Are Brits Having Less Sex Because of Hectic Modern Life?

Peter Russell

May 08, 2019

Sexual activity among people in the UK has declined over a 10-year period, an analysis found.

The effect was more pronounced among those in early middle age and people who were married or cohabiting, according to the observational study in The BMJ .

The researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine hypothesise that a driving factor may be the 'busyness' of modern life in a digital age.

Sexual Activity – a Public Health Concern?

Several high-income countries have reported a decline in the proportion of people who are sexually active as well as a decline in the frequency of sex among those who are sexually active. However, little is known about these trends in the UK.

The study authors say such a decline has important implications because sexual activity has benefits for health, wellbeing, and quality of life. For instance, research has suggested that men and women who enjoy an active sex life are fitter, happier, have better cognitive function, and increased life expectancy than those who do not.

In order to explore trends in sexual activity, the researchers analysed data from more than 34,000 people aged 16 to 44 collected in three waves of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles compiled in 1991 (Natsal-1), 2001 (Natsal-2), and 2012 (Natsal-3).

Overall, the data showed declines in people having sex between 2001 and 2012. The figures showed that:

  • The proportion reporting no sex in the past month increased from 23% to 29.3% among women and from 26% to 29.2% among men between Natsal-2 and Natsal-3

  • The proportion reporting sex 10 or more times in the past month fell during this time, from 20.6% to 13.2% among women and from 20.2% to 14.4% among men

  • Data from the Natsal-3 survey found that fewer than half of men and women aged 16 to 44 have sex at least once a week

More Sex Please, We're British

The researchers said they found no evidence that people were going off sex. Instead they found that 50.6% of women and 64.3% of men said they would prefer to have sex more often. This was particularly evident for those who were married or cohabiting.

Men and women in better physical and mental health reported having sex more frequently, as did those who were fully employed and those with higher earnings, the researchers found.

The researchers point to some limitations with their study. They said the last survey snapshot took place 6 years ago, with the next Natsal survey not due until 2024. Also, because of the observational nature of the data, cause and effect cannot be concluded.

However, they point out that the decline in sexual frequency appears to coincide with increasing use of social media and the global recession of 2008.

"Most compelling among the explanations, perhaps, given the age and marital status of the people most affected, relates to the stress and 'busyness' of modern life, such that work, family life, and leisure are constantly juggled," the authors concluded. "Life in the digital age is considerably more complex than in previous eras, the boundary between the private space of home and the public world outside is blurred, and the internet offers considerable scope for diversion."

The decline in sexual activity "is interesting, unexplained, and warrants further exploration," they concluded.

'Treat Results With Caution'

In a linked editorial, Dr Peter Leusink, a general practitioner and sexologist from Radboud University Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, said the findings should be treated with caution as "trends have not been consistent over time".

Dr Leusink noted that survey results related only to vaginal, oral, and anal sex, and not kissing, cuddling, solo and partnered masturbation, or looking at pornography – all of which are also sexual activities.

He wrote: "Healthcare professionals should be aware of the links between sexual health, general health, and social factors and should be alert to the possibility of sexual problems during discussions with patients. [These] findings should encourage both researchers and clinicians to start talking about sex."

Changes in, and factors associated with, frequency of sex in Britain: evidence from three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), BMJ 2019;365:l1525. Paper .

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