The Independent

More partners, more affairs and more gay liaisons: the changing sex life of our nation

By Lorna Duckworth
The Independent
30 November 2001

Young people have more partners before settling down; men and women are more likely to have affairs; and twice as many women have homosexual encounters as 10 years ago. This is the sex life of the nation, according to an authoritative study published today.

The three-year study, reported in The Lancet, lays bare an adult population more "open, tolerant and honest" about life behind the bedroom door than ever before.

But while the volume of partners has gone up, the number of times we are actually having sex has remained static. The average Briton makes love no more often than a decade ago – once a week.

However, compared to a decade ago, twice as many men now pay for sex.

And despite a significant increase in condom use, the report reveals the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases has more than doubled.

The study of the sex lives of more than 11,000 people aged from 16 to 44 was conducted by University College London (UCL), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the National Centre for Social Research.

The researchers aimed to provide an accurate picture of sexual lifestyles by visiting the respondents in their own homes and allowing them to file their answers in private using laptop computers.

Anne Johnson, the Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at UCL and one of the report's authors, said: "We found really quite dramatic changes in attitudes. There has been substantial changes in people's views about sex in the past 10 years.

"We have become a more tolerant, less homophobic society. We have also become less censorious about one-night stands... But people have become more intolerant of sex outside regular or committed relationships."

The research reveals variations in sexual habits depending on age, gender, marital status and location, with higher levels of heterosexual and homosexual activity in London.

A study in 1990 found that the typical heterosexual man had had three partners in the previous five years; the average for women was under two.

But by 2000, the corresponding figures had risen to four for men and two for women. In younger age groups, the turnover was higher; one in 12 men and one in 28 women had had more than 10 partners in that period.

When asked to count all their sexual partners, 41 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 had had more than 10 partners. Among the 16-to-24 age group, 20 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women had had more than 10.

Professor Johnson said this was a result of people delaying marriage until their 30s or choosing to cohabit. "There is now a longer period between people becoming sexually active and moving into married relationships, giving time for a larger number of partners."

Two-timing has also increased. One in seven men and one in 11 women had had overlapping or concurrent relationships in the past year.

One in 23 men said they had used a prostitute in the past five years compared with just one in 48 in 1990. Among men living in London, one in 11 admitted to paying for sex.

Ten years ago, one in 28 men and one in 56 women admitted having a homosexual partnership. But this has risen to one in 19 men and one in 20 women. Among men in London, the figure is one in 10.

Despite fears that teenagers are losing their virginity at an ever earlier age, the research shows that the average age of first intercourse is now 16, compared with 17 in 1990 and 21 in the 1950s. Kaye Wellings, the director of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the LSHTM, said that the drop in age had levelled off significantly and just 30 per cent of men and 26 per cent of girls had sex under the age of 16.

Many young people also believed they had sex before they were ready; of those who had first had sex at the age of 13 or 14, 80 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men wished they had waited longer.

School lessons have become the main source of information about sex, with far fewer youngsters relying on their parents.

There are also signs that teenage pregnancies are on the decline. Ms Wellings said: "We may have a better chance of improving sexual health than we have had in the last three decades."

The research suggests that the safe-sex message still has an impact. Condom use has increased, with one in four men and one in six women using condoms consistently.

The rates are higher for teenagers, with 80 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds using a condom for their first experience of intercourse.

But the rise in the number partners has offset some of the health benefits – one in 10 adults has had a sexually transmitted disease according to the researchers, who asked half the respondents to provide a urine sample.

Figures released by the Public Health Laboratory Service yesterday underline the problem. New diagnoses of gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia in the UK more than doubled between 1995 and 2000.

Last year 3,616 cases of HIV were diagnosed in Britain, the highest ever annual figure which has heightened concerns before tomorrow's World Aids Day. Cases of gonorrhoea rose to 20,663, there were 64,000 cases of Chlamydia and 333 cases of syphylis.

Britain's modern relationships

heterosexual woman

After having her first sexual experience at the age of 15, Kelly Russell, 26, a writer from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, settled down with her current partner of 10 years. Now a mother of four-year-old Adam, she says frequent sex is no longer uppermost in her mind.

"I think I average at having sex about once or twice a week. It's not only different after having children but domesticity does change things. You don't always want to have sex after doing a load of washing-up because you're not in the mood. But you do have to be more adventurous after 10 years to keep it alive," she said.

She remembers her first sexual experience as positive.

"If I had lost my virginity in a one-night stand or been used by someone, I wouldn't have been emotionally mature enough to deal with it," Ms Russell said.

Her relationships have never overlapped and gay encounters have been superficial and humorous, extending to nothing more significant than a few kisses.

Homosexual woman

Adele Girdlestone, 37, a mental health advocate from Islington, came out as a lesbian at the age of 17 and had her first serious sexual encounter with a woman 15 years her elder. In hindsight, she says, she may have benefited by waiting until her early 20s.

"Perhaps it would have been wiser to wait longer than I did and give myself time to get my head together about my sexuality than to jump into the physical side of things," said Ms Girdlestone, who believes there is more pressure on heterosexuals to have sex at a young age.

She has been with her current partner for two and a half years, after 30 previous sexual partners, sleeping with all of them on the first date while counting only six of them as meaningful relationships ­ ranging from two to four years.

She said: "I was living outside London in small towns with tiny gay communities so when I did meet someone, there was no courtship and it became very intense very quickly. I don't think I would sleep with someone straight away if I were to enter a new relationship."

Heterosexual man

Eddie Wheeler, a dancer who lives in Mitcham, Surrey, cherishes the memory of his first sexual experience with his then-girlfriend when they were both 16-year-old virgins.

"I'm just really glad that I waited until I was 16 because I want to be able to tell my children that I waited for something meaningful. I have talked to so many women and men since, who tell me they lost their virginity at 13 and did not enjoy the experience," he said.

Mr Wheeler, 37, who has four children by two different women, admits to flings during his first relationship, something he puts down to "raging hormones".

With 20 sexual partners behind him he is now on his ninth serious relationship. "Sex is important to me without a doubt and if it dwindles, however long we have been together, I want to know why," he said.

"My sex drive has not declined at all over the years. If anything, it has gone up," he said. Arifa Akbar

2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd