Survey examines changes in sexual behaviour and attitudes in Britain

26 November 2013

Quad in Autumn

New results published in The Lancet as part of the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) survey reveal how sexual behaviour and attitudes in Britain have changed in recent decades.

Data from three Natsal studies, carried out every 10 years, demonstrate changes in age at first sex, number of sexual partners and prevalence of sexual practices, as well as attitudes towards sex.

Researchers from UCL, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research, interviewed 15,162 people aged 16–74 resident in Britain during 2010–12. The survey was originally carried out in 1990–91 and then again in 1999–2001, but only among people 16–44 years.

This time round, for the first time, the survey has recorded behaviour patterns and attitudes in those up to age 74.

Changing sexual behaviour

Over the past 60 years, age at first heterosexual intercourse has declined to an average [median] of 16 years among 16–24 year olds. Among this age group, the latest survey found that 31% of men and 29% of women now have first sex before the age of 16, which is not significantly different from the figures from the previous survey (1999–2001), and so is still a minority.

The lead author, UCL’s Dr Cath Mercer, says: “Young people today have sex at an earlier age than previous generations did. However, as men and women are living longer, have healthier lives and continue to have active sex lives well beyond their reproductive years, we need to view sexual health and wellbeing as an issue of lifelong importance."

The latest survey interviewed people up to age 74 years and showed that people continue to have sex into later life, with 42% of women and 60% of men aged 65–74 years reporting having had at least one opposite sex sexual partner in the previous year, although the range and frequency of sex reduced with age.

Young people today have sex at an earlier age than previous generations did. However, as men and women are living longer, have healthier lives, and continue to have active sex lives well beyond their reproductive years, we need to view sexual health and well-being as an issue of lifelong importance.

Dr Cath Mercer, UCL Infection & Population Health

Frequency of sex has fallen over the past decade to just less than five times a month for both sexes (an average [mean] of 4.9 for men and 4.8 for women) amongst those aged 16–44 years, from means of 6.2 and 6.3, respectively, in the previous survey.

This is explained in part by demographic change with fewer people in the population married or cohabiting and so having less opportunity to have sex, although even among people who live with their partner, sexual frequency has declined.

Overall, a similar proportion of men (95%) and women (96%) reported ever having had at least one opposite-sex partner.

In the age group 16–44 years, the average number of partners over a woman’s lifetime has more than doubled since the first survey (in 1990–91), from an average [mean] of 3.7 in 1990–91 to 7.7 in the latest survey. In men, this figure has increased from 8.6 to 11.7, suggesting a narrowing of the gender gap.

While the number of men reporting having same-sex partners has changed little from 3.6% in the first study to 4.8% this time around, for women, the figure has increased four-fold, from 1.8% to 7.9%.

The number of people reporting heterosexual oral sex in the past year remained constant since the previous survey (1999–2001), at just over three-quarters of men and women aged 16–44 (77% and 75% respectively).

However, there has been an increase in the minority of people reporting anal sex in the past year, up from 12% to 17% for men, and from 11% to 15% for women.

Reporting two or more partners in the past year and no condom use during this time – a measure of unsafe sex – was less frequent among men in this survey than in the previous survey, down from 14% to 11%.

Professor Kaye Wellings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, one of the leaders of the study, says: “The change in women’s behaviour across the three surveys has been remarkable. 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.

“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.”

Changing attitudes towards sex

The survey has also illustrated changing attitudes in those aged 16–44 years over the past two decades. While previously, fewer than one in four men thought same sex partnerships were ‘not wrong at all’ (22% for male same-sex partnerships and 24% for female), the figure is now approximately half (48% and 52% respectively); in women, the increase has been even greater, from less than one in three women in 1990–91 (28% for male same-sex partnerships and 28% for female) to two in three women today (66% and 66%, respectively).

By contrast, there is now greater disapproval of non-exclusivity in marriage among both men (increasing from 45% to 63%) and women (from 53% to 70%). One in five men (20%) now see nothing wrong in ‘one-night stands’, the same proportion as in 1990–91, but the number of women holding this view has increased from 5.4% to 13% over the same period.

Natsal Principal Investigator Professor Dame Anne Johnson of UCL, adds: “We tend to think that these days we live in an increasingly sexually liberal society, but the truth is far more complex. The context in which we have sex, and the variability of sexual lifestyles we have, continues to change and, while we think of sex as being more widely available, with more explicit TV programmes and films and extended social networks, in fact, as a nation, we are having no more sex nowadays than we did a decade ago.”

The results are part of the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) survey, led by Professor Dame Anne Johnson of UCL (which provided institutional leadership on the study’s management and statistical analysis), and Professor Kaye Wellings, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

More than 15,000 adults aged 16–74 years participated in interviews between September 2010 and August 2012, producing data on sexual behaviour, attitudes, health and wellbeing.

Two previous Natsal surveys have taken place, in 1990 and 2000, making it one of the largest ever studies of sexual behaviour undertaken in a single country. The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and The Wellcome Trust, with additional funding from the Economic & Social Research Council and the Department of Health, and is published in a special issue of The Lancet.

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Media contact: David Weston


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