Anything Goes? Changes in British Attitudes towards Sex

Monday 11th September, 2017

Laura Watt

Attitudes towards sex have changed massively over recent decades. Practices once viewed as wrong – such as pre-marital sex and same-sex relationships – are now viewed by many as normal and acceptable. Unmarried couples live together and have children, and same-sex marriage is legal. It is tempting to assume that in the attitudes of Brits, anything goes; the sexual revolution is complete with traditional norms and expectations having been completely abandoned. But the story is not that simple. Some attitudes are shown to have become less, not more, liberal over time. This is especially true for attitudes towards having more than one sexual partner at once. Regarding monogamy, Brits seem stricter than ever.

In our paper ‘Continuity and change in sexual attitudes: A cross-time comparison of tolerance towards non-traditional relationships’, we use large-scale survey data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) to explore how attitudes towards different types of sexual relationships have changed since 1990. Consistent with other research, our analysis shows that while attitudes towards same-sex relationships and one-night stands have become more liberal, attitudes towards having more than one sexual partner when married (extra-marital relations) have become less so. The percentage of 16 to 44 year olds living in Britain who view same-sex relationships and one-night stands as always wrong fell dramatically between 1990 and 2010, from close to half to around one in five. However, the view that extra-marital relations are always wrong increased from around 50 per cent to almost 70 per cent. In addition, it is worth noting that disapproval of one-night stands levelled off between 2000 and 2010, showing tolerance of casual sex might have reached a ceiling (see Figure 1).

Figure I: Percentage of 16 to 44 year olds in Britain who regard extra-marital relations, one-night stands and same-sex relationships as always wrong in 1990, 2000 and 2010.rnrnData source: National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (1990, 2000, 2010)

Do changes in attitudes reflect generational replacement or something else?

To understand why these attitudes are shifting, it helps to know whether individual attitudes have changed over time, or are simply being replaced by those of newer generations who think differently. In other words, we want to distinguish between period and cohort effects. Events (social, cultural, political etc.) that have an impact on everyone during a particular period might cause individuals, regardless of age, to change their attitudes (period effects). Cohort effects, on the other hand, occur when younger generations have different attitudes to older ones. As older generations die out, so too do their attitudes.

Using Natsal data we explore both possibilities by comparing the attitudes of different cohorts (those born in the mid-thirtees to mid-forties, mid-forties to mid-fifties etc.) over time. We find evidence for both period and cohort effects: Younger cohorts are more accepting of same-sex relationships and one-night stands than older ones, yet attitudes towards these relationships became more liberal across all age groups, especially between 1990 and 2000. Meanwhile, younger cohorts are less accepting of extra-marital relations than their elders, but all generations have become less tolerant of such behaviour.

What makes monogamy different?

The fact that some sexual attitudes are becoming more liberal while others less so is an important one if we are to understand social change in intimate life. Identifying trends of both continuity and change in these attitudes undermines theories such as Individualisation that claim all traditional norms of behaviour surrounding intimacy are vanishing – this is simply wrong.

So why have people become more sexually permissive in some respects and not others? Although the results presented in our paper only concern having more than one partner when married, additional Natsal data show attitudes towards non-monogamy when dating or cohabiting have also become stricter. Why, when sex is no longer limited to marriage or heterosexual relationships, is disapproval of having more than one partner at once stronger than ever? This is a difficult question, but one for which we offer possible explanations in our paper.

One suggestion is that expectations about honesty are key here. To have more than one partner could imply clandestine affairs and lying (though the situation could be different, with openly non-monogamous relationships). The importance of openness and emotional intimacy is emphasized in contemporary relationships. A lack of honesty may undermine what people believe the modern couple should be. With this interpretation, the concern is with the deception rather than the sex. To really understand what is going on here we would need to explicitly measure attitudes towards openly non-monogamous relationships.

Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear – when attitudes towards extra-marital relations (and to some extent one night stands) are so fixed, the British are far from believing ‘anything goes’ when it comes to sex. Major shifts in attitudes and behaviours have occurred, but our unwavering intolerance of certain practices means we are far from sexual revolution.

Laura Watt is a Research Associate in Social Statistics at the University of Manchester, where she was awarded her PhD in 2013. Her primary research interest is in attitudes towards intimate relationships and how they have changed over time. She has been involved in several projects at the Universities of Manchester, Essex and Keele, in the areas of family, education and religion.

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