The findings of one of the largest ever studies of sexual behaviour undertaken in a single country have just been revealed. The third British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) has uncovered some interesting gender differences in trends of sexual behaviour, particularly how the pace of change in sexual lifestyles has been faster among women than men.
Age at first sexual intercourse, which was a year later for women than it was for men in Britain 50 years ago, is now the same for both at age 16. Between 1990 and 2000 we saw an increase in the numbers of sexual partners we have in a lifetime. This has now halted for men, and although they still have more sexual partners in their lifetime than women, women have continued to catch them up in the last decade. And while the prevalence of same-sex experience among men has remained fairly constant over the past 20 years, for women it has increased fourfold since 1990, to 16% in 2010-12. The gender gap is narrowing.
We need to set these trends in the context of the radical changes in women's status over recent decades, the medical advances that have separated sex from its reproductive consequences, and shifting media representations of female sexuality.
So are women escaping the bonds of social stereotypes and at last achieving equal sexual rights with men? Or are they responding to a male driven agenda? If we delve a little deeper into the survey findings, we find a more complex picture. Both the increase in numbers of sexual partners among women, and the increase in the proportion who have had a sexual experience with another woman, is more marked among those who are better off financially and more highly educated. These are the groups who are generally in the vanguard of social trends. In seeking diversity through sex with men and with women, for example, women may be exercising lifestyle choices. The study findings show that fewer women than men self-identify as gay, and more see themselves as bi-sexual.
But not all women it seems are able to exercise control over their sexuality, and not all are in better sexual health. The definition of sexual health endorsed by the World Health Organization stresses that it is more than simply avoidance of sexually transmitted infection and unplanned pregnancy but extends to a satisfying and pleasurable sex life, free from coercion. Here the male/female divide in the study findings tells a somewhat different story.
The proportion of study participants who tell the researchers they don't enjoy sex is small, but it is twice as high among women as men. Women are more likely to get a sexually transmitted infection. And they are far more likely to have experienced sex against their will - one in ten women, compared with one in 70 men.
The enormous progress made in fertility regulation in the last half century has also played a significant role, with women far less likely to live in fear that their next menstrual period might not arrive. But not so long ago, certainly in living memory of some of the Natsal researchers, the imperative was not to have sex, at least not until you were married, and unless your partner was of the opposite sex, and sex was likely to lead to babies.
Now, if the pages of the internet and lifestyle magazines are a guide, that imperative has reversed. The advice in many is how to have more and better sex, in different ways. This is all to the good. But people shouldn't feel pressurised, or inadequate, or that their sex life doesn't measure up.
As we embrace our sexual diversity, we need to ensure that the choices women make really are their choices and that we are not seeing yet one more form of regulation over their sexual lifestyles.
Kaye Wellings is Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and co-lead of the Natsal study, which was conducted in partnership with UCL and NatCen Social Research