The progressive revival of family values

Research shows that Brits have never been more socially liberal and less tolerant of affairs.

Neil Davenport


Researchers at King’s College London have found that Brits are more socially liberal than they were 30 years ago.

For instance, they are more accepting of gay relationships. And they are more supportive of abortion. However, there is one area of behaviour of which they are now more disapproving — extramarital affairs. This is merely the latest evidence to suggest that long-term, monogamous relationships are becoming the new social norm.

The researchers found that in 1989, 40 per cent of adults considered gay relationships between consenting adults to be morally wrong. Asked the same question this year, just 13 per cent said gay relationships are wrong. Again, in 1989, when asked if homosexuals should be treated like other people, 52 per cent of respondents said they should, while 24 per cent said they should not. Today, a massive 82 per cent believe gay people should be treated equally. The same shift is discernible in attitudes towards abortion. Thirty years ago, 35 per cent thought abortion morally wrong, compared with only 18 per cent today.

This change in attitudes is a fundamentally positive development in British society. The survey shows that Britons are becoming far less bigoted and intolerant than so-called progressive commentators tend to suggest.

As to why Brits are becoming more socially liberal, Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College London, points out that liberal baby boomers have simply moved into old age. This means the preceding, more socially conservative generation has been replaced by a more socially liberal one. At the same time, baby boomers’ liberal values have become accepted by younger generations, too.

Which makes it all the more striking that British attitudes towards infidelity have become less liberal. The proportion who thought it was wrong to have an affair with a married man or woman rose slightly, from 52 per cent of respondents in 1989 to 55 per cent today. This attitudinal shift is reflected in the year-on-year decline in the UK divorce rate since 2010. We are witnessing, perhaps, a revival of married-for-life family patterns. Curiously, liberal social commentators appear reluctant to investigate such a pattern as a good-news story – possibly because the decline in divorce rates and the increased social disapproval of sexual infidelities simply doesn’t fit with the #MeToo narrative of men as sexual predators and serial ‘womanisers’.

But it is a good-news story. The decline in the divorce rate, and the increased disapproval of sexual infidelity, are a product of women’s improved position in society and, consequently, of the greater equality within heterosexual relationships. In the recent past, men’s extramarital affairs were often premised on a disrespectful and misogynistic attitude towards women. Women were primarily valued and pursued as sex objects, not as equal partners within a marriage. Such sexist attitudes tacitly rendered male philandering socially acceptable. The growing acceptance of women’s equality has changed this.

Women today are also far less economically dependent on men and marriage than at any time in the recent past. In the late 1980s, the growing economic independence of women was used to explain the increase in divorce and family breakdown. So the fact that today the divorce rate has declined, and that both men and women tend increasingly to frown on extramarital affairs, indicates that other non-economic factors are shaping a change in attitudes.

The sociologist Anthony Giddens can shed some light here. He argued that relationships in the late 20th and early 21st century were increasingly built on what he called ‘confluent love’ and the ‘pure relationship’. This means that individuals are more likely to create meaningful relationships based on love and respect, rather than economic necessity. In many ways, such a development runs counter to the permissive attitudes associated with the sexual revolution. The poly-sexual utopia promoted in the late 1960s no longer seems that appealing to many people. Indeed, much mainstream pop culture in the past couple of decades (from Sex in the City through to Peep Show and Fleabag) centres on the endless disappointments of fleeting hook-ups and non-returned texts (aka ‘ghosting’). They are marked, too, by a sense of loneliness. Faced with such anguish and disappointment, married couples are likelier to feel relieved at having the certainty of a long-term relationship.

In an increasingly anomic society, where social solidarities and shared national values have declined, the dependability of a stable relationship seems ever more appealing. Sociologist Chris Jenks once argued that being a good parent had become a major way to reinforce adult identities for single women. The renewed focus on long-term marriages and child-rearing indicates that, for couples, family life has also become a source of adult identity.

