In this year’s British Social Attitudes report (BSA), we see a continuation of one of the most important trends in post-war history: the steady decline in religion and belief among the British public. This decline is not simply a private matter for individuals and families, but rather a trend with profound implications for our social norms as well as our public institutions.
Today, following decades of secularisation and social change linked to industrialisation and the rise of liberal democracy, we can see clearly not only a shift away from religious worldviews, but also the strengthening of confidence in science and technology, which not only permeate our day-to-day lives in practical ways, but also provide an alternative way of interpreting and understanding the world (Wilson, 2016). While trust in religious institutions is waning, trust in science and scientists is high. If there is indeed a crisis of trust in Britain today, it is far from being in evidence everywhere.
Since the 1960s, this secularisation, along with the women’s and LGBT movements has brought about fundamental changes in our moral framework for sex and relationships, as well as a decline in traditional, religiously informed understandings of the proper role of men and women in society (Brown, 2012). Marriage has been transformed on all levels, with the institution now open to same-sex couples and no longer the only socially validated form of sexual relationship. Sexual morality is almost unrecognisable from its post-war starting point, with homosexuality and sex outside of marriage viewed resolutely through a liberal lens and even older generations and the religious shifting their views.
So, are we now a nation of secular, liberal rationalists, with beliefs, attitudes and behaviours driven by empiricism and logic?
Chapter 5: Relationships and gender identity
Public attitudes within the context of legal reform
Since British Social Attitudes (BSA) began, we have seen major changes in public attitudes to sexual relationships as well as the legal frameworks that support them. Our attitudes to gender have also transformed, with a sustained shift away from support for traditional gender roles. In this chapter we explore attitudes towards one of the most recent reforms in this area: the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. We also explore ‘common law marriage’: in a context where couples increasingly choose to live together without formalising their relationships, the question of legal protections for cohabiting partners is now moving up the political agenda. Finally, we look at attitudes to gender in the context of proposed legal reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, which would give transgender people the right to declare and define their own gender identity.
The liberalisation in attitudes to sexual relationships observed since first recorded by BSA in the 1980s appears to be slowing down, perhaps reflecting the marked divides between the attitudes of religious and non-religious people in this sphere.
The changing legal framework for sexual relationships reflects a sustained process of liberalisation in public attitudes in this sphere. Indeed, given the prevalence of belief in the myth of common law marriage, and the growing rate of cohabitation in Britain, it seems reasonable to assume that this process of legal change will continue, bringing the law in England and Wales into line with that of Scotland by providing limited legal protections for cohabitees. In contrast, the Gender Recognition Act consultation contains proposals that are grounded in a more liberal view of transgender people than that of the general public who, despite being very keen not to be seen as personally prejudiced, are less clear that prejudice against transgender people is on principle wrong. However, there is a clear link between attitudes to transgender people and attitudes to same-sex relationships, where we have again seen a sustained liberalising trend. Given this, it seems likely that attitudes to transgender people will continue to change in a way that increasingly supports the rights of transgender people to live freely and without experiencing discrimination.
However, it is important to note that our time series data appear to suggest that this process of liberalisation is slowing down. While we have a new and radically transformed set of social norms in the field of sexual relations and gender, we also have a significant minority who feel differently about these issues, and that minority may become increasingly focused on ensuring that socially conservative views and voices are reflected in public discussion of gender and relationships.