Tuesday January 24, 2006
Denis Campbell, social affairs correspondent
A remarkable portrait of Britain's increasingly liberal attitudes towards sex, relationships and fidelity is revealed today in a special poll commissioned by The Observer. The MORI poll of 1,790 adults reveals that people are delaying the moment when they decide to first have sex, that they support greater sex education in schools and that they think prostitution should be legalised.
The fact that Britons are losing their virginity later is perhaps the most surprising detail, dispelling the widespread belief that teenagers are having record levels of under-age sex.
The poll reveals that the number of people having sex before 16 years old has fallen from 32 per cent in 2002 to 20 per cent now.
The age at which the typical Briton loses their virginity has increased since they were last asked in 2002, when the figure was 17.13 years. Young women generally have sex younger than their male counterparts - at the age of 17.44 years, compared with 18.06 for men.
Surprisingly, the proportion of teenagers losing their virginity before the legal age of consent at 16 has fallen, with the drop most notable among 14- and 15-year-olds. The survey of people aged 16-64 also shows that Britain has undergone a significant softening in attitudes to other sexual issues.
The most alarming finding, however, was that almost one in three women said she had sex without her consent. Fourteen per cent of women said they had had non-consensual sex while trying to keep the other person happy. Nine per cent did so under the influence of alcohol and 8 per cent when there was physical pressure to do so.
In addition, almost two-thirds believe prostitution should be legalised, an increase of four points since 2002. Those admitting to having had sexual contact with someone of the same sex has also risen, from 11 per cent to 15. Almost three in 10 Britons have had sex with someone of a different colour.
A high proportion, 84 per cent, backs the recent call from the government's advisers that all schools should teach pupils about sexual behaviour and relationships, not just the basic biology of reproduction, which is the only statutory sex education. Anne Weyman, head of the FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association) said: 'For years young people have told us this part of their school education is "too little, too late and too biological". It's a big step forward to see so many adults agreeing with them at last.'
However, one in five is dissatisfied with their sex life. 'We may be more liberal in our attitudes but we are clearly not any happier,' said Paula Hall, a sexual psychotherapist with the counselling organisation Relate.
She said that another key finding, the fall in the number of people who believe that monogamy is natural, from 74 per cent to 67, showed that with Britons living longer and healthier lives, the idea of lifetime fidelity is in decline.
'However, it's probably the case that people nowadays increasingly expect to be in more than one significant relationship, but still expect to be faithful for as long as that goes on,' Hall said.
'The large number of people who break up and quickly become involved with [someone who becomes] another long-term partner bears that out.'
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Do we care about being faithful? Are we happy with our sex lives and relaxed about how others behave? The results of a MORI poll for The Observer show that Britain is gradually becoming a more tolerant society. Denis Campbell reports
Britain's quiet revolution
Whether it's the graphic intercourse in Michael Winterbottom's film Nine Songs , Eve fondling Jesus's genitals in Jerry Springer The Opera , or the recurring concern over issues such as teenage pregnancy, the subject of sex is often mired in controversy.
Bellowing headlines of the 'where will it all end' variety often suggest a country that would be more comfortable with the sexual mores of the 1950s than the 21st century. Raise the issues of prostitution, of the age of consent for gays, or of sex education and the very public debate that ensues seems to reveal that the British remain resolutely reactionary about their most intimate relations.
However, The Observer 's authoritative survey this month of sexual behaviour and attitudes shows that, in a quiet revolution, Britons have become strikingly liberal over a range of key issues. Among a plethora of fascinating, revealing and sometimes contradictory findings, this significant degree of tolerance and an increasing appetite for more adventurous sex comes through strongly.
Most conspicuously, 84 per cent agree that schools should teach children about sexual behaviour and relationships – going beyond the basic biology of reproduction, the only sex-related education they are currently obliged to provide. On that issue, public opinion is far ahead of the government, which will almost certainly reject the recent call by its own independent advisers on sexual health to make such tuition mandatory.
'For years young people have told us this part of their school education is "too little, too late and too biological",' said Anne Weyman, head of the FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association). 'It's a big step forward to see so many adults agreeing with them at last.'
Similarly, about two-thirds (65 per cent) believe prostitution should be legalised, an increase of 4 per cent since our last survey in 2002. The number of people who have had some form of same-sex 'sexual contact' has also risen, from 11 to 15 per cent. And almost one in three people (27 per cent) has slept with someone from a different ethnic background. People from a non-white background make up 8 per cent of the UK's population.