The King’s College survey reveals many progressive changes, particularly on attitudes to gay relationships and abortion — and the slight rise in disapproval towards extramarital affairs and infidelity is just as progressive. It is a testament to the improved position of women in society, and it shows that the ongoing #MeToo panic misses the really important positive changes affecting men and women in 21st-century relationships.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

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User name

6th November 2019 at 3:46 pm

I am as repulsed by homosexuality as I am by transsexuality. Both need to be completely eliminated from society.

Luisa Puleo

8th November 2019 at 6:17 pm

I wonder why, what someone does in their personal life, would fill you with such hate? You hate the thought of others being happy? I think you need to seriously check in with yourself! Try imagining someone saying that they hated you merely for your existence and who you love? I’m in awe of their strength to fight so much hate for being who they are.

Robin Harwood

15th November 2019 at 7:25 am

I see no mention of hate in his post. Just repulsion. I find maggots repulsive, but I don’t hate them.

Robin Harwood

15th November 2019 at 7:27 am

User name, why do think that those things should be eliminated?

Gareth Edward KING

4th November 2019 at 5:30 pm

This is all very interesting. For sure, being ‘homosexual’ per se doesn’t have to be an identity anymore than being ‘heterosexual’ is. These categories are recent social inventions, if my social history serves me correctly it would be about the time of the 1890s. I’d look at Freud. Personally, I don’t think it’s too useful to categorise people based on their sexual persuasions. I sleep with men so presumably I’d be ‘homosexual’ or even ‘gay’ (another recent term from the 1960s). I feel very uncomfortable on the ‘scene’ because it’s based around one’s sexuality. Are there ‘heterosexual’ clubs? well, I suppose there are, but may be I’ve seen too many films where sexual encounters have taken place between men who met up in a ‘straight’ bar, viz films by Ventura Pons. Or that 1985 Verhoevan film ‘The Fourth Man’. Sexuality is all very fluid, but not in the way that one’s sex is, i.e. it isn’t. You’re either a man or a woman. I think the defining quality is ‘love’ it’s who you ‘fall in love with’. Not who you may or may not ‘inseminate’.

Tim Hare

4th November 2019 at 9:31 pm

Why do you sleep with men rather than women? What is it about men that attracts you? It can’t be the desire for sex. It must be something else altogether.

What if you ‘fall in love’ with someone who does not fall in love with you? You cannot have what you want so is nature really so perverse?

Ven Oods

5th November 2019 at 9:39 am

“It can’t be the desire for sex. It must be something else altogether.”
It’s inbuilt sexual response, surely? Men don’t arouse me, however good-looking. Women, though… (some, anyway).

Jim Lawrie

4th November 2019 at 12:26 pm

The opinion poll claims to represent 46m adults, based on the 2011 census, or 49m now. Excluded are 5.6m adults over the age of 75, based on the 2011 census. That number is likely to be around 6.1m now.

By giving unquestioning publicity to such an approach are Spіked falling into line with the new thinking that the elderly are non-persons?
No explanation is given by the “researchers” for this decision, but such an exclusion means Remain won the Referendum.

The opinion poll attempts to justify this approach by saying “those aged 76 or over make up around 9% of the 16+ population in GB, and therefore not being included in the sample will have a minimal effect on the overall results.”
That statement is mere assertion and factually wrong. They made up 11% of the general population in 2011, and more now. Also the over 75’s are more conservative. On their basis it would have made no difference to have left out the under 23’s, or those aged 20-27, or 30-37.

The opinion poll did not interview representative numbers from each age group, but simply scaled up where they were deficient, but do not tell us the age groups where they did that.

They are pollsters, not “researchers”.

Lazy academia. Lazy journalism.

People my age should not be taxed, because, and you have my word on this, it would make minimal difference, except to reduce the number of accountants, and who could object to that?

