Personal relationships / Introduction

Personal relationships

Changing attitudes towards sex, marriage and parenthood

  • Over the last 30 years, particular types of personal relationships have attracted lots of debate. But what does the public think about sex, marriage and parenthood within the context of these relationships? How have people’s views changed over time and are everyone’s views moving in the same direction?

    Relationships 1



    The last three decades have seen a dramatic change in how Britain thinks about homosexuality.

    In 1983, 50% thought homosexuality was “always wrong”, rising to 64% by 1987. Now 22% take this view, while nearly half, 47%, think it is not wrong at all.

    Relationships 2



    Changing attitudes towards homosexuality have been driven by each successive generation having more liberal views than the last.

    In 2012, 46% of those born in the 1940s thought homosexuality was always or mostly wrong, compared with 21% of those born in the 1960s, and 18% of those born in the 1980s.

    Relationships 3



    Although attitudes to parenthood have become more liberal, the most prevalent view is that marriage should precede parenthood.

    The view that people who want children ought to get married has fallen from 70% in 1989 to 42% in 2012. But this view remains the most common one – more agree than disagree – 42% compared with 34%.

    Relationships 4



    There are still marked variations between the views of different generations and between those with particular religious or political affiliations.

    Conservative Party supporters are among the most likely to think that people who want children ought to be married; 63% taking this view in 2012.

    Relationships 5



The intimate subject of how people live their private lives - who they love, whether they marry, when they have children - attracts a huge amount of debate and controversy, most often about the social consequences of such personal decisions. Not surprisingly then, the last 30 years have seen numerous attempts by political parties to engage in debates about personal matters. Examples include Margaret Thatcher's government's introduction of Section 28 in 1987, in a reaction against local authorities "intentionally promoting" homosexuality, as well as the launch of the ill-fated 'Back to Basics' campaign in 1993 by her successor, John Major, which subsequently floundered in a sea of political sex scandals. Conservative claims to be the true party of the family caused difficulties for New Labour who, in 2001, felt forced to state that it too saw marriage as the best framework for bringing up children.[1] And while David Cameron has sought to rebrand the Conservative Party as socially liberal on issues such as gay rights, he continues to emphasize the importance of family; most recently, he and the Conservative Party have found themselves in disarray over the subject of gay marriage. 

undefinedThe British public's thinking about these issues, its sense of moral right and wrong, has been strongly shaped by a Christian tradition, especially since the rise of Victorian morality in the second half of the nineteenth century. Marriage, as the officially sanctioned institution within which a man and woman can live together, be intimate and have children, has played a key role in governing how people are expected to live. Behaviour falling outside these boundaries - be it homosexuality, sex outside marriage, divorce, cohabitation or illegitimacy - was at best frowned upon, and at worst the subject of official or unofficial sanctions, depending on the historical period in question. In reality, history gives a less black and white account of British morality. Much has been written about the gap between Victorian values and real Victorian behaviour, and the notion that in the past the English were all respectably married is also far from the truth. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, for example, a surprisingly high proportion of English brides were pregnant on their wedding day (Waller, 2009).

This chapter looks at British attitudes towards personal relationships and behaviour and how these have changed over the past three decades. It focuses on three key areas - marriage, homosexuality and abortion - to consider how much attitudes have changed, and among whom the change has been most pronounced. It explores the reasons behind these changes and, where possible, suggests how attitudes might shift in the future. It also considers how far people's views about personal relationships vary according to their political sympathies and whether this is changing over time, to help shed light on current political debates. 

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  1. BBC news, 17th February 2001, available at:
  2. It is possible that the expansion of higher education will affect the relationship between degree-level education and social values, especially if the main mechanism by which education affects attitudes is socialisation (rather than cognitive development). So as a wider cross-section of young people attend university, the distinctive nature of their values is diluted.
  3. Bases for Table 1.4 are as follows:
  4. Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows: 
  5. In summary, there has been a considerable rise since 1983 in the proportion who identify with no political party whatsoever, up from eight per cent in 1983 to 21 per cent now. The proportion of Conservative identifiers has shrunk (from 39 to 27 per cent) and the proportion of Labour identifiers has remained broadly constant (33 and 36 per cent in 1983 and 2012 respectively). In 1983, 15 per cent of people identified with the Liberal/SDP Alliance, compared with six per cent in 2012 identifying with the Liberal Democrats. Further details can be found in the Politics chapter.  
  6. Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
  7. Speech by Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party Conference, 1987, 9th October, available at:
  8. See, for example, the ILGA Europe review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and intersex people in Europe, available at:
  9. Bases for Table 1.8 are as follows:
  10. The Guardian Datablog, 7th October 2012, available at: