, 59% of the males claimed such experience. For the males in the 1983 sample, only 10% reported experiencing oral sex during the first stage of dating and 32% by the second stage. Males in the 1988 sample also reported slightly higher levels of intercourse for Stages 3 and 4, and oral sex for Stages 3, 4, and 5.

Among the 1988 sample, the percentages of males (by dating stage) experiencing intercourse were 23% (1), 33% (2), 60% (3), 80% (4), and 69% (5) as compared to 15% (1), 18% (2), 49% (3), 63% (4), and 74% (5) for the 1983 sample. Among the 1988 sample, the percentages of males experiencing oral sex (given/received) were 21/37% (1), 49/59% (2), 62/66% (3), 85/85% (4), and 87/87% (5) as compared to 10% (1), 32% (2), 59% (3), 78% (4), and 82% (5) for the 1983 sample.

The other major difference that emerged from a comparison of the two samples indicated a change in the opposite direction. Consistently lower percentages of females in the 1988 sample reported experiencing intercourse at all five dating stages than did their counterparts in the 1983 study. Among the 1988 sample, the percentages of females experiencing intercourse by dating stage were 2% (1), 7% (2), 16% (3), 59% (4), and 75% (5) as compared to 4% (1), 11% (2), 32% (3), 68% (4), and 81% (5) for the 1983 sample. This pattern provides some support for those who believe that there has been a reversal of the sexual liberalization found in earlier decades. However, the situation is complicated by the more permissive behavior found among males and by the fact that females in the 1988 sample reported slightly higher percentages experiencing oral sex at most dating stages than did the females in the 1983 sample. Among the 1988 sample, the percentages of females experiencing oral sex by dating stage (given/received) were 5/5% (1), 8/13% (2), 18/23% (3), 64/68% (4), and 72/74% (5) as compared to 2% (1), 11% (2), 24% (3), 59% (4), and 66% (5) for the 1983 sample.


Statistical Analysis

Table 2 presents the Pearson correlations for premarital sexual behaviors by dating stage. The table shows correlations of intermediate strength between what respondents consider proper behavior and their own reported behavior (.52, .53, .52, .55, .29). Correlations between what the respondents thought was proper and what they thought others did were somewhat lower for four out of the five (.36, .41, .40, .40, .41). Correlations of similar strength were evident between the respondents' behavior and their perception of what others did (.43, .46, .28, .38, .34). In sum, the correlations between reported behavior and what was considered proper behavior were slightly stronger than between behavior and the perception of what others did. This finding was similar, though weaker, to the pattern found among the 1983 sample (Roche, 1986), and earlier by Reiss (1967).

Regression analysis was used to determine the strength of relationships between premarital sexual attitudes and behavior and other variables. Table 3 shows that two variables, gender and attendance at religious services, consistently made statistically significant contributions to the dependent variables. Females and respondents who frequently attended religious services were more conservative in their sexual attitudes and behavior. This finding coincides with the results of the 1983 study. Virtually the only other variable that made some contribution to the dependent variables in the 1988 study was age. College status made a contribution to explaining reported behavior only among those who attained the engagement stage. Gender was especially significant for explaining differences regarding oral-genital contact. Religious affiliation, religiosity (importance of religion), nationality, mother's education, father's education, and residence had no significant effect on the dependent variables.

Permissiveness, AIDS, and Cohabitation

The preceding analysis points to the importance of gender and religious attendance for premarital sexual standards and behavior. Significant gender differences also were found for attitudes and behavior regarding cohabitation. While 77% of the males approved of cohabitation, only 53% of the females agreed. When asked if they would consider cohabitation, 87% of the males and 58% of the females stated that they might or would live with someone with whom they were not married. Twenty-three percent of the males and 12% of the females had already experienced cohabitation.

Female respondents also were slightly more conservative than males regarding the immorality of premarital sex. Fourteen percent of the females and 10% of the males stated that they believed that premarital TABULAR DATA OMITTED sex was immoral. The 1983 study found that 12% of the females and 14% of the males held such a belief. Fifty-one percent of the females and 43% of the males in the 1988 sample felt that a woman who had numerous male partners was immoral. Forty-seven percent of the females and 40% of the males agreed that a man who had numerous female partners was immoral. In brief, both genders showed some evidence of a double standard, but it was relatively weak.

