Policy Papers

No turning back: family forms and sexual mores in modern Britain

Hera Cook |

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Executive Summary

  • Much public discussion rests on the assumption that a free choice can be made between a traditional and a new approach to family formation and sexual morality. A better understanding of the historical relationship between them suggests this is not the case and offers insights into the sources of change as well as some more appropriate policy responses.
  • For centuries marriage or cohabiting partnerships were shaped largely by the need to control the costs of reproduction. It was not until the 1960s that acceptable and effective contraception became widely available and physical sexual events between men and women no longer carried risks of major economic consequences.
  • It was no coincidence that the 'traditional' family then began to alter in the second half of the 1960s. Moreover, as this followed a lengthy rise in real incomes, couples could more easily afford to set up their own separate homes and the whole range of material constraints on sexual behaviour ceased to operate.
  • The profound and comprehensive nature of the causes means that there is unlikely to be a reversal of the resulting trends in behaviour. Governments can support these changes by taking a more confident and positive approach to the life aspect of work-life balance.
  • Parenting should be included as an achievement on job applications, credit should be given for apparent slow-downs in career achievement or for periods out of the work force, and pension credits should be provided for time spent engaged in part- or full-time care of children or the chronically ill.
  • Current employment regulation should be strengthened by extending all maternity, parental and caring leave provisions to part-time and casual workers.
  • In addition, governments should recognise that people's commitment to loving and tolerant relationships cannot be reduced to legal rights and responsibilities. It is not marriages that provide a strong foundation for the care of children but enduring relationships. The conditions that make these possible include supportive communities with secure and adequately paid employment and affordable housing


Family policy is usually thought of and discussed as if it were separate from sexual issues, but the two are very much interconnected. In the Green Paper Supporting Families: A Consultative Document (1998) the Labour government set out the principles that have shaped their family policy. In this they stated that '[M]arriage does provide a strong foundation for stability for the care of children. It also sets out rights and responsibilities for all concerned. It remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain. For all these reasons it makes sense for the Government to do what it can to strengthen marriage.' If marriage is so central to people's lives why is the institution so embattled as to require government help? And if it is so weakened is it not time to ask what it was about marriage that created stability for children and to consider why it does not do so today?

In fact marriage as an institution has changed so much as to be unrecognisable by the standards of the 1950s. Then marriage was for life and sexual expression was legitimate only within marriage. Sixty per cent of people had sexual intercourse before marriage but only with their intended spouse, and the vast majority married when pregnancy occurred. Most young people moved from living with their parents to living with their spouse and children. If the marriage was unhappy there was little real choice but to endure this. Divorce was deeply stigmatised and like other sexual misconduct it was often concealed if possible by those involved.

By the early 1990s, the sexual boundary between marriage and non-marriage had disappeared. Less than 1% of first intercourse occurred within marriage and there was a gap of several years between the average age at first intercourse and the average age at marriage. There was practically universal acceptance of the possibility of a number of partner changes through the life course. By 1999 the rate of divorce was 12.9 couples per thousand compared to only 2.8 per thousand in 1950. More importantly couples routinely cohabited before marriage and after divorce. Today even those who marry rarely follow the orderly and contained sexual careers that were the norm in the mid-20th century. Along with the collapse of sexual boundaries, reproductive boundaries have disappeared. Women keep their babies, or marry when pregnant, if they and their partner so choose, not because they feel they must. By the year 2000 almost two fifths of births occurred outside marriage compared to only 5.6 per cent in 1950. There is considerable confusion about why this transformation has taken place and how to respond to it.

The Labour government has shown a willingness to support other forms of sexual expression where this does not cost the government money, for example by equalising the gay and heterosexual age of consent; or where it may save money, for example by allowing school nurses to dispense the morning-after pill in order to reduce Britain's high rate of teenage pregnancy. The acceptance of new sexual mores implicit in these reforms sits ill with the refusal to extend legal protections to cohabiting couples or to permit gay marriage. Thus there is a sense of confusion about the direction of government policy. Much public discussion rests on an assumption that there is a choice between a traditional and a new approach to sexual morality and family formation. A better understanding of the historical relationship between sexuality, reproduction and economics suggests this is not the case and offers insights into the sources of change.

