Select Committee on Health Third Report


70. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) is a ten-yearly survey of sexual behaviour patterns, the most recent edition of which (2000) was published in December 2001. The survey interviewed 11,161 respondents (4,762 men, 6,399 women) and revealed the following key behavioural trends:

  • For men and women the numbers of sexual partners has increased. The mean number of partners in a lifetime rose from 1990 to 2000 from 8.6 to 12.7 partners for men and from 3.7 to 6.5 for women.
  • The proportion of men and women having more than one partner at the same time, which increases the probability of an infection being passed on to more than one person, has also increased. Some 9% of women and 14.6% of men were in such relationships in 2000, as opposed to 5.4% and 11.4% respectively in 1990.
  • Average age at first intercourse has fallen for women and men from 17 years to 16 years.
  • The proportion of men in Britain who had ever had a homosexual partner increased from 3.6% in 1990 to 5.4% in 2000.
  • The number of men paying for heterosexual or homosexual sex has more than doubled, from 2.1% in 1990 to 4.3% in 2000.
  • Whereas in 1990 7% of men and 6.5% of women had had anal sex in the past year these figures had risen to 12.3% and 11.3% in 2000.
  • Although overall use of condoms is up, the overall figures for high risk behaviour, which is defined as "Two or more heterosexual and homosexual partners, past year and nconsistent condom use in past 4 weeks" show rises of 13.6% to 15.4% in men and 7.1% to 10.1% in women between 1990 and 2000.[49]

Percentage distribution of heterosexual partners: lifetime, by gender, 1990 and 2000

Changes in sexual behaviour

Average number of heterosexual partners, lifetime
Percentage of heterosexual people who had had anal sex in the past year
Consistent condom use
'Unsafe sex' in the past year

Data source: NATSAL

71. Among 16-24 year olds the prevalence of first intercourse before age 16 was higher in single parent families, amongst those whose parents were manual workers and those whose main source of information about sex was not school. Eight per cent of those aged 16-24 reported peer pressure as the main reason for having sex and 8.5% put drunkenness as the main reason. Many of our witnesses described the UK today as an "increasingly sexualised" society, and anecdotal evidence from young people to the Committee bore out these social changes - as one young woman put it, "snogging is not a big thing any more ... [young people] need to go that one step further and that is a really big issue."[50]

72. Changing attitudes and sexual habits are, however, only one part of a far more complex picture. The risks posed by frequent intercourse and frequent partner change can be reduced (though not entirely eliminated) by the use of condoms to prevent STIs, and other contraceptives to prevent unwanted conceptions, but people need appropriate education and information to promote safer sexual practices. For the British Medical Association (BMA), an area of serious concern was the "lack of representation of sexually transmitted infections as a significant health problem in the media."[51] Dr Kevin Fenton of the PHLS also described the problems of an increasingly sexualised society which lacked awareness of the dangers associated with this: "you are getting these messages to start having sex earlier and having multiple partnerships; but you are not having ... messages to say 'use a condom' or telling them to reduce the number of partnerships."[52] In addition to information people also need confidence and good negotiating as well as technical skills to put safer sex messages into practice. On top of this, people need quick and easy access to high quality healthcare services to provide them with information, preventatives (whether condoms or other forms of contraception), and diagnosis and treatment of STIs.

49   See Q 327 Back

50   Q 917 Back

51   Q 266 Back

52   Q 340 Back

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