British sexual attitudes have come a long way from the prudish caricature but despite people losing their virginity earlier and the number of older people who are sexually active increasing, we’re having less sex than we used to, according to a new survey.
The Natsal survey, carried out every ten years, is the largest snapshot of British sexual health and lifestyles and looks at a wide range of issues from bedroom activity to sexually transmitted infections and unwilling sex. For the latest study, published in The Lancet, more than 15,000 people aged 16 to 74 were surveyed between September 2010 and August 2012.
While more people were likely to start having sex earlier than before (the average age of first intercourse is now 16 compared to two years older about 60 years ago), older people were also having sex right the way through their lives. About 42% of women and 60% of men aged 65-74 reported at least one opposite sex partner in the previous year, although number of partners and frequency of sex did reduce with age.
This is the first survey to include people aged between 45 and 74 and although the figures can’t be compared with previous surveys, the researchers said older people living longer and healthier lives and less stigma about being open about having sex at an older age meant older people were more likely to report their sexual activity.
Five times a month
But the overall frequency of sex had fallen to just under five times a month for men and women aged 16-44, compared to six times a month a decade ago. The researchers said this was in part due to fewer people being married or living together – although those who were were still having less than they used to.
Changes in sexual behaviour was most marked among women, the researchers said. “In some areas of sexual behaviour we have seen a narrowing of the gender gap, but in others we have seen women overtaking men in the diversity of their behaviour,” study co-author Kaye Wellings said. “These trends need to be seen against the backdrop of the profound changes in the position of women in society, the norms governing their lifestyles, and media representations of female sexuality.”
Some of these changes include the number of sexual partners (including same-sex partners) reported by women in the survey. In the 16-44 age group, for example, the average number of partners a woman had had in her lifetime had more than doubled since the first survey in 1990-1 from an average of 3.7 to 7.7. This also increased for men, from an average of 8.6 partners to 11.7, although the increase was smaller.
Room for acceptance
While the number of men who reported having sex with someone of the same gender increased by only 1.2% (to 4.8% overall), for women over the same period this had increased four-fold from 1.8% to 7.9%. The survey also showed attitudes towards same-sex partnerships had also improved, but left significant room for more acceptance.
The survey also questioned respondents over heterosexual oral sex and anal sex. While the former remained relatively constant, the number who reported have having the latter rose from 12% to 17% for men and 11% to 15% for women, although it was still relatively uncommon.
Wellings said caution was needed in interpreting the figures, without further study of outside influences.
“We need to be a little careful. Those who were more educated or better off were more likely to report more oral sex or same sex, which indicates they may find it easier to take more control of their lives,” she said.
“But others studies have also suggested a link between pornographic imagery and experiencing anal sex or same sex. We need to ask whether it’s entirely a woman’s choice or a male-driven agenda.”
One in ten women said they’d experienced sex against their will. This is in stark contrast to the male experience, where one in 70 reported the same. Of those that did report having sex against their will, less than half said they’d told anyone about it (42.2% of women and 32.6% of men). Even fewer said they had reported it to the police.
Telling other people was also a problem when it came to health issues that affected sex lives. While just over 16% of men and women thought health issues had affected their sex lives, they were unlikely to seek help.
Sexually transmitted infections
Among findings on unsafe sex, infections and unplanned pregnancies, the survey found that number of men who said they’d had sex with two or more partners in the past year without a condom was down only slightly from 14% down to 11%. The the survey also showed that one in six pregnancies was unplanned.
Despite a high level of chlamydia testing among younger people and vaccination for human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer, both STIs were still common. This was partly because the vaccination programme for HPV was relatively young and only women between the age of 18-20 would have received the vaccine, study co-author Pam Sonnenberg said. Among these women HPV was much lower, which indicated the intervention was working very well.
HIV and gonorrhoea was still mainly found in high risk groups. Overall, risky behaviour remained the main drivers of sexual infection.