The 'traditional' family and its breakdown

For centuries marriage or cohabiting partnerships have been shaped largely by the need to control the economic and social costs of reproduction. Adult status, heterosexual sexual activity, coupledom, parenthood and household formation came as a package. It was very difficult for people, particularly women, to enjoy any one of these statuses or experiences on its own. Those who did not marry were usually unable to form their own households and therefore remained under the control of the head of the household in which they lived, with few opportunities for sexual activity. Single mothers were stigmatised and reduced to dire poverty. The path into the package began with courting: both men and women were usually able to choose their own partners, the age difference between them tended to be relatively small, women were not rigidly chaperoned by their family members or by employers, and pre-marital sex was accepted as a stage of courting. But once individuals passed this stage they had few choices. If the couple did not marry before pregnancy occurred, they were placed under considerable pressure by their family and the community to do so once it had. Legitimate and illegitimate first babies were born to mothers of similar ages suggesting that little sexual activity took place before the age at which marriage was possible, that is other than as part of courting.

Communities expected new couples, whether cohabiting or married, to take responsibility for their costs, usually by setting up a new separate household. It was probably awareness of the risk of pregnancy that led most couples to defer courting, and hence sexual activity, until they had sufficient savings to form a household. Once they did so, further babies followed. In the absence of safe, effective birth control, for most people sexual activity led inexorably to marriage or cohabitation, establishing a household and childrearing.

However, average wages were so low that many men and women had to defer marriage until they had sufficient savings or were unable to afford to marry. This resulted in a high average age at marriage and a high proportion of people who never married at all. In England the average age at marriage tended to be around 26-27 or older for men, and 23-24 for women, and 10-15% of the population never married at all. For most of the period from the sixteenth century this combination of a late age at marriage and a high proportion not marrying decreased the time women spent childbearing and thus reduced the number of children they had. Hence economic conditions shaped marriage and family formation. By contrast, in most other societies newly-wed couples have not been expected to set up a separate household: as a result nearly 100 per cent of women and men have married, and women especially have tended to do so at a younger age. Traditionally British people's lives were shaped by the financial commitment involved in having children. Pregnancy is one of the great desirable outcomes of sexual behaviour, but prior to the introduction of effective birth control it was also an uncontrollable economic risk.

Birth control and sexuality

It was not until the 1960s that acceptable, effective and reasonably safe contraception became widely available for the first time. British women and men tended to dislike the diaphragm and early condoms so withdrawal, an ineffective method which reduced sexual pleasure, remained the most widely used method until the 1960s. Fertility began to fall from the peak of a 2.94 total fertility rate in 1964, at which time there were 480,000 women taking the Pill which had been introduced in 1961. But from 1975 birth control was made available free from the National Health Service to all women and men regardless of marital status. By then newly available technologies also included legal abortion, the Intra-Uterine Device and sterilisation. It is estimated that the total fertility rate had fallen to 1.64 by 2001, the lowest point in recorded history. The result of the vast improvement in birth control was that physical sexual events between men and women no longer carried uncontrollable and incalculable risks of major economic consequences. The decision to offer contraception free was made by a Conservative government and it effectively marked the end of attempts to control the cost of reproduction by controlling female sexuality. Implicit in the decision was recognition of the fact that in the absence of community and individual support for sexual denial it was not possible for government to impose it.

It is no coincidence that the 'traditional' family and sexual morality began to alter in the second half of the 1960s at the same time as the system of prudential marriage finally ceased to operate. The proportion of women who remained unmarried in the age group 45-49 fell below 10% for the first time in 1971 census. The average age at marriage reached its lowest point of 21.29 in 1966-70. These changes in marriage reflected a rejection of sexual restraint and were part of the permissive society. They also followed a lengthy rise in incomes and in purchasing power relative to the retail price index. By the 1950s male working-class manual employees and managers were already earning over three times more than had been the case in the mid-1930s and most other occupational groups were earning over two and half times as much. Thus couples could also afford to set up their own homes and the traditional constraints on sexual behaviour had largely ceased to operate.

