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British women are engaging in greater variety of sexual practices

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7087 (Published 26 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7087
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. 1London

Great Britain is becoming more accepting of sexual diversity, and women in particular are now more open to participating in more diverse sexual behaviours, especially well educated and wealthier women, show the latest results of the largest survey of sexual attitudes and behaviour in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Over the past 20 years women have become four times more likely to have had a same sex sexual encounter, and they now have on average more than twice the number of sexual partners in their lifetime than they did in 1990.

Narrowing of the gap between the sexes in sexual views and behaviours is not the only change that has taken place since the first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) survey was conducted in 1990-1. The latest results of the survey, which takes place every 10 years, were published in six research papers and a commentary in the Lancet on Tuesday (www.thelancet.com/themed/natsal). They show that people in Britain are having sex less often, because they are less likely to be living with their sexual partner and because of the pressure of modern life.

Over 15 000 adults aged 16-74 years were interviewed in England, Scotland, and Wales between September 2010 and August 2012 about their sexual behaviour, attitudes, and health and wellbeing for the third Natsal study.

Commenting on the reduction in the frequency of sex—from more than six times a month on average 10 years ago to less than five times a month now—Cath Mercer, senior lecturer in infection and population health at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health, said, “People are worried about their jobs, worried about money. They are not in the mood for sex. But we also think modern technologies are behind the trend too. People have tablets and smartphones, and they are taking them into the bedroom, using Twitter and Facebook, answering emails.”

The results showed that the average number of partners over a woman’s lifetime has more than doubled since 1990-91, when the mean was 3.7, to 7.7 today. Men’s mean number of partners rose from 8.6 to 11.7.

And although the proportion of men aged 16-44 years reporting having engaged in same sex practices with genital contact changed little, from 3.6% in 1990-91 to 4.8% now, the proportion of women increased fourfold from 1.8% to 7.9%. The number of women aged 16-44 years reporting having ever engaged in same sex activity (including kissing and hugging) also increased fourfold, from 3.7% to 16%.

Correspondingly, there has been a much greater increase in the proportion of women aged 16-44 years who believe that same sex relationships are “not wrong at all” than among men. This view was held by less than a quarter of men aged 16-44 years in 1990-91 (22% for male same sex partnerships and 24% for female) and by almost half (48% and 52%, respectively) in 2010-12. However, over the same period the proportion of women who were supportive of same sex relationships rose from less than a third in 1990-91 (28% for male same sex partnerships and 28% for female) to two thirds today (66% for both sexes).

Similarly, the proportion of women aged 16-44 years believing that there was nothing wrong with “one night stands” has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, more than doubling from 5.4% to 13%, while among men the proportion has remained steady at around one in five.

Since the second Natsal study (1999-2000) there has also been an increase in the proportion of people aged 16-44 years who had engaged in anal sex in the previous year, up from 12% to 17% in men and from 11% to 15% of 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 aged 16-44 in this survey than in the previous one, down from 14% to 11%.

Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, told a press conference on Monday, “The more educated women and the better-off women were more likely to report oral sex and same sex sex and a greater number of partners. That may be because there may be a large minority of women who do feel able to take charge of their lives and make excursions into an alternative lifestyle.”

She said that the general trend was a “liberalisation of attitudes,” such as “an acceptance of people living, for example, with same sex partners, and we have seen that consistently over the three surveys—a real sense of much more acceptance of diversity.”

Kaye Wellings, professor of sexual and reproductive health research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that “there have been celebrities who have embraced same sex behaviour” and that media portrayal of women kissing each other had helped lessen the stigma associated with it.

By contrast Johnson said, “What we are not accepting of, however, is non-exclusivity in marriage: we have become more disapproving of that.” The proportion of people disapproving of non-exclusivity in marriage rose between 1990-91 and 2010-12, from 45% to 63% in men aged 16-44 years and from 53% to 70% in women in the same age group.

“I think that is quite interesting, when we think about the debate that is going on in society about the kind of relationships we have and the harm that they might to do others, that in a way we are becoming tougher on what might be termed cheating,” Johnson said.

Monthly frequency of sex fell over the past decade from 6.2 times a month among men and 6.3 times a month among women aged 16-44 years 10 years ago to an average of 4.9 among men and 4.8 among women in the latest survey. The researchers said that fewer people were getting married and cohabiting, so many had less opportunity for sex, but they admitted that frequency of sex had also fallen among people who lived with their sexual partner.

However, people were continuing to have sex later into life, with 42% of women and 60% of men aged 65-74 years reporting having had at least one sexual partner of the opposite sex in the previous year.

This was the first time that the Natsal study had asked older people about their sex lives, and for the first time it also asked participants whether, since the age of 13, anyone had made them have sex against their will. A 10th of women (9.8%) and one in 70 men (1.4%) reported this, but fewer than half (42% of women and 33% of men) had told anyone about it.

Furthermore, one in six people (17%) said that their health affected their sex life, and of these only a quarter of men (24%) and less than a fifth of women (18%) had sought help from a health professional.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7087

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