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Sex lessons, British style

What sex lessons we can learn from the British

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Behind the headlines surrounding a new survey lies even more important lessons about the virtues of collecting intimate sex details and studying them.

The French don’t get all hung up on monogamy. Americans are relaxed about dating. Italian lovers are, we’re told, passionate, and the Scandinavians are more open-minded than most in the bedroom.

When it comes to national stereotypes about relationships, the British don’t fare too well. Think Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Or for that matter, Hugh Grant in any film. We’re said to have so many hang-ups that we don’t even talk about sex until we’re in the pub, and to need to be blind drunk before anything approaching physical contact occurs.

Of course national stereotypes are of limited use, but they don’t come out of thin air either. However, maybe it’s time to begin updating prejudices if results from the detailed and wide-ranging third National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) are anything to go by. It suggests that Brits are gradually becoming more comfortable openly discussing sex, more experimental and more tolerant towards others.

Even though the 15,000 people interviewed for Natsal-3 were English, Scottish and Welsh, the findings hold insights for others around the world. Similar numbers were surveyed in 1990-1991 and 1999-2001, allowing changes to be tracked over two decades and making it the largest study of its kind ever to have been carried out.

It’s a fair bet what sort of headlines Natsal-3 will attract – something along the lines of “Young people are doing it sooner”, “Men are doing it less”, “Women are doing it more” and “Women are doing it with women much more.”

While these facts are interesting and will no doubt be widely discussed, 20 researchers and 491 survey interviewers did not spend several years and over $10 million of grant money just to satisfy our curiosity about who is doing what to whom, and how often. The main original motivation for the first Natsal study was for a much more profound reason.

In the late 1980s, the numbers of Aids cases was growing rapidly, and the only way to make accurate predictions about future trends was to gather some accurate data. The project almost died before it could get underway when, under the front page headline “Thatcher halts survey on sex”, the Sunday Times newspaper reported in September 1989 that the-then Prime Minister had decided that asking people about the intimate details of their sex lives was an intrusion into their privacy. The study went ahead with funding from the charitable foundation Wellcome Trust, whose leadership believed the data it would generate was crucial for dealing with the Aids crisis.

“It’s easy to forget that people didn’t talk about these things at dinner parties back then,” Professor Dame Anne Johnson, who founded Natsal and still leads the group that runs it, told me in an interview a couple of years ago.

Such official prudishness is hard to imagine today. The results of Natsal-3 offer signs that Britons have become more comfortable with their own sexuality and more tolerant.

The proportion of women reporting having had sex with female partners has quadrupled in 20 years and doubled in the last 10. For men, the proportion is one in 20 (4.8%) – up from one in 28 (3.6%) in 1990. These shifts are most likely explained by people becoming more experimental and more willing to report their behaviour. Britons are also becoming more tolerant towards others. In 1990, only a quarter of respondents thought there was nothing wrong with same-sex relationships. This proportion has risen to half of men and two-thirds of women.

Many findings within Natsal-3 are less likely to make headlines, but help show why the study and others like it can be useful and important for sexual and reproductive health policymakers and providers, and not just those working in Britain. It shows, for example, that:

-          Britons are much more likely to attend sexual health clinics than they did a decade ago.

-          Unplanned pregnancies are associated with sex before 16, smoking, drug use, depression, lower educational achievement and sex education from non-school sources.

-          One in ten (9.8%) of women report having been forced to have sex against their wishes. Only 15% of sexual violence perpetrators are strangers.

-          While 17% reported that their sex lives were affected by ill health, less than a quarter of them said they’d sought help for that

-          Those who find talking about sex with others difficult are more likely to have sexual function problems.

Johnson points out that most magazine surveys about sexual practices spread false information because those who take part tend to be more sexually active than average, leading, for example, to young people feeling pressure to have sex before they really want to.

The research has already proved important for those involved in sex education, planning of contraception and sexual health services, say the researchers. Natsal-3 included a larger age range, with respondents up to the age of 74, and a greater focus on the relationship between sexual health and general health.

The study doesn’t of course tell us anything about how British people compare to others around the world. But it does suggest that the old prejudices and embarrassments highlighted so vividly when the government withdrew public funding for Natsal almost a generation ago are at last fading into history. Johnson and her colleagues are surely right that we are in a much better place if we have access to accurate data on sexual practice and attitudes, and are able to discuss sex in a grown-up way.

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