However, a detailed look at young women from the 1950s to the 1970s shows that the existing institution of marriage was also dissolving from within. A survey undertaken in 1976 (Dunnell 1979) found that there were there were two main trends in young women's sexual behaviour in this period. Rates of pre-marital sexual intercourse were rising among all classes of young women by the 1950s but young manual-class women were still courting with men whom they intended to marry, then marrying young and having families larger than those achieved using the sexual self-control of the interwar period. The harbingers of change were the tiny proportion of young, mainly middle-class, women who began in the late 1950s to have sexual affairs with men whom they did not intend to marry, using contraception (diaphragms) and illegal abortion to control the consequences. The advent of the pill dramatically increased their numbers, severing the chain that had led women from the start of sexual activity to marriage and from there to childbearing.

Historically marriage had marked the start of childbearing for women but increasingly many women used contraception to extend this childless but sexually active period into marriage, further blurring the boundaries between sexual activity within marriage and outside of it. Women marrying between the ages of 20 and 24 in 1961-1965 had had their first baby even faster than those who married between 1956-1960. But this was followed by a sharp fall in the pace at which those married from 1966-1970 produced their first child. This lengthening of the interval between marriage and the first birth continued in the 1970s. Thus, the boundary between married and single women was further blurred. Single women could continue to be sexually active and married women could remain voluntarily childless.

There had already been a shift in the 1950s from women giving up paid work on marriage to giving it up at first pregnancy. From 1955 to 1965, the demand for female labour grew because of the tight male labour supply, hence women were more easily able to continue in paid employment should they decide to defer childbirth. The greatest increase in the percentage of married women working was from 1961 to 1971. By the 1970s, young working-class women were also starting to follow a similar path as a growing proportion of them began using the pill. Women who began sexual careers that had previously led almost inexorably to marriage because they got pregnant, did not become pregnant. They were faced with making decisions about their lives in a way that had never been possible before. Cumulatively, from the 1970s on, these small shifts enabled many young women to start leading a life that was without historical precedent.

It is true that new contraceptive technology did not create the desire for the changes that have taken place. For women's aspirations had been rising since the 1890s as their access to education and employment improved. The pace of change in male attitudes varied by class, but men also wanted to control fertility. However, the continuing extent of uncertainty and absence of control over fertility has been greatly underestimated by historians and sociologists. It is this new arena of choice above all that has produced the reshaping of familial and sexual culture.

In the 1960s women and men emerged from a long period in which sexual control and repression had been central to English culture. The emergence of a restrictive Victorian sexual morality in the nineteenth century was probably shaped most decisively by the rise in fertility that peaked in 1816. Fertility rates were slowly brought down by the increasing control of sexuality. It has been shown that low frequencies of sexual intercourse within marriage played a major role in the decline from the 1870s, when aggregate fertility began to fall, until the 1930s, when a low point was reached. In this period intolerance of all forms of sexual activity grew: inhibitions regarding masturbation, revulsion at homosexuality, rejection of varied positions of sexual intercourse as unnatural and nakedness during sex as licentious, regarding open sexual affection or sexual badinage as disgusting, all such attitudes intensified. Evidence suggests that oral and anal sex had never been usual among the majority of the British population but in this period even stimulation of the partner's genitals by hand came to be seen as a form of masturbation and hence unacceptable. Considerable effort was put into shielding the young, especially girls and young women, from sexual information or experience. Contraceptive knowledge existed but it did not become widespread until the 1920s. Couples required discipline, attention to detail and a good income (privacy and running water) to prevent pregnancy using the available condoms or other appliance methods. The main methods of birth control used were probably withdrawal and abortion. Neither was reliable. All forms of fertility control demanded sexual control and the repression of desire. But as contraceptive technology and knowledge improved, progressive women and men began to relax and to promote the belief that sexuality was a source of pleasure and joy. Nonetheless unease and inhibitions remain a major feature of sexual attitudes and a substantial impact on policy.