Ven Oods

5th November 2019 at 9:42 am

That last paragraph meant I was scraping Fruit and Fibre off the kitchen wall. Thanks, Jim!

Eric Praline

4th November 2019 at 11:50 am

I suspect the changes are broadly genuine, but depending on the research method some respondents might be more reluctant to reveal anti-gay feelings now then they were 30 years ago.

Claire D

4th November 2019 at 10:53 am

I have serious doubts about this study by King’s College London, and their conclusions, which Neil embraces.

There are approx. 27.2 million adults in the UK.
ipsos m. give the details :
The 1989 study involved 1,458 interviews in respondents own homes across 251 sample points.
The 2019 study involved 1,021 interviews face to face + 1,124 interviews online. No reference to the number of sample points.
I quote, ” Direct comparisons with the 1989 survey should therefore be treated with some caution, given the change in sample structure and mode of interview. “.

Maths is not my strong point, but as far as I can tell a very sweeping generalisation has been arrived at by asking less than 00.5% of the population, combined with a large helping of confirmatory bias.

Claire D

4th November 2019 at 10:55 am

That should be 00.05%.

Claire D

4th November 2019 at 11:24 am

No it should’nt !

Claire D

4th November 2019 at 1:28 pm

Sorry that should be 27.2 million households NOT adults.

Eric Praline

4th November 2019 at 11:46 am

Nothing wrong with the sample per se, opinion polls are usually done on about a thousand people.

Of course doesn’t mean it’s valid, plenty of potential issues as you suggest.

Tim Hare

4th November 2019 at 3:36 am

“The survey shows that Britons are becoming far less bigoted and intolerant than so-called progressive commentators tend to suggest.”

Disagreeing with homosexual relationships is not necessarily bigotry or intolerance. There are many reasons why people might not agree with homosexual relationships. They are not the same as heterosexual relationships. The sexual relationship, for one, is not the same. Both parties are the same gender which is different from heterosexual relationships.

Criticism is not bigotry or intolerance. Nor is the apparent ‘acceptance’ of such relationships based on reason. Quite often it is based on the need to be seen as politically correct rather than any well-reasoned support.

The author should not be using such an example to show that society is more accepting of differences when it cannot be shown that people support these relationships for the right reasons.

Lord Anubis

4th November 2019 at 10:20 am

I have always wondered what the results of a secret ballot regarding the reintroduction of “Section 28” would be likely to be.

Jim Lawrie

4th November 2019 at 12:29 pm

Opinion polls rarely tell us how many answer “it is none of your business”.

Lord Anubis

5th November 2019 at 1:58 pm

My point really is that as ever, the answer depends on how the question is asked. Carry out a referendum on whether the law should go back to the 1950’s with homosexuals being rounded up and forced into treatment programs or even put in prison, and while you would undoubtedly get some approval. I doubt if it would be more than 10%, even if that. Ask whether Section 28 be reintroduced and I suspect the proportions would be very different. I am sure that there are a lot of people of all ages that while tolerant of homosexuality generally, will nevertheless feel that that tolerance ends at the school gate.

Eric Praline

4th November 2019 at 11:47 am

What would be a reasoned objection to homosexual relationships?

Tim Hare

4th November 2019 at 12:31 pm

There are no such things as homosexuals so there cannot be homosexual relationships. There are people who engage in sexual practices with people of the same sex but it does not follow that they are attracted by the desire for sex. If they are not attracted by the desire for sex then they cannot be said to be homosexual since the attraction is not about sex.

The common definition of a homosexual is a person who is attracted to having sex with someone of the same gender. This presupposes that human beings are attracted to one another by the desire for sex. This is not true. There are many reasons why humans are attracted to others but sex is not one of them. They might have sex but that is not the reason for the initial attraction.

There is neither heterosexuals or homosexuals. There are simply people who sometimes have sex with a person to whom they are attracted for other reasons.

