Mental health

Around 1 in 10 UK young people report distressing sex problems

"Large number of young people experience sex problems," The Guardian reports. In one of the largest UK surveys of its kind, 1 in 10 young men and 1 in 8 young women reported having persistent distressing sexual problems.

Commonly reported problems included premature ejaculation in menproblems reaching climax in women, and a general lack of interest in sex in both genders. The survey found 9% of men and 13% of women experienced a sexual problem they found distressing.

Concern about young people and sex tends to focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), say the study authors, but less is known about how young people fare in terms of sexual well-being.

The researchers used information from 2,392 people aged 16 to 21, interviewed in 2010 to 2012.

While problems with sexual dysfunction are usually associated with older adults, it would seem that they are also a cause of concern in the young. This could lead to problems in the future as a distressing sexual experience in early adulthood could trigger long-term issues.

The researchers suggest that sex education shouldn't just focus on the negatives (STIs, unwanted pregnancies, and so on), but also provide practical advice on how to make sex better. This might prevent these problems from becoming lifelong difficulties.

Whatever your age, if you are having problems with your sexual relationships, talk to your GP. Good sexual health isn't just about avoiding infection or pregnancy. Having a fulfilling sex life is just as important.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Glasgow, University College London and the University of Southampton. It was funded by the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Adolescent Health on an open-access basis so it is free to read online.

The Guardian, The Independent, and BBC Newsbeat covered the story accurately, featuring interviews with the lead researcher and other sexual health experts, who called for more attention to be given to sexual satisfaction and pleasure in sex education.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional survey, designed to be representative of the UK's population as a whole. For this study, they looked at the data from people aged 16 to 21.

They wanted to see how common sexual problems are for people this age.

The larger study included people aged 16 to 74 and results were reported elsewhere. A cross-sectional survey is a "snapshot" of time, so we don't know whether people carried on having problems, or whether their experiences changed over time.

What did the research involve?

Researchers randomly selected 15,162 people – of all ages – within geographical areas chosen to give a balanced representation of the UK as a whole. They asked people a broad range of questions, including about their sexual experiences, in visits to their homes. They then "drilled down" to look in further detail just at the information provided by the 2,392 women and men aged 16 to 21.

More sensitive questions in the survey were asked using a computer system, where people filled in the answers themselves, without the researchers seeing the answers. This was done to encourage people to give truthful answers, without feeling embarrassed.

People who said they'd had sex in the last year were asked if they'd had these problems, lasting for a period of three months or more:

  • lack of interest in having sex
  • lack of enjoyment in sex
  • anxiety during sex
  • physical pain as a result of sex
  • no excitement or arousal during sex
  • not reached a climax (experienced an orgasm) or taking a long time to reach a climax despite feeling excited or aroused
  • reached a climax (experienced an orgasm) more quickly than you would like
  • uncomfortable vaginal dryness
  • trouble getting or keeping an erection

They were then asked if they'd felt distressed as a result of these problems, and whether they'd asked for help from friends, family, through the media, or health professionals.

What were the basic results?

Sexual problems were relatively common among teenagers and young adults, although not as common as in the general population. Women were more likely to report sexual problems:

  • 44% of women aged 16 to 21 had experienced a sexual problem, compared to 51.2% of women in the general population
  • 33.8% of men aged 16 to 21 had experienced a sexual problem, compared to 41.6% of men in the general population

Of the problems causing distress, inability to reach orgasm was the most commonly experienced problem for women (6.3% said this problem affected and distressed them), and climaxing too soon the most commonly experienced problem among men (4.5% said this affected and distressed them).

Other common distressing problems for women were lack of interest in sex (22% reported this, with 5.3% saying they'd experienced and been distressed by it) and feeling physical pain during sex (9% experienced this, with 3.2% saying they'd been distressed by it). Between 8% and 10% of women reported feeling anxious during sex, experiencing no arousal or getting no pleasure from sex.

Men were less likely to report distressing problems. The main distressing problem other than climaxing too soon was difficulty getting or keeping an erection (7.8% experienced this and 3.3% said they'd been distressed by it).

Women were more likely to seek help for problems than men, although few of either gender sought advice from health professionals (7.9% of women and 3.6% of men). Most people who sought help looked to friends or family.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded: "If we wish to improve sexual well-being in the population, we need to reach individuals and couples as they embark on their sexual careers, to prevent lack of knowledge, anxiety, and shame turning into lifelong sexual difficulties." They said their data gave a starting point for this work.

They suggested that better sexual education is needed to "debunk myths, discuss pleasure" and emphasise the importance of communication and respect in relationships. In addition, they said, given how common sexual problems seem to be in this group, it "may be appropriate" for healthcare providers to discuss sexual function with young people who attend for contraception or sexually transmitted infection screening.


The survey results show that sexual problems are relatively common among young people. The findings are perhaps not surprising, but suggest an unmet need for advice and support around sexual function and enjoyment, as well as the more traditional concerns of preventing unwanted pregnancy and infections.

Sex education is not compulsory for non-maintained schools in the UK, although pressure is mounting to make it so. Much traditional sex education focuses on contraception and safer sex practices.

There have long been calls for sex education to also include discussions of sexual pleasure and what makes for a happy sex life. Previous research has found that young people with good sexual function are more likely to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy.

There are some limitations to the research. Although the researchers tried to balance their survey population to be representative of the UK as a whole, only 57.7% of people aged 16 to 74 asked agreed to take part. It's possible that people who didn't take part had sexual experiences that differed in some way from those who did take part. This would make the survey results less applicable to the UK as a whole. However, younger people who were asked to take part were more likely to do so (65.8% of 16 to 44 year olds).

The survey also relies on people answering questions truthfully and was carried out in a way that maximised the chances of this happening. But some people may have felt embarrassed to admit to problems, even without the interviewers being able to see their answers.

If you are having a problem then it is recommended to see your GP. While the prospect may seem embarrassing, they are trained to deal with problems with sexual dysfunction.  

NHS Attribution