Sexual behaviour insights: Until the 1990s there was little (dependable) data on the sexual behaviour of the general population in Great Britain. The appearance of AIDS in the 1980s provided the momentum for the first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), which was carried out in 1990(1). A second survey ten years later (Natsal 2000)(2,3,4) enables us to gauge how reported sexual behaviour has changed.
Since 1990 there have been considerable changes in Britain’s demographic structure, social attitudes and public awareness of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, all of which may have influenced sexual behaviour.
Main changes since 1990:
- Heterosexual partners up in the past five years’
- More same-sex experiences in the past five years’
- More concurrent partnerships’
- More oral and anal sex in the past year’
- A higher occurrence of regular condom use in the past four weeks’
- A greater number of men reported paying for sex in the past five years.
An assessment of the two surveys concluded that while the increase in reported STI risk behaviour was likely to be due in part to real changes in behaviour, greater social acceptance and a willingness to report may also have had an effect.
The typical age of when first intercourse occurred has gone from 17 down to 16 for both men and women.
Nearly a third (30%) of men and a quarter (26%) of women aged 16–19 first had sexual intercourse before they were 16.
83% of 16– 26-year-olds use a condom the first time they have sex, compared with 39% of those in their early 30s. Less than one in ten (7.4% men, 9.8% women) had used no contraception at all when they first had sex, compared with about 25% of those in their early 30s.
First sex was more likely to be unprotected for the youngest age groups. When first sex occurred at age 13–14, 31% of men and 33.6% of women didn’t use condoms, and 18% of men and 22% of women used no contraception at all. This is much lower than in the 1990 survey when around 60% of 13– 14-year-old men and over half of 13– 14-year-old women used no contraception when they first had sex.
The number of sexual partners people have in a lifetime varies a great deal between individuals. The majority (81.9% men, 76.4% women) have more than one over their lifetime.
The average numbers of lifetime partners are up from 1990 to 8.6 to 12.7 for men and from 3.7 to 6.5 for women. The proportion having ten or more partners in their lifetime also increased, from 31.4% to 34.6% of men, and from 9.7% to 19.4% of women.
The average number of partners over the past five years was four for men and two for women. While nearly half had only one partner, some (8.4% men, 3.6% women) had ten or more partners. Those under 25 reported highest numbers of partners in the past five years, with 14.1% of men and 9.2% of women reporting ten or more.
The proportion of men and women having more than one partner at the same time (concurrent) has increased. Over 14% of men and 9% of women in 2000 had been in such relationships in the past year, as opposed to 11.4% and 5.4% in 1990. The proportion was higher among younger age groups, with over 20% of 15– 24-year-old men and 15% of 15– 24-year-old women having concurrent partnerships in the past year.
The amount of both men and women who had a same-sex partner increased is up from 3.6% in 1990 to 5.4% of men, and 1.8% to 4.9% of women now. The number that had a same-sex partner in the past five years also increased from 1.5% to 2.6% men, and from 0.8% to 2.6% women.
The amount of men who paid for sex within the past five years has doubled over the past decade, from 2.1% to 4.3%.
In general, regular condom use has improved, from 18.3% to 24.4% in men and from 14.9% to 18% in women. Nevertheless, this increase is offset by increases in high-risk behaviour (see below).
High-risk behaviour is defined as ‘two or more heterosexual or homosexual partners in the last year and none regular use of condoms during any form of sexual activity within the past four weeks’. Frequency has risen from 13.6% to 15.4% in men and from 7.1% to 10% in women between 1990 and now.
The average frequency of heterosexual intercourse per month was 6.4 for men and 6.5 for women.
Over three-quarters of both men and women had experienced oral sex in the past year, a slight increase over ten years ago.
More than one in ten had had anal intercourse (12.3% men, 11.3% of women) in the past year, a substantial increase since the 1990 survey when the proportions were 7% and 6.5% respectively.
One in 16 (6.2%) men and one in six (15.6%) women had experienced a sexual problem in the previous year which lasted at least six months. The most common problem for men was premature orgasm, and for women lack of interest in sex.
Shorter-term problems (of at least one month) had been experienced by about a third of men and over half of women.
The Natsal surveys didn’t expand to take account of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, a key survey of the sexual attitudes and lifestyles of 14– 25-year-olds was carried out in 2000(7). The main findings are very similar to those for Great Britain.
Approximately one-third of young people had their first sexual experience before they hit the age of 17, the legal age of consent in Northern Ireland at the time (now amended to 16), and over a quarter before 16. The average age at first sex was 15.6 years (15 for men and 16 for women), about the same as in Great Britain.
Nearly three-quarters (72.4%) had used contraception when they first had sex. Over a third (36%) had used condoms alone; over a quarter (27.8%) used condoms in addition to another method, and 8.6% used another method.
One in nine (10.9%) men and one in 28 (3.6%) women reported sex with a same-sex partner on at least one occasion. About 2% (2.4% men, 1.4% women) said they had only ever been attracted to the same sex.
Source: Sexual behaviour
Disclaimer: The statistics are approximations and intended to be a guide only and should not be relied upon as being authoritative statements of fact.