Advanced search
MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Tue 03-Dec-13 10:59:51

Women's sexual behaviour is changing - has yours?

The Wellcome Trust recently published the results of their national survey into sexual attitudes - a detailed scientific study into Britons' sex lives, across all walks of life and throughout the course of their lives. Here, Jessica Datta takes us through the - sometimes surprising - findings.

Have a read of the blog below, and let us know your thoughts on the Talk thread. Are you surprised by the survey results? Do you feel like your own attitudes and experiences are in line with the findings?

Jessica Datta

Lecturer, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Posted on: Tue 03-Dec-13 10:59:51


Lead photo

Over 15,000 adults aged 16-74 were interviewed about their sexual behaviour, attitudes and health.

Amidst the swathes of headlines we've seen over the last week, it's clear that the findings making the biggest impression are related to changes in women's sexual behaviour. Women now have more sexual partners than ever before, an average of 8 in a lifetime, closing the gender gap on men, who have an average of 12, according to our findings. The figure marks a doubling since the first survey 20 years ago when women had an average of four sexual partners in their lives.

In some areas of sexual activity, women have overtaken men. Almost one in six women reported having ever had a same-sex experience compared with one in 14 men, a figure that marks a four-fold increase since the first survey twenty years ago.

Both women and men begin having sex at a young age, though the majority of people (seven out of ten) aged 16-24 wait until age 16 before having sex. For the first time, we also looked at the views and experiences of older people, up to the age of 74, revealing that many Britons are remaining sexually active well into later life.

It's easy to speculate on what might be driving these changes in sexual behaviour, although many have been going on for decades. Women's greater economic independence and the ability to control fertility have enabled more equal relationships with men. In the last twenty years we've seen profound changes in media representations of female sexuality, from avidly following the sexual exploits of Carrie and the rest of the Sex and the City gang, to watching pop stars engage in provocative dance moves live on TV. Same-sex relationships are now common in soap operas and TV shows and many celebrities feel comfortable openly discussing their sexuality without it hindering their careers.

It's easy to speculate on what might be driving these changes in sexual behaviour, although many have been going on for decades. Women's greater economic independence and the ability to control fertility have enabled more equal relationships with men.

All of this may have contributed to the changing attitudes towards sex that we captured in our latest survey. Two thirds of women now accept same-sex partnerships as 'not wrong at all', compared with just over half of men in the current survey and less than a third of the women surveyed twenty years ago. But does this mean we are becoming more liberal? In some areas we're actually becoming more conservative: around two thirds of us believe that non-exclusivity in marriage is always wrong.

On the other hand, people are becoming more adventurous, with the number of those reporting oral sex, other genital contact and anal sex with a partner of the opposite sex increasing with each birth cohort surveyed over the twenty years of Natsal.

Despite this greater diversity, overall, people say they are having less sex than they were twenty years ago with a (median) average of just three times a month compared with five last time around (although some commentators clearly still find this figure unrealistic!). That's not to say this is a bad thing, after all sex is about quality not just quantity. But the study also found that women are less likely to enjoy sex than men and around one in twelve reported that they felt no excitement or arousal during sex. One of the many striking findings of our study was that almost a half of all people reported experiencing one or more sexual difficulties in the last year, though only one in ten said that they were distressed or worried about their sex lives.

Sex is an important health issue. It is no longer as taboo as it once was to discuss erectile dysfunction, infertility or sexually transmitted infections but people and health professionals may still find it difficult to talk about sexual problems. One in six people reported having a health condition that had interfered negatively with their sex lives but less than a quarter sought help or advice from a healthcare professional.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding from our survey was that one in ten women and one in seventy men in the UK have experienced sex against their will. Less than half of them have ever told anybody about it. This is a sobering statistic that indicates for the first time just how prevalent sexual coercion is, although many victims don't recognise it as such.

Sex and relationships are important to all of us as human beings. It is the source of some of our greatest joy, but can result in unintended consequences, including health and physical or emotional problems. For many if not most of us, a sexual identity with which we feel comfortable and a sex life with which we are satisfied are very much a part of our overall wellbeing. Sexual health should be seen not merely as an absence of disease, but about pleasurable and safe sexual experiences that are free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

By Jessica Datta

Twitter: @MumsnetBloggers

DuckToWater Tue 03-Dec-13 12:03:43

I think the biggest change in the last 15 years is that women are now more honest about how many partners they've had. I have had ten sexual partners, nine between the ages of 17 and 23 and then DH for the last 15 years. I don't think my sexual behaviour when I was younger was particularly unusual among my group of friends and acquaintances.

