What may be of concern is not how often an individual has sex, but whether it matters to them
One thing that is apparent from several decades of research into sexual behaviour is the certainty that there will be no shortage of interest in the results. What is less predictable is which aspect of the findings will attract the most attention. When we published the initial results from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) in 2013, a single sentence reporting a decrease between the three decennial surveys in the mean frequency of sex was seized on at the press conference.  “Could it be because of pornography?” the journalists asked. Anxious to dispel this myth, we pointed out that in other studies, the frequency of partnered sexual activity had been shown to be higher among those using pornography. We suggested that other factors might explain the change—the pace of modern life perhaps, and the fact that modern technology allows men and women so many diversions. Instead of paying attention to their partner, they are able to shop, book holidays, and even continue working. The theory clearly resonated with the media. The link with technology went viral and newspapers carried cartoons of couples in bed together communicating about whether to have sex on parallel iPads.
Over the next few years, we continued reporting on other aspects of the survey. Then two things alerted us to the significance of the change in sexual frequency. Firstly, through our work on a global study of sexual behaviour, we became aware of many studies showing declines in sexual frequency elsewhere. Secondly, during analysis of data from in-depth interviews with middle aged women who had reported in Natsal-3 being dissatisfied with their sex lives, we observed that a commonly mentioned explanation for having less regular sex than they might like was exhaustion. The women went to bed, they said, to sleep. The theme resonates with the growing literature on “busyness”—the increasing pace of modern life and the challenges facing what has been termed the “U bend” or “sandwich” generation. This is the cohort of men and women who in early middle age, having started their families at older ages than previously, often have small children and parents reaching later life, in an era when they are both likely to be in employment.
Any explanation for the possible decline in sexual frequency must be conjectural and no single explanation will apply to all social groups. As our paper shows, the decline is not consistent across the socioeconomic spectrum; it is seen among better-off and worse-off men, but not among men of average material status. Among men in higher status jobs, who generally report higher frequency of sex, the decline may reflect the increasing pace of modern life; among men who are worse off, the decline could be attributable to stresses caused by financial hardship and less job security.
It is now well established that social context influences sexual behaviour. Twenty years ago, when we compared sexual behaviour between France and Britain, the social scientists on the team were surprised at the similarity in the results, not least the then identical mean frequency of sex 1.4 times a week on both sides of the English Channel. Yet the fact is that sexual behaviour is a hugely variable phenomenon, governed partly by physiology and health status, but also heavily influenced by economic, social, and cultural factors. We should not be surprised, therefore, by its cultural and historical variability. Since society is changing, so too will the sexual behaviour of its population.
Our findings might be interpreted as worrying. Sexual behaviour seems to generate more anxiety than most health related behaviours. Yet, as we state in the paper, what might be of concern is not how often an individual has sex, but whether it matters to them. Participants in the study expressed quite high levels of dissatisfaction with their current frequency of sex, and this could partly result from unfavourable comparisons with what they perceived to be the norm. Most people believe that others have more regular sex than they do themselves. When we present Natsal findings on sexual frequency, a collective sigh of relief can be heard in the audience. In sexual behaviour more than in other areas of behaviour, it seems, we strive to be “normal.” In this context, our data may be useful. Unlike other health related behaviours such as smoking and eating, sexual activity occurs, for the most part, in private and we are not witness to the behaviour of others. A little recognised function of well conducted sexual behaviour surveys is to provide reliable data as opposed to speculation. So we think that many men and women might be reassured by the findings, particularly those in the cohort in which a more marked decline has occurred. Doctors can have a valuable role here. The benefits of our study are that when patients present with a related problem, they can be reassured that their sexual behaviour is “within the reference range,” not out of line, and “normal for now.”
Kaye Wellings is Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health Research, Faculty of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Competing interests: See linked research paper
1] Mercer CH, Tanton C, Prah P, Erens B, Sonnenberg P, Clifton S, Macdowall W, Lewis R, Field N, Datta J, Copas AJ, Phelps A, Wellings K*, Johnson AM*. Changes in sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain through the life course and over time: findings from the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal). Lancet. 2013 Nov 30;382(9907):1781-94. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62035-8. Epub 2013 Nov 26