Key results from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)

Posted by: on Nov 27, 2013 | No Comments


New results published in The Lancet as part of the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) survey reveal how sexual behaviour and attitudes in Britain have changed in recent decades. Data from three Natsal studies, carried out every ten years, demonstrate changes in age at first sex, number of sexual partners, and prevalence of sexual practices, as well as attitudes towards sex. Researchers from UCL (University College London), the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research, interviewed 15162 people aged 16-74 resident in Britain during 2010-12. The survey was originally carried out in 1990-91 and then again in 1999-2001, but only amongst people 16-44 years.

Sex doesn’t stop when you start drawing a pension.

This time round for the first time, the survey has recorded behaviour patterns and attitudes in those up to age 74. The extension of the survey to older generations is surely a reflection of the impact of Viagra.

Median frequency of sex for people aged 16-24 it is 4 times a month. For people aged 55-64 it is twice a month. And for people aged 65-74 it is once a month. This information is reassuring and it mediates expectations by showing that people are not, as we have been lead to believe, having sex an average of three times a week.

Frequency of sex has fallen over the past decade to just under five times a month for both sexes (an average [mean] of 4.9 for men and 4.8 for women) amongst those aged 16-44 years, from means of 6.2 and 6.3, respectively, in the previous survey. This is explained in part by demographic change with fewer people in the population married or cohabiting and so having less opportunity to have sex, although even among people who live with their partner sexual frequency has declined.

Overall we are becoming less sexually active, but more sexually experimental.

There has been an increase in the minority of people reporting anal sex in the past year, up from 12% to 17% for men, and from 11% to 15% for women.This is surely a reflection of access to porn.
The number of people reporting heterosexual oral sex in the past year remained constant since the previous survey (1999-2001), at just over three-quarters of men and women aged 16-44 (77% and 75% respectively). Next time around that question definitely needs to be separated out because we’d like to know whether the higher figure for women relates to giving or receiving.

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 in this survey than in the previous survey, down from 14% to 11%.

Look at the median, not the mean.

The research shows that 42% of women and 60% of men aged 65-74 years reporting having had at least one opposite sex sexual partner in the previous year, although the range and frequency of sex reduced with age.

Overall, a similar proportion of men (95%) and women (96%) reported ever having had at least one opposite-sex partner. In the age group 16-44 years, the average number of partners over a woman’s lifetime has more than doubled since the first survey (in 1990-91), from an average [mean] of 3.7 in 1990-91 to 7.7 in the latest survey. In men, this figure has increased from 8.6 to 11.7, suggesting a narrowing of the gender gap.

Although the mean figures have gone up, the median figures have stayed the same ( 4 for women and 6 for men) which suggests that a percentage of the population are much more sexually active than the main.

Whilst the number of men reporting having same-sex partners has changed little from 3.6% in the first study to 4.8% this time around, for women the figure has increased four-fold, from 1.8% to 7.9%.

Age at first intercourse

Over the last 60 years, age at first heterosexual intercourse has declined to an average [median] of 16 years among 16-24 year olds. Among this age group, the latest survey found that 31% of men and 29% of women now have first sex before age 16, which is not significantly different from the figures from the previous survey (1999-2001), and so is still a minority. Educational attainment is the most important predictor of when a person will start having sex

According to lead author, Dr Cath Mercer, from UCL (University College London), UK: “Young people today have sex at an earlier age than previous generations did. However, as men and women are living longer, have healthier lives, and continue to have active sex lives well beyond their reproductive years, we need to view sexual health and well-being as an issue of lifelong importance.

Sexual Health

Sexual health programmes such as chlamydia screening and HPV vaccinations are working.

Uptake of chlamydia testing in young people is high, as is coverage of HPV catch-up immunisation, with lower rates of HPV 16/18 now being seen in young women.

Substantial increases in sexual health service attendance and HIV testing, especially in those at highest risk, are welcomed, but continued efforts to maintain integrated services and encourage testing are needed.
TIs persist both in those accessing and those not accessing services, and risky sexual behaviours remain the major drivers.