Unfortunately it doesn't surprise me to hear about the number of people who have been raped, as that chimes statistically with the experiences I've heard of from close friends and family. None of whom reported their assault to the police.

Also there are still double standards about women's sexual behaviour and behaviour in general.

BertieBowtiesAreCool Tue 03-Dec-13 14:04:05

It's encouraging that things are getting better for women. This shows quite clearly though to me that there is still a long way to go.

Rhythmisadancer Tue 03-Dec-13 19:33:47

I've never understood the maths of this - if men were having lots of sexual partners then don't women have to have been having lots too? Or else who are these partners?
Assuming we're talking straight sex.

BertieBowtiesAreCool Tue 03-Dec-13 19:36:33

Not necessarily because they can overlap.

BOF Tue 03-Dec-13 19:44:54

"Sex against their will", and "sexual coercion"...isn't this just sanitising rape? Why can't we call a spade a spade here?

While women and men are still framing rape in a way which brushes it under the carpet and turns it into a "misunderstanding" or a failure in communication, we are never going to see convictions rise and hold men that rape accountable. I can understand why victims don't always want to define their experience in this way, but I am disappointed that the academic discourse appears to fudge the issue in this way.

TamzinGrey Tue 03-Dec-13 20:52:59

I don't believe that women's sexual behaviours have changed for centuries. What has changed is that in recent times women feel more able to speak out openly about their sexual preferences and experiences

elQuintoConyo Tue 03-Dec-13 20:57:32


And I agree with BOF ^^

randomquicknamechange Wed 04-Dec-13 08:03:47

I think women are happier to admit what they do without fear of name calling or people's opinions.
That said Whenever there is a how many people have you slept with thread on here there tebds to be a balance of the 'I've I've slept with a million men and don't care who knows it' and the 'I've only slept with my husband and that's hiw it should be' so maybe it depends who they ask.
To answer the question I haven't slept with the average number of people but I have tried a lot if not all of the practices mentioned.

RalphRecklessCardew Wed 04-Dec-13 09:13:37

I assume 'average' here means mean (total number of sexual partners had by women divided by total number of women) so a few women sleeping with lots of men doesn't explain the gender gap.

Then there's the explanation that gay men seem to have more sexual partners than lesbians. No idea how accurate that piece of conventional wisdom is, but anyway these studies are always presented as being about heteros. So that doesn't explain thr gender gap either.

Some of it must be lying. If men are players and women are sluts you'd expect the former to revise up and thr latter to revise down. I wonder, though, if there isn't also quite a lot of defining sex differently. E.g. if I want to up my number then fingering counts as sex, if I want to lower it then anything other than penis-in-vagina-to-orgasm doesn't.

EBearhug Wed 04-Dec-13 09:31:58

You might have a point about how sex is defined. I've had more than one man say that only PIV sex counts, and I strongly suspect their wives wouldn't agree that "just" a BJ would be fine, as it wouldn't count. Oddly enough, I found these offers totally resistable, especially knowing I wouldn't actually count. Although, if it's mostly men who think that, it would skew the figures even more. Still, I could just be unlucky in having met more idiots.

MerryMarigold Wed 04-Dec-13 09:46:00

I find it really interesting that despite more sexual partners and greater experimentation, people are generally less fulfilled (or more honest?) by sex, and indeed therefore are doing it less.

It's also true in my personal experience, where when I was younger and more experimental sexually, I actually had fewer orgasms and enjoyed it less (exciting, but not as enjoyable). Over a long term relationship with dh, there have been ups and downs, but with some work I am more fulfilled sexually than I have ever been. And no, there's not tons of experimentation, but it's certainly much more 'better' sex and becoming more frequent the older we get (something to do with kids getting older too!).

NoArmaniNoPunani Wed 04-Dec-13 10:23:24

An average of 8 seems incredibly low. I think women are still reducing their number when asked

ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 04-Dec-13 16:52:47

I agree, and found it very odd how little of the commentary mentioned the crucial fact that the social "costs" of having sex and being open about it have gone down wildly over the 20th and 21st centuries. FGS time was (not that long ago) when even saying "I'm pregnant" was considered a bit crude, and being divorced downright scandalous. Now there is no "shame" is having sex unless one of you is cheating, which makes it far easier to be open. Our grandmothers would have faced social stigma and possible job loss i.e. financial cost, loss of family connections due to shame etc etc for doing the same.

I find the "number of sex partners" question pretty bewildering. What on earth counts?! What about if you start having penetrative sex but stop before either person has an orgasm? What about if he gives you oral sex? Or if you give him oral sex? Does it count if it's for 2 minutes? 10? Til the person has an orgasm? Etc etc?

geemadee Sat 01-Feb-14 13:02:40

Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now