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.

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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.