Finally, with regard to the effect of AIDS on premarital sexual attitudes and behavior, some slight male-female differences were found. Seventy-one percent of the males and 63% of the females reported a change in attitude since first learning about AIDS. Of those who reported a change, 92% of the males and 95% of the females reported a more conservative attitude.

Change in reported behavior was not as widespread as reported change in attitude; only 53% of the males and 31% of the females reported a behavioral change. The smaller percentage of females may be due to the fact that they typically were more conservative than males. Their behavior was less permissive to begin with and therefore fewer needed to change in order to feel protected from AIDS. Of those who reported a change, 15% of the females and 3% of the males stopped having sex; 77% of the females and 60% of the males sharply limited their activity. The greater change in attitude than in behavior may be explained mostly by the fact that individuals who were cautious in their sexual activity became more conservative in their attitude. Their attitude hardened, reinforcing their behavior, but not necessarily changing it. It also may be that some respondents changed their attitude, but not their behavior. In short, some gender differences were evident in the perception of premarital sex as immoral, in attitudes and behavior regarding cohabitation, and in attitude and behavior change related to the threat of AIDS.


The results of this study indicate that, in general, respondents were most conservative in what they believed was proper sexual behavior, more permissive in their actual behavior, and most permissive in their beliefs about what others do. Results also indicate that, as dating proceeds through its progressive stages, respondents expected and engaged in more intimate behavior. These findings were expected and conform to the results of the 1983 survey.

In addition, the study found that the premarital sexual attitudes and behavior of males and females were not very different in the latter dating stages when there was love and commitment. However, significant differences between males and females were evident in the early stages of dating. During casual dating and when there was affection but not love, males expected considerably more sexual involvement. This pattern also was found among respondents in the earlier survey. While males and females experienced similar levels of sexual behavior overall, their motion of what was proper and when they reported participating in a particular act varied significantly by dating stage. In brief, dating stage was an important variable in male-female relations.

The results also show that males and females differed in their view of cohabitation. Males were more permissive in their attitudes and in their reported experience with living together. Gender differences were found in regard to the immorality of premarital sex. Females were slightly more conservative than males, and both showed a slight pattern of applying a double standard. This study found that gender remains a very important variable in premarital relations. Other than gender, attendance at religious services was the only variable to consistently explain significant variation among the dependent variables. Those who attended religious services frequently were more conservative in their premarital sexual attitudes and behavior. Other variables such as religiosity, residence, age, parents' education, nationality, and religious affiliation were largely insignificant.

Another important finding was the lack of fit between the responses of the male and female participants. For example, significant differences were found in regard to oral-genital contact. Males reported a considerably higher incidence of both receiving and giving oral-genital stimulation than did females. How could 59% of the males report receiving oral sex at Stage 2 while only 8% of the females report giving oral-genital stimulation at this stage? A significantly higher percentage of males also reported experience with intercourse during the early stages of dating. When one of the researchers discussed this discrepancy with a colleague, she offered a simple explanation, "The men lied." While other explanations were discussed earlier, they may not adequately address this wide gap. Perhaps there is some truth to her remark.

Finally, with regard to the direction of the sexual revolution, the results are mixed. Some evidence indicates a move to a more conservative position. Both males and females directly reported becoming more conservative in their attitudes and behavior since learning about AIDS, and, among the 1988 sample, a smaller percentage of females reported experiencing intercourse at each of the five dating stages. On the other hand, the study produced data indicating greater permissiveness than was found in the 1983 survey. Higher percentages of males in the 1988 sample reported experiencing intercourse, and both males and females in the 1988 study reported higher percentages experiencing oral-genital stimulation. These findings did not consistently indicate either a more liberal or conservative trend. No doubt, some of the behavior reported by the respondents occurred before there was concern about the spread of AIDS in the heterosexual community. That pre-AIDS behavior was probably more permissive. The respondents overwhelmingly reported that since hearing about AIDS they have become more conservative. It appears that the most recent trend is away from the permissiveness of the last two decades, but at this point we can not say how far and how fast. Further research is needed to determine the nature and extent of this development.

Reprint requests to John P. Roche, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island 02908.


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Author:Roche, John P.; Ramsbey, Thomas W.
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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