Let's talk about sex...

  • 26 November 2013
  • From the section Health
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Couple having sex
Image caption The national sex survey is carried out every decade

When public health chief Prof John Ashton recently suggested the age of consent should be reduced to 15, he was quickly slapped down.

Downing Street issued an immediate rebuttal of the idea and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Labour MPs soon made it clear where they stood. There was no debate.

To Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, which has published the results of the latest once-a-decade national sex survey, the episode demonstrated the inability of the political classes to have a "mature debate" about sex.

In this, they seem out of step with the general public.

Rather than be embarrassed about what goes on behind closed doors, researchers carrying out the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found people were only too willing to discuss the issue.

Just 3% of those who participated in the poll - carried out every 10 years - refused to answer the most intimate questions about their sex lives.

That contrasted with the one in five who would not divulge how much they earned.

And the results are revealing.

People may be having less sex than they used to - as the BBC has been reporting in its news coverage on Tuesday - but the real revolution is in our attitude to what is and is not acceptable.

Adultery is out. Nearly two thirds of men and 70% of women disapprove, compared to under half two decades ago.

But tolerance of one-night stands has increased among women, while the acceptance of same-sex relationships has doubled in terms of numbers believing they are "not wrong at all".

University College London's Prof Dame Anne Johnson, who helped carry out the research, says: "We tend to think that these days we live in an increasingly sexually liberal society, but the truth is far more complex."

In some respects, the change reflects what has been happening between the sheets.

As has already been well documented by previous research, Britons now have more sexual partners than they used to.

The fact that people are settling down later means that is almost inevitable.

But what is interesting from this survey is that it shows there has been a narrowing of the gender gap.

Women now have 7.7 partners over their lifetime compared to 3.7 when the first national survey was carried out in 1990-91. That number has risen to 11.7 for men, up from 8.6.

Woman are also much more likely to have had sex with someone of the same sex. Some 7.9% of women have done so, compared to 1.8% two decades ago.

For men, the figures are 4.8% compared to 3.6% previously.

'Female sexuality'

Prof Kaye Wellings, another of the researchers who worked on the survey, believes the change in women's behaviour is "remarkable" and can be linked to the "profound changes in the position of women in society, the norms governing their lifestyles and media representations of female sexuality".

But the survey also shows there are significant numbers of people experiencing problems with their sex lives.

One in six people have a health condition that has affected their sex life in the past year, but only 24% of men and 18% of women have sought help.

Once other factors, such as problems getting an erection, vaginal dryness or lack of interest in sex were taken into account, about half of people reported problems.

Prof Wellings says the findings should act as a warning to those organising sexual health services.

"We need to start thinking about sex differently - sexual health is not merely the absence of disease, but the ability to have pleasurable and safe sexual experiences."

Natika Halil, director of health and wellbeing at the FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association) agrees, saying it should be seen as a "genuine problem" that so few people feel able to seek help.

"We must better ensure that discussions about sex continue to be progressive, integrated into our conversations about health in general," she adds.

But will this happen?

Not until the quality of sex education improves, according to Terrence Higgins Trust acting chief executive Paul Ward.

He says sex education remains a "relic of the last century" which is more focused on telling teenagers how to put a condom on a banana than dealing with how to help them enjoy healthy sex lives.

To be fair to ministers, it is something they have already recognised.

Under the reforms to the NHS, responsibility for sexual health services was handed over to local government.

The hope was that it would lead to a more co-ordinated approach across the education and health sectors.

By the time the next survey takes place, improvements will be expected.