Debunking the myths: what is sex really like for ordinary people?

"Few people enjoy a perfect sexual relationship - we need to encourage those people to access the services and support they need."

As a nation we’re fascinated by sex and we all want to know whether our own sex lives are ’normal’. It’s surprisingly difficult to find out, because media stories tend to focus on the sensational and many people hesitate before sharing their personal experiences with others. We are vulnerable to the myth that we can, and should, have the perfect sex life. This myth shapes our expectations of our own sex life and can leave us feeling dissatisfied. Unbiased, reliable data is so important in getting the facts straight.

The three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) have been documenting trends in sexual behaviour in Britain from 1990 through 2000 to 2010. Over that time they have collected data on over 46,000 individuals and provide the most reliable information on sexual behaviour and sexual health in Britain. The results of the most recent survey - Natsal-3 - led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UCL and NatCen Social Research, have just been published. In Natsal-3, we extended the age range to 74 (in Natsal-2 it was 44) and we broadened our focus to look at health and well-being in relation to sexuality. This enabled us to explore how health and relationships affect our sex lives.

The Natsal data show that on average over the past two decades there has been a decrease in how often people have sex, from a median of five times a month in 1990, to three times in 2010.This is partly because fewer people are in relationships, but even those in relationships are having sex less often. This trend is best explained by changes in lifestyle, and the increased stress and busyness of modern life seem likely culprits.

Our health can also affect our sex lives. The Natsal-3 survey shows that one in six people have a health condition that affects their sex life. Those in poorer health are less likely to have had sex recently and are less likely to be sexually satisfied, even after taking into account their age and whether or not they have a partner. Poor health does not necessarily spell the end of an active and satisfying sex life, but what is striking is that only a quarter of men and a fifth of women who say they have a health condition that has affected their sex life have sought help or advice from a professional. That suggests that there are a lot of people with unmet need.

Sexual problems are a common feature of ordinary sexual relationships. Around half of women and four out of ten men report a recent sexual problem, with lack of interest being the most common. Young people are not exempt from experiencing sexual problems either. One in ten women aged 16-24 say they lack enjoyment in sex and one in ten young men say they lack interest. Some things get easier with age - as they get older, women tend to experience less anxiety and men are less likely to climax too quickly. But some things get more difficult - older women increasingly report vaginal dryness and men increasingly experience difficulty getting and keeping an erection. Although sexual problems are common, only one in ten people report distress about their sex life, so it’s important to take account of the personal significance of problems to each individual.

Few of us enjoy a perfect sexual relationship. Around a quarter of men and women say they don’t share the same interest in sex as their partner and almost one in ten do not share the same sexual likes and dislikes. Just under one in five of us has a partner who has experienced difficulties in the last year, and this proportion increases with age, particularly for women.

Natsal-3 used a new measure to come up with a composite score of sexual function – the extent to which an individual is able to participate in and enjoy a sexual relationship. The measure takes account not only of sexual problems, but also of the relationship in which they occur and the degree of personal distress and dissatisfaction. Using this composite score, we found that individuals with depression and poor general health are more likely to have low sexual function. We also found a strong connection between low sexual function and experiencing relationship breakdown and not being happy in a relationship.

It seems that few of us have the perfect sex life and that it would be healthier to aim for a good-enough one instead. On the other hand, there are a large number of people who are not seeking help even though they would benefit from doing so. We need to encourage those people to access the services and support they need, and when they do, we must ensure that we have the resources to provide them with good quality advice and treatment. We also need to spend more time educating young people so that they start out with realistic expectations, and so that they learn that sex is about relationships and relationships are about respect.

Dr Kirstin Mitchell is Lecturer in Sexual and Reproductive Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-author of the Natsal study, which was conducted in partnership with UCL and NatCen Social Research.

A 2002 artwork by Max Whatley and Meg Zakreta. (Photo: Getty)
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Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.