Do We Lie in Sex Surveys?

Words: Nicci Talbot

Just reading through the key findings of the Health Survey for England (HSE) 2010. The main focus is respiratory health but there’s a chapter on sexual health and contraception for the first time so it’s worth a peek. It’s an annual survey commissioned by the NHS and questioned 8,420 adults about their health, lifestyle, sex life and personal care. Participants had to fill in a questionnaire and provide blood, saliva and urine samples for analysis.

The sexual health chapter focuses on sexual behaviour (number of partners, age of first sexual encounter), use of contraception and a history of testing and STIs. Adults under 70 were asked to fill in a self-completion questionnaire. Does reaching 70 signify the end of your sex life then? I doubt it given the rise in luteinizing hormone as we age but it’s something we don’t talk about.

The public health policy for sexual health has focused on two areas – effective contraception and the prevention of STIs. Here’s a summary of the key findings:

  • Just under 1/5 (18%) of women aged 16-54 are not having sex.
  • 2/3 of women (68%) use some form of contraception with non-surgical methods being the most popular.
  • 14% of women aren’t using any form of contraception at all. 1.4% are dissatisfied with choice on offer and 0.4% said their partner doesn’t like or refuses to use contraception. The use of contraception was lowest among the 25-34 age group (78%) who are presumably trying to get pregnant, and women over 45 who are menopausal.
  • The contraceptive pill is most popular among 16-24 and 25-34 year-olds while the male condom is most popular among 35-44 and 45-54 year-olds.
  • There’s evidence of increased STI incidence in older age groups post-divorce or break up. The FPA recently ran a retro safe sex ad campaign called Middle Aged Spread aimed at the over-50s.
  • There’s a greater awareness that sexual health is important in later life for wellbeing and happiness.
  • ‘Men reported a mean of 9.3 female sexual partners in their life so far, while women reported a mean of 4.7 male sexual partners. More women than men reported having only one partner of the opposite sex in their lifetime (24% of women compared with 17% of men), and conversely more men than women reported having 10 or more partners of the opposite sex (27% of men and 13% of women). The median number of opposite sex partners ranged from four to six among men aged 25-69, and from two to four among women in the same age group’.

I had to read this paragraph twice as the numbers don’t really add up, which makes me question how honest we really are in sex surveys. Men have had twice the amount of sexual partners but who are they having sex with? Lars and the Real Girl springs to mind…

  • 30% men and 45% women said they have sought contraceptive advice and supplies in the past 12 months. Men are more likely to choose contraception that can be purchased over the counter and women are more likely to go and see a health professional for an assessment and supplies.

Sexual health can be a difficult area to assess as it requires discretion on the part of the interviewers and is dependent on honesty and full participation from the interviewees. How much privacy did the participants have when filling in the questionnaire? It’s been widely reported that STIs have risen among the over-50s yet most sexual health campaigns target young people. The burden of contraception still falls on a woman’s shoulders, which can cause resentment if she feels it’s her responsibility. Many men don’t like using condoms because of lack of sensation. This can be solved by switching condom brands and trying something new. Condoms come in all shapes, textures and sizes. Kimono Microthins are super thin and a drop of lube inside the tip before he puts it on will increase sensation.

It’s good to see an acknowledgment of sexual health as important for wellbeing and happiness later in life so why does the survey stop at 70? It makes older people feel asexual and invisible. I’d also love to see a section on libido and desire for both sexes.

Want to participate in a sexual health survey?

NATSAL 2010-12 will interview 15,000 men and women aged 16-74. Find out more about taking part.

ONS Omnibus annual survey since 1990.

FPA ad by The Ethical Agency


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