Lifestyle and exercise

Results of UK sex survey published

“A nation of bed-hoppers: We’re sleeping with more people than ever, once-a-decade sex survey reveals,” the Metro reports, but BBC News claims is “Modern life 'turning people off sex,”. Can both be right? It turns out that they can.

These stories, and many others, are based on six reports published in The Lancet medical journal.

The reports detail findings from a national survey which, as the researchers describe, provides a detailed picture of the sex lives of the British over the last 10 years. The survey is called the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3); the summaries of each report are free to read but you will need to pay to read the full reports.

This is the third survey of its kind, with two previous Natsal surveys carried out in 1990 and 2000. This most recent survey included a population matched sample of 15,162 adults aged 16 to 74 years who lived in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and participated in interviews between September 2010 and August 2012.

The executive summary of the six reports states that looking at such a large representative sample of the British population allowed the researchers to produce estimates on patterns of sexual behaviour, attitudes, health, and wellbeing across the population. Findings from the six topics being surveyed are summarised below.

This large survey provides useful estimates of sexual behaviours and attitudes among Britons aged 16 to 74 years. As the survey only included people in this age range, the findings and estimates cannot be generalised to people younger or older than this.

As this is the third survey of its kind, findings can be compared to previous years and used to track trends. This could be useful for policy makers and for people making decisions about sexual health interventions for the population.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from University College London, Public Health England, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and other UK institutions. It was funded by grants from the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust with support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of Health.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet.

How accurate was the media’s reporting?

The reports received wide spread media attention in the UK with headlines covering different aspects of the findings. The Daily Telegraph had the headline that ‘women [are] more liberated as attitudes to sex change’ while The Guardian reported that ‘Britons are having sex less often’.

The apparent contradiction comes from one of the key themes of the report – people may have more sexual partners over the course of their lives compared to previous generations, but they are also reporting having sex less often.

Both The Daily Mirror and BBC News had headlines about modern life ‘turning people off sex’ as the BBC put it. These headlines appear to have come from comments from one of the researchers about the finding that Britons are having sex less than five times a month. Dr Cath Mercer, one of the researchers from University College London is reported as saying to the BBC: ‘People are worried about their jobs, worried about money. They are not in the mood for sex.’

‘But we also think modern technologies are behind the trend too. People have tablets and smartphones and they are taking them into the bedroom, using Twitter and Facebook, answering emails.’

This appears to be Dr Mercer’s opinion rather than proven fact.

The Guardian also highlights one of the most disturbing findings of the research. Around 1 in 10 women reported being the victim of non-volitional sex. The authors’ defined non-volitional sex as sex against a person's will.

What were the key results for each topic?

Changes in sexual attitudes and lifestyles

Key findings from this report include:

  • the average number of male sexual partners a woman has over a lifetime has increased from 3.7 in 1990-1991 to 7.7 in the latest survey (a similar increase in men was seen from 8.6 to 11.7)
  • there has been a sharp rise in the proportion of women reporting ever having had a sexual experience with another women; the 1990-1991 figure of 1.8% has risen around four-fold to 7.9%

Another finding from this report was that acceptance of same-sex partners has increased among men and women since 2000. Around half of all men and women reported that there is “nothing wrong” with same-sex partnerships.

This report also includes the finding that on average over the past two decades, there has been a decrease in how often people say they have sex. The median (middle) number of occasions of sex that occurred in the four weeks prior to being interviewed decreased from five in 1990 to three in this current survey. This finding was picked up by The Guardian who had the headline that ‘Britons are having sex less often’.

There has also been a shift in attitudes towards one-night stands and adultery. British women and men are now more accepting of one-night stands that occur outside an exclusive relationship, but more disapproving about men or women who ‘cheat’ on their partners. Disapproval of non-exclusivity in marriage in men rose from to 45% to 63% and in women from 53% to 70%.

Prevalence, risk factors, and uptake of interventions for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

For this particular report, researchers analysed urine samples of men and women aged 16 to 44 years, which were tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HPVchlamydia and gonorrhoea.

Researchers found that high risk HPV (the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancers – though many people with an HPV infection will not develop any symptoms) is now a common STI found in around 16% of women tested. And around one in a hundred people aged 16-44 had chlamydia.

Also included in this report’s findings was the fact that since the 2000 survey, considerable increases in the past five years have been seen in HIV testing (from 8.7% to 27.6% in women and from 9.2% to 16.9% in men) and in attendance at sexual health clinics (from 6.7% to 21.4% in women and from 7.7% to 19.6% in men).

Sexual function

This report looked at sexual function of men and women in Britain. Low sexual function was defined as experiencing any sexual difficulties lasting three or more months in the past year, such as a lack of interest in sex or problems getting or keeping an erection. 

Included findings were that for men and women, low sexual function was associated with increased age. After adjustments were made for age it was also associated with depression and self-reported poor health.

Lack of sexual function was found to affect around 15% of men and 30% of women in the current survey. Reported sexual difficulties included difficulty reaching climax (16%) and vaginal dryness (13%) in women, and premature ejaculation (15%) and erectile dysfunction (13%) in men.

Low sexual function was also associated with previous negative sexual health outcomes such as diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and non-volitional sex (sexual activity that violates a person’s right to choose when and with whom to have sex, and what sexual behaviours to engage in).

Health and sexual lifestyles

This report included the overall finding that poor health was found to be independently associated with reduced sexual activity and satisfaction among adults of all ages in Britain. Another finding was that few people (23.5% of men and 18.4% of women) who had reported their health had affected their sex life, reported seeking clinical help.

Non-volitional sex

This report states that these findings provide the first estimates of non-volitional sex in Britain and they made for harrowing reading.

Non-volitional sex (which the authors define as sexual activity against a person's will) since the age of 13 was reported by 9.8% of women and 1.4% of men, with the median age of 18 for women and 16 for men.

Less 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).

The person responsible was a stranger in only 15% of cases among women and men.

Non-volitional sex was also associated with a range of negative health outcomes such as ever being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and pregnancy before the age of 18.

Unwanted pregnancies

This report provided statistics of unplanned pregnancy, which the authors describe as a key public health indicator. Of interviewed women (age 16 to 44 years) who had a pregnancy in the previous year, 16% of them said the pregnancy was unplanned, and 29% said they were ambivalent about it.

They estimated that unplanned pregnancy accounts for 1.5% of pregnancies in Britain. Though most unplanned pregnancies occurred in women aged 20 to 34 years, among females aged 16 to 19 years, about 45% of pregnancies were reported as unplanned.

The report describes that the factors strongly associated with unplanned pregnancy were first sexual intercourse before the age of 16, smoking, recent use of drugs other than cannabis (marijuana) and low level of education.


The findings of the report make for some mixed reading; suggesting multiple, and often contrasting, trends are at work.

One on hand we are having sex with more people than previous generations, but on the other hand we actually spend less time having sex.

Similarly, some of our attitudes, such as acceptance of same-sex partnerships have become more liberal, while other attitudes, such as acceptance of having sex outside a relationship, have hardened.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the statistics provided about non-volitional sex. The fact that one in 10 women had sex against their will at some point in their life, is simply unacceptable in a civilized society. And the fact that many feel unable to tell others about their experience is a challenge for politicians and policy-makers; how to create services that victims of non-volitional sex feel that they can turn to for support.

Read more about seeking help after rape, sexual assault or violence.

NHS Attribution