Chlamydia and human papillomavirus (HPV) remain common and broadly distributed in sexually-active young adults in Britain, while HIV and gonorrhoea are restricted to those with known high risk factors.


Low libido and disinterest in sex is an issue for both men and women.

Sexual difficulties affect one in five women and one in four men but only one in ten are distressed by this. Older people have greater difficulty with sexual dysfunction. That’s an important point because lower sexual function is associated with relationship breakdown, and with people not being happy with their relationship. Within relationships, the most common problem was an imbalance in level of interest in sex between partners, which affected around a quarter of both men and women. Just under one in five men and women said their partner had experienced sexual difficulties in the last year, and this proportion increased with age, particularly among women.
Lack of interest in sex was one of the most commonly reported problems for both men and women, affecting three in every twenty (15%) men, and with women twice as likely as men to say that this had been an issue in the last year. Difficulty reaching climax (16%) and vaginal dryness (13%) were among common problems for women; and reaching a climax more quickly than desired (15%), and difficulty getting or keeping an erection (13%) among men. Sexual dissatisfaction and avoidance of sex were higher among those who did not have sex in the past year than among those who did, but the majority of sexually inactive individuals reported that they were not dissatisfied, distressed, or avoiding sex because of sexual difficulties

This study suggests that 3 in every 20 men and 6 in every 20 women report low libido.


Teen Pregnancy

One in six pregnancies among women in Britain are unplanned, and one in 60 women (1.5%) experience an unplanned pregnancy in a year.

We have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe but actually most unplanned pregnancies happen in the 20-34 year old age group

16-19 year olds account for 7.5% of all pregnancies but only 21.2% of them were unplanned. This confirms that teenage pregnancy is not a result of lack of awarenesss or education, its often a conscious choice on the part of young women and that is probably directly related to poverty of aspiration

Four in ten planned or ambivalent pregnancies result in abortion so we cant make a link between unplanned pregnancy and abortion


One in ten women in Britain report having experienced sex against their will

One in ten women (9.8 %) and roughly one in seventy men (1.4%), when asked “Has anyone actually made you have sex with them, against your will?” said yes, according to new results published as part of the third Natsal survey, published in The Lancet. Of those who reported having had sex against their will (non-volitional sex), fewer than half (42.2% of women and 32.6% of men) had told anyone about it, and fewer still had reported it to the police (12.9 % of women and 8% of men).

Changing attitudes

Women’s behaviour has changed more than mens. Professor Kaye Wellings, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, one of the leaders of the study, says: “The change in women’s behaviour across the three surveys has been remarkable. In some areas of sexual behaviour we have seen a narrowing of the gender gap, but in others we have seen women overtaking men in the diversity of their behaviour. These trends need to be seen against the backdrop of the profound changes in the position of women in society, the norms governing their lifestyles, and media representations of female sexuality.”
The survey has also illustrated changing attitudes in those aged 16-44 years over the past two decades. Whilst previously, fewer than one in four men thought same sex partnerships were ‘not wrong at all’ (22% for male same-sex partnerships and 24% for female), the figure is now approximately half (48% and 52% respectively); in women, the increase has been even greater, from less than one in three women in 1990-91 (28% for male same-sex partnerships and 28% for female) to two in three women today (66% and 66%, respectively).
By contrast, there is now greater disapproval of non-exclusivity in marriage amongst both men (increasing from 45% to 63%) and women (from 53% to 70%). One in five men (20%) now see nothing wrong in ‘one-night stands’, the same proportion as in 1990-91, but the number of women holding this view has increased from 5.4% to 13% over the same period.
Natsal Principal Investigator Professor Dame Anne Johnson, of UCL, UK, adds: “We tend to think that these days we live in an increasingly sexually liberal society, but the truth is far more complex. The context in which we have sex, and the variability of sexual lifestyles we have, continues to change, and whilst we think of sex as being more widely available, with more explicit TV programmes and films and extended social networks, in fact, as a nation, we are having no more sex nowadays than we did a decade ago.”



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