Policy implications

The changes in family forms and sexual mores have been produced by an underlying and unique change, the move to controlled fertility. This shift was accompanied by an unprecedented increase in average incomes and the creation of a welfare safety net during the middle third of the twentieth century. It is probable that in turn these changes had a great deal to do with the decrease in the authority over personal life exercised by the family and the community. The complex and profound nature of the causes of sexual change means that they are highly unlikely to be reversed. We are now living through a period of flux as people explore and adjust to the new possibilities that have become available.

Families are currently evolving into something new. The kin-based groups described by sociologists in the 1950s and 60s are no longer the only model. The wider family has been transformed into an extended grouping that is fluid and shifting over time. An individual may now include in their wider family grouping unmarried couples, several ex-partners to whom they may or may not have been legally married, divorced parents with new partners or actively sexual teenagers. They may be gay parents, choose not to have children at all, or within a family unit there may be children with differing legal statuses and parents. More positive and constructive approaches are also evolving. Experiences common in the 1970s such as extreme bitterness after divorce, or cutting off a child forever because they are gay, are no longer widely supported. Policy can contribute positively to the ongoing formation of new families and life courses. Though people are voting with their feet and adopting new family forms this is accompanied by widespread anxiety about the impact of family change on vulnerable groups and the lack of obvious remedies.

There is a gap in government thinking in the area of the Work-Life Balance. The admirable policy commitment to draw women into the work force and enable them to remain there needs to be matched by a similar commitment to the needs of personal life. There needs to be active acknowledgement of, and support for, parenting and caring in the home by both men and women. For example, parenting is still not included as an achievement on job applications and no allowance is made for apparent slow-downs in career achievement or for periods out of the work force. This can and should be done, and in addition pension credits should be provided for time spent in full-time care of children (and the chronically ill). Research shows that those people with varied and frequent contacts with others enjoy better physical health and that people with a varied circle of friends and family are more able to call on support and hence less likely to become dependent on the state.

Current policies on work-life balance can contribute to positive change by helping to ensure that people have adequate time for all their relationships. The minimum wage, the Working Time Regulations and increased parental leave provisions are among government efforts to address the long-hours culture and low incomes. There was an increase in the average numbers of hours worked during the 1990s which reflected a rise in the numbers of hours of paid and unpaid overtime. However, it appears that very little progress has been made on lowering working hours since the introduction of the government policy on this in 2000. The minimum wage is due to rise but the fact that it has already raised the wages of a very substantial proportion of female part-time workers highlights how little women receive in return for the anxiety and effort involved in juggling work and family. Government could act to strengthen these measures and to increase the rights of part-time employees and insist that employers provide training and career structures. All maternity, parental and caring leave provisions should apply to part-time and casual workers.

The female working-age employment rate is now at a historic high of almost 70%, though women's share of hours worked is only 38% reflecting a high proportion of low-paid part-time work. Flexibility in this area tends to be for the benefit of the employer not the employee. There is no longer a dip in women's workforce participation during childbearing years and there is certainly no move toward a dip in fathers' participation in the workforce. Men with children work the longest hours of any group in Britain. Employers have little interest in men enlarging their involvement in parenting or caring and men themselves have proved reluctant to take on an equitable share of domestic labour, caring or parenting.

The resulting pressure on women makes a substantial contribution to low British fertility rates. European Union surveys show many British women are having fewer children than they say they want. Some women do change their minds and voluntary childlessness is also growing but many more feel constrained by circumstances. Those on low incomes do not have the money to provide for the children they would like to have. Those with high incomes do not have the time. In a society in which people have insufficient time for caring or for the children they want to have, they are also unlikely to have time to create and sustain enduring relationships.