Ven Oods

5th November 2019 at 9:46 am

That it might become mandatory?

Eric Praline

4th November 2019 at 12:45 pm

@Tim Hare – sorry that sounds rather pedantic.

You previously wrote “There are many reasons why people might not agree with homosexual relationships” but now you are saying that “there cannot be homosexual relationships”. Which is it?

Either way, what would be a reasoned objection to homosexual people?

Tim Hare

4th November 2019 at 1:03 pm

If you do not think homosexual relationships exist then obviously you do not agree with the notion of homosexual relationships. The article accepts homosexual relationships as a given. I disagree with this.
As I said there are no homosexual people. There are just people who engage in sexual behaviour with others of their own gender. Sex is not the reason for their attraction.

Tim Hare

4th November 2019 at 3:19 am

“Historically religion would have firmed up traditional beliefs and practices about marriage.”

Religion firmed up a sense of fear in those who would have otherwise left unhappy or dysfunctional relationships. The fear of divine punishment or being ostracized from the local community kept people in misery. Fear of punishment is never a good basis for any relationship.

Tim Hare

4th November 2019 at 3:37 am

In reply to Winston Stanley

Winston Stanley

4th November 2019 at 2:29 am

Well, that was a very tendentious use of stats, akin to wishing trends into existence.

A 3% rise is within the margin of error and it leaves the stat that almost half in UK think that it is OK to sleep with someone who is in a marriage. Whether the 55% still think that it is “wrong” if it is done with the consent of the other spouse is not explored. “Cheating” may be seen as the problem rather than the practice itself.

Commentators are not reluctant to explore the slight fall in the divorce rate b/c of some supposed agenda. The reason often suggested is that fewer simply are marrying and those who do are on average a bit more commited or have circumstances slightly more conducive to a longer marriage.

The rate of marriage continues to decline and now less than half of UK adults are married. 35% have never been married, 38% are single and 12% are in a relationship. Also, the average age of first marriage continues to rise, to 38 years old for men now and 35 for women. Even so the latest ONS estimate of the divorce rate stands at 42% of marriages, much higher than historical rates.

48% of kids are born out of marriage in the UK and the percentage continues to rise, soon it will be most kids.

Looking at more of the stats in the Kings College study, just 10% of 15-55 year olds think that it is wrong to have a kid outside of marriage and just 18% of the over 55s. 7% of UK think that it is wrong to cohabit, 6% think that it is wrong to divorce.

Overall, the UK continues to see the collapse of traditional marriage as attitudes become more liberal. The fertility rate is also in collapse, at its lowest ever this year, with a rate of 1.63 kid per UK-born woman. 1.63 is a replenishment rate of 77.61%, so the number of births to UK-born mothers would fall to 60.2% over two generations, and to 36.2% over four generations, of the present number of births.

Religion also continues to collapse, with over half of the UK now “no religion.” The change is generational and 70% of the under-25s have no religion. Only 1/3 of UK is now Christian and far fewer of the younger generation. Just 1% of the under-25s identifies as Anglican, even nominally. Historically religion would have firmed up traditional beliefs and practices about marriage.

I make no “moral” judgements about any of this, ppl make their choices and it is what it is. Clearly most ppl think it is morally OK. If the nation has a “moral compass” (whatever that means) then it is telling them to get on with what they are doing. The country is liberal and secular and I am OK with that. Likely it is time to disestablish the state church and to secularise both the schools and the state.

Eric Praline

4th November 2019 at 11:49 am

Fair points. I think the writer was contrasting the flatlining of the adultery % with the fairly sharp drops in objections to gay relationships etc. But yes the declining marriage rate does rather throw a spanner in the works. Do the figures you quote exclude civil partnerships?

Ven Oods

5th November 2019 at 9:52 am

“Likely it is time to disestablish the state church and to secularise both the schools and the state.”
It’s certainly time to get the clergy out of the Lords, and the Lords out of government.

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