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UK sexual behaviour changes

June 18th, 2005

Dr Petra

New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council shows British people – particularly women – have changed their sexual behaviour over the past fifty years.

Comparative analysis of survey data indicates:

The age of first sexual experience is getting younger

In the 1950s the average age of first sex was 20 for men and 21 for women. By the 1990s the average age of first intercourse was 16. In the 1950s fewer than 1% were sexually active before they were 16. By the end of the twentieth century ¼ of teenage girls had experienced underage sex.

Sex isn’t necessarily getting any better for women

Whilst men and women may have sex at a younger age, this doesn’t make it any more of a satisfactory experience for women now than fifty years ago. Surveys consistently suggest women are twice as likely to state they regret their first sexual experience (particularly those who were very young when they had sex), and are three times more likely than men to report being the less willing partner.

Women have sex with different people

In the 1950s, most UK women lost their virginity to their husband or fiancé, whilst a minority of men reported the same. By the 1990s it was rare for either gender to have their first sexual experience with someone they were engaged or married to. Women used to report having one partner for life; nowadays they’re more likely to admit to serial monogamy or even multiple partners.

We’re getting more tolerant

People are more willing to discuss and acknowledge teenage sex, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage.

But we’re still monogamous

The majority of participants in surveys over the generations still support monogamy. Four out of five people (male or female) still disapprove strongly of sexual infidelity.

How can we use this information?
These results are encouraging but there’s no place for complacency. As teenagers try sex at a younger age, we need to put comprehensive sexual health information in place to ensure they stay safe and are protected from disease. Given that girls continue to report regretting early sexual experience and feeling exploited, sex education also needs to increase girls’ confidence and teach boys to recognise where they may be being coercive. Whilst this survey data tends to favour heterosexual relationships, the sex education needs of gay and lesbian teens is also important.

Although we’re certainly more tolerant than the 1950s, that doesn’t mean we’re completely okay with all sex topics. Homophobia is still a major problem, and whilst women can have more than one partner before marriage, women are still negatively labelled for being ‘too sexual’. Many parents, members of the public, and much of the right wing media are highly judgemental about teenage sexual activity and non-traditional relationships.

We also need to be clear that accurate information is reported. This research indicates that there have been changes around female sexuality – it would be good to see that reported in a positive way, rather than the endless media reports that claim ‘no research has been completed on women’, or that the only issue facing women is a lack of sexual desire.

This research indicates male and female sexual behaviour is far more similar than in the past. So we need to encourage the media to move away from their obsession with reporting stories that overemphasise gender differences and maintain the flawed ‘men are from mars, women are from venus’ approach.

This particularly applies to shock stories around monogamy. In the past year or so there’s been a spate of media stories arguing that monogamy is no longer in fashion. Yet combined analysis of surveys over time shows most people aspire to be monogamous and frown on infidelity.

Survey data can tell us about people’s behaviour. This data makes it clear our behaviours have changed, but we can’t take this to mean we’re sexually progressive (which some journalists no doubt will). If people are having sex more and at a younger age, but still are reporting sexual regrets and dissatisfaction, then we’ve still some way to go until we can say we’re liberated.

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