It has been argued that the low fertility rate will result in a crisis as growing numbers of people living past the conventional retirement age impose too great a burden of costs on a decreasing population of workers. On the other hand, in a recent paper on this website Pat Thane has argued that the supposed upcoming crisis in pension provision due to low fertility could be overcome by the retention of older people in the work force. Older people are becoming healthier and living longer; with more flexible work-patterns and more effective life-long learning, use of their skills could be maximised. This would enable parents of young children to reduce their working hours. Younger people of both sexes should be able to slacken off on their careers or paid work when their children are under five. This would also enable fathers to contribute to the mundane effort of caring and help to sustain enduring relationships with their children and partners. It is the voluntary acceptance of responsibilities based on ties of affection which creates enduring relationships not the rights and responsibilities that come with legal marriage.

Meanwhile, the changes in sexual behaviour taking place deserve to be celebrated not denounced. A small proportion of the population meet partners for life in their late teens but most people do not wish to return to the confines of life-long monogamous marriage. They are still looking for love and enduring relationships, but they also want to engage in other partnerships and more varied forms of sexual behaviour at different stages in their lives. In particular, early sexual activity and experimentation with relationships is a source of excitement and pleasure and an important learning experience in many people's lives. New approaches are needed. For example, attempting to persuade young people that sexual intercourse should be confined to permanent relationships lends support to inappropriately serious youthful relationships which have been shown for decades to be more likely to break down. So long as Government views sexuality solely in terms of negative outcomes (sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy) then much sexual behaviour (not just that of the young) will appear irrational and risky. But at key moments in people's lives the health risks involved in sexual activity often appear relatively minor when compared to the importance of desire and/or romantic love. Government policy should aim to foster confidence, caring and honest communication in the context of sexual activity. People with such attitudes are more able and likely to insist on safe sexual practices.

There are numerous choices available to the government that would provide genuine support to people in their personal lives. The collapse of the traditional system of sexual morality has created growing areas of inequity and inconsistency. The 1998 Green Paper Supporting Marriage appeared to suggest people should marry to obtain legal rights, and five years later government continues to deny these legal rights to cohabitees and gay couples. Thus, for example, cohabiting couples who are treated as married couples by the benefits system in order to deny them money are not treated as married in contexts (legal rights, pensions) where it would be to their gain. This is unfair and inconsistent. Government cannot stumble on trying to reconcile the old and the new, supporting one and undermining the other. There will be no return to the sexual morality and the family of the 1950s. Government should respect and support the development of new relationships, new families and new communities at work and at home.


Linda Hantrais and Peter Ackers, Women's Choices: Striking the Work-Life Balance. The Gender Pay and Productivity Gap Workshop Session 5, November 2002.

Balancing Work and Family Life: Enhancing Choice and Support for Parents. dti, January 2003.

Paul Doyle and Craig Lindsay, Experimental Consistent Time Series of Historical Labour Force Survey Data, September 2003.

Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex and Contraception, 1800-1975, Oxford:Oxford University Press, forthcoming February 2004.

Further Reading

Anne Barlow, Simon Duncan, and Grace James, 'New Labour, the Rationality Mistake and Family Policy in Britain' in Analysing Families: Morality and Rationality in Policy and Practice, edited by Alan Carling, Simon Duncan, and Rosalind Edwards, London: Routledge, 2002.

John C. Caldwell, Pat Caldwell, and Peter McDonald, 'Policy Responses to Low Fertility and Its Consequences: A Global Survey', Journal of Population Research (Australia), 19.1:1, 2002.

Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex and Contraception, 1800-1975, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming February 2004.

Karen Dunnell, Family Formation, 1976, HMSO, 1979.

J. Hajnal, 'European Marriage Patterns in Perspective' in Population in History, edited by David Victor Glass and D. E. Eversley, London: Edward Arnold, 1965, p. 101-143.

Shireen Jejeebhoy, Women's Education, Autonomy, and Reproductive Behaviour: Experience from Developing Countries, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Carol D. Ryff and Burton H. Singer (eds.), Emotion, Social Relationships and Health, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001,

Simon Szreter, Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain, 1860-1940, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kaye Wellings, J. Field, A. M. Johnson, J. Wadsworth, and Sally Bradshaw, Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, London: Blackwell, 1994.

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