Has Britain’s attitude towards gay sex really worsened?

The first decline since the Aids crisis may not be a decline at all.

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This year’s British Social Attitudes survey, which began in 1983, appears to have delivered some worrying news. The first apparent fall in positive attitudes towards gay sex since the Aids crisis in 1987.

The percentage of people who believe sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are “not wrong at all” appears to have decreased to 66 per cent in 2018, down from 68 per cent the previous year.

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has called this a “worrying trend”, and there is a general fear that in our increasingly divided society – with right-wing populism on the up – more people are feeling emboldened to express their homophobia.

However, there is more hope for liberals than meets the eye. The general trend from the survey is that Britain is adopting more liberal ideas about sex and relationships, according to a senior researcher who co-authored the report.

“If we look back, 17 per cent in 1983 thought same-sex relationships were not wrong at all and that’s gone up to about two-thirds now… that’s a dramatic social shift really,” says Ian Montagu, of NatCen, the social research institute behind the survey.

“There’s [also] an increasingly small proportion of the population who say that these relationships are always or mostly wrong, so the number of people who say they’re not wrong at all might look like it’s plateau-ing a little bit, but the number of people who are steadfastly against these sorts of relationships is actually continuing to drop away, and that trend line is quite clear.”

But what of that two percentage point drop?

“It’s actually not a statistically significant change – we don’t think this represents a drop, or increase in socially conservative attitudes,” he says. “It might suggest there’s possibly a bit of a levelling-off of the trend, but even for us to be able to say that with any sense of certainty, we’d probably need a couple more years’ worth of data.”

Attitudes towards pre-marital sex mirror this; acceptance appeared to fall between 2017 and 2018.

Even if this does represent a plateau in liberal attitudes towards sex and relationships, Montagu says this is not unexpected – it’s what researchers hypothesised two years ago might happen at some stage.

“We’d sort of expect [it] a little bit because we know that there are people in society who hold socially conservative attitudes, and we know there’s probably only so far that this sort of increase in liberalism might go before it does start to plateau off a little bit, at least at first,” he says.

The report says this apparent “slowing down” could reflect “the marked divides between the attitudes of religious and non-religious people in this sphere”.

In the context of a “long-term trend”, Montagu reassures me, “our attitude towards sexuality and non-traditional relationships has become almost unrecognisable from what they were when we started measuring this”.

Indeed, the survey’s top line when trailed to journalists in a press release before publication was “A Britain that is losing its religion, has faith in science and is adopting more liberal ideas about sex and relationships”.

Yet the media and commentators’ response to one specific sign of decline from this survey is not to be dismissed – there is a very real fear that progressive values are under threat in this current climate. Even if we don’t have data to show this, the feeling undoubtedly exists, and we should be vigilant when monitoring such trends.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.