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World-leading survey shapes sexual health policy

One of the world’s largest, most detailed studies of sexual behaviour has been informing health policy and modernising public dialogues around sex for over 30 years.

World-leading survey shapes sexual health policy

The National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) were founded by UCL’s Professor Dame Anne Johnson in the 1980s as a response to the emerging HIV epidemic. 

Anne and her colleagues faced an uphill battle to launch the survey after the taboo nature of the subject matter prompted a government funding ban. The researchers persevered and, after securing funding from the Wellcome Trust, Natsal went on to provide vital data that have helped to inform policy to reduce rates of HIV, sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies.

The surveys are now widely regarded as among the most reliable sources of scientific data in the field, not replicated with such frequency, detail or sample size in a single country anywhere in the world. 

Now led by UCL Professors Pam Sonnenberg and Cath Mercer who manage a multidisciplinary team that includes researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and NatCen Social Research, the surveys take place every 10 years and collect information from thousands of people who are randomly selected from across Britain.

The next wave, due to take place in 2021, will include nearly 10,000 people aged 15-59.

Natsal has influenced HIV services, HPV vaccination policy, the National Chlamydia Screening Programme, teenage pregnancy strategy and health education campaigns for young people and gay men. 

Professor Cath Mercer, co-principal investigator of the latest Natsal study said,

Improving sexual health remains a key public health challenge in Britain. Last year there were over 420,000 new STI diagnoses in England alone, and teenage pregnancy rates, although reducing, remain among the highest in Europe. There is increasing awareness about sexual violence, but also the importance of a satisfying sex life for our general health and well-being.

As well as providing a wealth of data for researchers, policy makers, and the public, Natsal has become the widely used benchmark against which other studies compare their findings. 

The combined data from all previous Natsal studies can also illustrate the substantial changes in sexual behaviours, family formation, and attitudes over time, using data from more than 45,000 people born between the 1930s and the 1990s.



  • Credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters, Source: Unsplash