'The survey has highlighted a definite softening of attitudes, which is heartening,' said Kaye Wellings, professor of sexual and reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 'It shows that as a society we are losing our hypocrisy towards sex – thinking one thing and doing another – which has been a feature of our sexual mores in the past.
'It's better for society to have tolerant attitudes but quite constrained behaviour, rather than censorious attitudes and repressed behaviour. While Britons are becoming increasingly tolerant towards same-sex sex and paying for sex, for example, the vast majority of people are not doing the things they're quite relaxed about. That's good for the country's sexual health.'
As we become more comfortable with sex, we also appear to be more prepared to wait to have sex for the first time until we feel ready. The MORI poll reveals that the proportion of people losing their virginity before the age of consent, 16, has fallen from 32 per cent in 2002 to 20 per cent, with the number losing their virginity at age 14 or 15 dropping from 23 per cent to 15 per cent. The average age at which people have sex for the first time has actually gone up from just over 17 to nearer 18. The notion of commonplace underage sexual activity is just one of many myths that the poll dispels.
The average number of times Britons have sex every month has remained constant, at around six. There has also been a slight decrease in the number of sexual partners which the average Briton has had, from 9.6 in 2002 to 9.55. As Wellings says, the fact that most people do not have a greater number of sexual partners 'contradicts the misleading impression you get from the media of sexual hyperactivity and exoticism, the idea that there is more and more unselective, uncontrolled sexual behaviour going on'.
Fewer people had sex with someone whose name they did not know (17 per cent, down from 21), or with a work colleague (down from 31 to 28 per cent), or in order to boost their job prospects (18 per cent down to just 5), further substantiating that trend. The morals surrounding sex and faithfulness also appear to be changing. Yet as a nation we are often unconstrained – what some would call amoral – as the survey shows.
Two in five (40 per cent) have been unfaithful – 10 per cent 'frequently' or 'occasionally', despite the greater risk of detection from emails or text messages being read by the person being cheated on. The same number (39 per cent) have been involved in two overlapping sexual relationships – behaviour which experts say carries one of the greatest risks of catching herpes, chlamydia or other sexually transmitted diseases. And more Britons are having one-night stands: 53 per cent, up from 51 per cent in 2002.
Are we happy with our sex lives? Yes, according to The Observer' s survey: 28 per cent declared themselves 'very satisfied' and another 34 per cent 'fairly satisfied'. As one in five (19 per cent) were 'fairly' or 'very dissatisfied', it appears that on the surface all is well.
But, as Paula Hall, a sexual psychotherapist with relationship counsellors Relate, points out: 'Add the 17 per cent who said they were "neither satisfied nor dissatisfied" to those 19 per cent who are unhappy, and that shows that 36 per cent of people can't say they are satisfied, which is disappointing. There's a mythology that says that everyone else is having a great sex life, which creates anxiety in people who feel they should be satisfied as much as everybody else. But a third of us aren't, which is sad.'
Hall, whose client list is drawn from that dissatisfied minority, believes 'the increased medicalisation of sex in recent years, through things like Viagra and firms offering solutions to female sexual dysfunction, has increased the pressure on people to feel they are "good at sex". It has made us focus more on performance rather than pleasure. It has prioritised physical fulfilment, through the number of orgasms and erections achieved, over emotional and sensual fulfilment. We have lost sight of the fact that real sexual fulfilment lies in the whole of your body and your heart and your head.'
Perhaps inevitably, our poll brought out some big differences between the sexes. Women, in general, come over as more cautious and less adventurous than men. For example, the average woman has had eight sexual partners, three fewer than men. More than a third of women wish they had waited longer before losing their virginity, but only one in seven men said the same. And 18 per cent of men compared, with 2 per cent of women, would consider paying for sex.
Asked 'After starting a new relationship, how long do you usually wait to have sex with that person?', 20 per cent of men answered either 'immediately' or 'one week', whereas 6 per cent of women gave the same answers.
Wellings said that the survey's findings will put many people at ease about their sex life. 'Despite the sexualisation of society, and the impression you get from the media about unselective and uncontrolled sexual behaviour, and the fact that we're constantly bombarded with advice about how to improve our sex lives, it's heartening that most people are still having sex six times a month with a monogamous partner,' she said. 'That may not fit with the more salacious impression the media gives, but it's actually the case, and that will be reassuring from the point of view of both our sexual health and ordinary people's expectations.'
MORI conducted the fieldwork online among 1,790 British adults aged 16-64 between 6 and 10 January. Data were weighted to reflect the national population profile.
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