Aussies open up about their sex lives

In bedrooms across Australia, an undercover revolution is happening. Sex toys, dressing up, same-sex encounters and oral sex are just some of the things being added to the sexual repertoires of everyday Australians, according to the second Australian Study of Health and Relationships, released on Friday afternoon.

One of the key researchers behind the project, University of NSW professor Juliet Richters, says the study of more than 20,000 people showed we are becoming both more tolerant of others, and more adventurous in our own bedrooms.

"We have now got a generation not just of children, but of grown-ups, whose parents don't think sex is wrong in and of itself, who don't assume it's dangerous and terrible," Richters says.

Despite their slightly salacious name, most people would not think of the noughties (the first decade of this century) as an era of sexual liberation. But this unique study of Australia's sexual practices shows we have continued on a path of quiet liberation, experimenting more sexually at the same time as we have become more satisfied with our relationships.

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"In the 19th Century there was this idea of the "pure woman" and the "fallen woman" ... But now we have lots of amateur sex, and we have an active sex industry," Richters says.

"The reality is that we are all fallen women now."

And we're showing no signs of trying to get back up. Richters' research shows that a decade ago, 79 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women aged between 16 and 59 had tried oral sex; now that figure has reached 88 per cent of men and 86 per cent of women.

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With that change appears to have come an entire social shift in attitudes towards the practice.

"There is still a sizeable proportion of older women who have never had oral sex in their lives, either given or received, because in older generations there were a lot of people who still followed what their parents' generations believed, which was that oral sex was an elaborate, or kinky practice, or what was called 'whore's tricks'," Richters says.

"Oral sex was an optional extra, like anal sex is now. But oral sex has moved to sit at the other end of the spectrum, to foreplay, or what that generation would call 'petting'."

Women are also sleeping with more people, now with an average of 8.9 partners over their lifetime. Men have an average of 17.5.

But there is one area in which we are not getting more permissive - cheating. Nearly 85 per cent of men and just over 82 per cent of women believe having an affair while in a committed relationship is always wrong.

"It appears that Australians are less concerned about the morality of particular sexual practices, but are becoming more concerned about the morality of infidelity in monogamous relationships," the research team wrote in a special edition of the journal Sexual Health, which was produced to report the findings.

Curiously, Richters notes, this belief in monogamy isn't always openly discussed. Only 57 per cent of men thought they had actually discussed exclusivity with their current partner, compared to 71 per cent of women.

"That's a lot of men who haven't heard a conversation that women think has happened," Richters says.

But are our sex lives getting better?

This raises the question, is all this experimentation actually leading to better relationships, and better sex?

The data can only show us what people are doing, not how much they are enjoying it. Yet it shows the percentage of women who had an orgasm the last time they had sex has not gone up. Only about 66 per cent of women orgasmed, compared to 92 per cent of men.

Back in 2002, this was just under 95 per cent of men and 69 per cent of women, although Richters cautions the 2002 figures represent a slightly younger group of people, so the figures are not directly comparable.

She wonders if men and women are still having trouble communicating, or possibly even discovering, what works best for them in bed.

"[In] every popular culture representation and piece of research, the most common complaint from women was that they wanted to have more foreplay," she says.

"Intercourse is an awfully good way to deliver an orgasm to a man, and an awfully unreliable way of delivering an orgasm to women. That's not to say it's not good for some women, but if people don't negotiate what they really like, and they just do the standard social script, it's not going to work for them."

Shockingly, one in five women has also been forced or frightened into a sexual act, and about one in 20 men. In both groups about half of those experiences happened in childhood.

And we're also having less sex, down from an average of 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times.

University of NSW Associate Professor Martin Holt, who co-edited the special edition of Sexual Health, says this makes him wonder exactly what is going on.

"Are people less relaxed, do they have less time for sexual activity, is there more going on for them mentally and physically? We have gone through a global economic downturn, how does that impact on people's sex lives?"

"If people are more stressed, if they experience more forms of mental ill-health, their sex lives are going to suffer."

Men and women also seem to be having very different experiences when it comes to their changing sexual world.

There has been a "striking" increase, Richters says, of women having same-sex experiences, up from 8.8 per cent 10years ago to nearly 15 per cent today.

She puts it down to our more permissive attitudes: "When sex isn't policed as heavily as it was in the past more things are possible, and one of the possibilities today is going to bed with someone else and seeing if it's better." One of the only Western countries that hasn't seen a similar increase, she notes, is Ireland, which is traditionally far more conservative sexually.

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