Half of Britons Not Ready For Sex at First Encounter

Liam Davenport

January 15, 2019

Targeted interventions that reflect differences in sexual autonomy and education among young people are needed if sexual health inequalities are to be tackled, argue British researchers who found that around half of individuals were not ready when they lost their virginity.

'Sexual competence' at first intercourse, which embraces whether both partners are equally willing to have sex, the autonomy of the decision, use of reliable contraception, and it being perceived to occur at the 'right time', was assessed in a nationwide survey of more than 2800 Britons.

This showed that just 48% of women and 56% of men were sexually competent when they lost their virginity, with those who had their first sexual intercourse at 13–14 years of age particularly likely to lack sexual competence.

Sexually Competent

The research, which was conducted by Dr Melissa Palmer, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and colleagues, was published online by the journal BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health on January 14th.

The team write: "A substantial proportion of young people in Britain become sexually active under circumstances that are arguably incompatible with sexual health defined in its broad sense, encompassing both physical and psycho-social wellbeing."

Although age at first intercourse was associated with sexual competence, it did not explain all of the variability. As there was no age at first sexual intercourse at which either zero or 100% of individuals were deemed sexually competent, they point out that "chronological age may be an overly simplistic indicator of the nature of first intercourse".

The results also showed that black women, men living in deprived areas and women who learned about sex from their friends were less likely to be sexually competent than other people when they lost their virginity.

The researchers suggest that these differences may be linked to sexual health inequalities, such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, "indicating that greater efforts are required to reduce the disparities that exist from the very onset of sexual activity".

They add: "While the results indicate that communication with parents about sex and school-based sex education may help towards the achievement of sexual competence among young women, the same cannot be said for men, suggesting that greater consideration needs to be given to how men can best be equipped to have a safe and positive transition into sexual activity."

Individual Circumstances

The chronological age at which individuals have their first sexual intercourse receives more attention than the context in which that first intercourse occurs, the researchers note.

However, they argue that such a focus does not take into account individual differences in physical, social and psychological maturity, as well as the impact on the individual of the circumstances in which first sex occurred.

To examine the circumstances of first sexual intercourse in more detail, the researchers gathered data from the Third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), which involved 15,162 British men and women aged 16–74 years and was conducted in 2010–2012.

For the current analysis, they focused on 2825 sexually experienced respondents aged 17–24 years who completed a face-to-face interview on their age and experience of first heterosexual intercourse.

Gender Differences

Among women, 17.4% reported unequal willingness at the first sexual intercourse, while 39.7% said it had not been the 'right time', 17.0% said the decision was not autonomous, and 10.5% did not use a reliable contraceptive.

On all domains except contraceptive use, the proportion of women who responded negatively decreased significantly with increasing age at first sexual intercourse.

Sexual competence at first sexual intercourse, which required a positive response on all four domains, was reported by 48.3% of women.

The proportion of women not sexually competent at first sexual intercourse was 77.7% among those who had their first experience at 13–14 years of age, falling to 61.5% at 15 years, 44.9% at 16 years, 47.6% at 17 years, and 36.3% at 18–24 years of age (p<0.001).

Among men, sexual competence at first experience was reported by 56.4% overall, with 9.8% not equally willing at first sexual intercourse, while 26.5% said it had not been the 'right time', 12.3% said the decision had not been autonomous, and 12.0% did not use reliable contraception.

The proportion of men who responded negatively decreased with increasing age only for the perceived timing of first sexual intercourse and the use of reliable contraception.

However overall the proportion of men not sexually competent at first sexual intercourse did fall significantly with age, from 64.7% among those who had their first experience at 13–14 years of age, to 47.3% at 15 years, 34.3% at 16 years, 38.0% at 17 years and 39.6% at 18–24 years.

Multivariate logistic regression analysis showed that a lack of sexual competence was independently associated with first intercourse before 16 years of age, a lower educational level, not having a steady relationship at the time, and uncertainty over the partner's virginity status.

In addition, area-level deprivation was associated with a lack of sexual competence in men, whereas in women it was associated with black ethnicity and having 'friends' as the primary source of learning about sex.

The researchers point out that previous analyses of Natsal-3 data have shown that a lack of sexual competence at first intercourse is a risk factor for poor sexual health, independently of age at first sex.

They write: "Therefore, it is possible that targeted interventions aimed at enabling at-risk young people to have a more positive and healthy first sexual experience may result in improvements in sexual health that continue into adulthood."

Natsal-3 was supported by grants from the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with contributions from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department of Health. Palmer was funded by an ESRC PhD Studentship.

No conflicts of interest declared.

BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health 2019. doi 10.1136/bmjsrh-2018-200160. Abstract.

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