Research News

One in 10 young people experiences a distressing sexual problem

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 03 August 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4272
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. London

A sizeable minority of young people experience distressing sexual function problems but very few seek professional help, research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health has found.1

The third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles included a nationally representative sample of 1875 sexually active and 517 sexually inactive participants aged 16-21 in the United Kingdom. The survey found that 34% of sexually active young men and 44% of sexually active young women had experienced sexual problems lasting at least three months in the previous year.

Around one in 10 young men and one in eight young women reported a sexual problem lasting at least three months that they had felt distressed about. Among men the most commonly reported problems were reaching a climax too quickly and difficulty in keeping an erection. Among women the most common problems reported were difficulty in reaching a climax and a lack of interest in sex.

The survey found that 36% of men and 42% of women who reported one or more sexual problems had sought help; however, this was rarely from a professional source but rather from family and friends, the media, or the internet. Only 4% of young men and 8% of young women who reported a sexual problem had consulted a GP, sexual health professional, or psychiatrist.

Among those who had been sexually active in the previous year, 6.3% of men and 6.8% of women said that they had avoided sex because of sexual difficulties. Among those who had not had sex in the past year, 10% said that they had avoided sex because of sexual difficulties.

The lead author, Kirstin Mitchell, who began the research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and is now based at the University of Glasgow, said, “When it comes to young people’s sexuality, professional concern is usually focused on preventing sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. However, we should be considering sexual health much more broadly, as sexual difficulties can impact on young people’s sexual wellbeing in the longer term.”

She added, “Our findings show that distressing sexual problems are not only experienced by older people in Britain—they are in fact relatively common in early adulthood as well. Sex education and sexual health service professionals need to provide reassurance and opportunities for young people to discuss and address these problems early on.”


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