Increasing diversity of sexual experience – major UK study

Published: November 30, 2013

 There has been significant change in British people’s sexual behaviour and attitudes in recent decades, according one of the largest studies ever conducted on the topic. The gender gap between women and men’s sexual behaviour is narrowing, many people have expanded their sexual repertoire, and there is good evidence of continuing sexual activity as people get older.

The study also shows that levels of HIV risk behaviours reported by heterosexual people have not increased over the past decade. In addition, one-in-forty men and one-in-thirty women report having a partner of the same sex in the previous five years.
The data come from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), published in The Lancet this week. As this study recruited a large, representative sample from households throughout Great Britain, it is more likely than most other studies to give an accurate picture of sexual experience and behaviour across the population. An individual who has very little sex is as likely to be recruited as a person with multiple partners.
The study
In 2010 to 2012, researchers from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) recruited 15,162 men and women, aged 16 to 74 years, from across England, Scotland and Wales. (A fuller description of the survey’s methods is contained in another article reporting its results on HIV testing.)
Although the survey is cross-sectional (it doesn’t follow individuals over time), it has now been conducted on three occasions – in 1990, 2000 and 2010. A total of 45,199 people have taken part in the three studies, providing a unique insight into changing sexual behaviour over more than two decades.
Data from previous studies have shaped sexual health policy.
While many of the same questions have been repeated in each survey, new topics have been added as the focus of the research has changed. Whereas the impetus of the 1990 study was the emerging HIV epidemic, the 2000 version was also driven by concerns about chlamydia infections and pregnancy in teenagers. The research in 2010 was informed by a holistic view of sexual wellbeing, rather than a focus on disease. Questions were asked about pleasure and sexual function, as well as sex being consensual.
Data from the previous studies have shaped sexual health policy – including how sexual health services are organised; the targeting of the teenage pregnancy strategy to low-income areas; the age at which HPV vaccination is offered; and the lowering of the age of consent for gay men.
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