Respect for privacy underlies many aspects of British life. It is not just privacy in your own home which is important. Just as important is the individual's right to keep information about himself or herself private. Despite the increase in informality, it is still seen as rude to ask people what are called ‘personal’ questions (for example, about how much money they earn or about their family or sex life) unless you know them very well. Notice that the conventional formula on being introduced to someone in Britain, ‘how do you do?’, is not interpreted as a real request for information at all; the conventional reply is not to ‘answer the question’ but to reply by saying ‘how do you do?’ too.
The modern British attitude to sex is an example of how, while moral attitudes have changed, the habit of keeping things private is still deeply ingrained. British (like American) public life has a reputation for demanding puritanical standards of behaviour. Revelations about extra-marital affairs or other deviations from what is considered normal in private life have, in the past, ruined the careers of many public figures. This would seem to indicate a lack of respect for privacy and that the British do not allow their politicians a private life. However, appearances in this matter can be misleading. In most of these cases, the disgrace of the politician concerned has not been because of his sexual activity. It has happened because this activity was mixed up with a matter of national security, or involved breaking the law or indicated hypocrisy (in acting against the stated policy of the politician's party). In other words, the private sexual activity had a direct relevance to the politician's public role. The scandal was that in these cases, the politicians had not kept their private lives and public roles separate enough. When no such connections are involved, there are no negative consequences for the politicians. In fact when, in 1992, a leading politician announced that five years previously he had had an affair with his secretary, his popularity actually increased!
In 1992 a million copies of very explicit and realistic videos with titles such as Super Virility, Better Sex, The Gay Man's Guide to Safer Sex and The Lovers' Guide were sold in Britain. There was some debate about whether they should be banned. However, an opinion poll showed that the British public agreed that they were not ‘pornographic’ but 'educational'. Three out of four of those asked were happy for the videos to be freely on sale. Examples such as this suggest that modern Britons have a positive and open attitude to sex. However, they continue to regard it as an absolutely private matter. Sex may no longer be ‘bad’, but it is still embarrassing. Take the example of sex education in schools. Partly because of worries about AIDS, this is now seen as a vital part of the school curriculum. It is the legal responsibility of schools to teach it. However, research in the early 1990s suggested that little or no sex education was taking place in nearly half of the schools in the country. Why? The most common reason was that teachers simply felt too embarrassed to tackle the subject. Similarly, public references to sex in popular entertainment are very common, but they typically take the form of joking innuendo and clumsy double-entendre.
The same mixture of tolerance and embarrassment can be seen in the official attitude to prostitution in Britain. It is not illegal to be a prostitute in Britain, but it is illegal to publicly behave like one. It is against the law to ‘solicit’ - that is, to do anything in public to find customers.