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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Why there are fewer free-range eggs on sale right now

Because of restrictions designed to combat avian flu, some farms are losing their free-range status. Should consumers accept barn birds for now?

“How do you like your eggs,” asks the terrible chat-up line, “fried or fertilised?” But caged, barn, free-range or organic is the tougher choice faced by many. And come March the decision could get more complex still - as measures taken to combat the recent outbreak of avian flu begin to bite.

An H5N8 strain of flu has been identified across a number of UK and European farms this winter, and in response the government ordered all poultry to be kept indoors. But under EU regulations on classification, any hen kept inside for more than 12 weeks loses its "free range" status. Many consumers prefer free-range eggs for their higher welfare potential - so farmers fear losing business along with their label.

The 12-week limit has been reached today. After that, what happens next depends on whether farmers are working in a higher or lower risk area, as identified by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs on this interactive map. Those at higher risk must either cover their outdoor space with expensive netting or keep their hens indoors.

Those in lower risk areas may let their hens outside under supervision. But even then, producers are fearful of letting their hens outside and potentially exposing them to the flu. “It would finish us off if we got it,” says Susie Macmillian of Macs farm, “we’d lose all our wholesale customers – and I’m absolutely terrified about it."

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has thus ruled that all commercial boxes of free-range eggs must now carry stickers explaining that the hens have been housed indoors, regardless of what risk area they came from.

So what can consumers do to help? For Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming, it is vital that consumers temporarily put aside concerns about keeping hens indoors in order to support free-range and organic producers through this tricky time.

“In the short run these farmers need supporting - whether they call their eggs barn-produced or free-range,” says Brooke. “If people stop buying the eggs because they think the hens are being shut inside, then the farmers are going to have to kill the flocks. And you may end up without the free-range market”.

Continuing to buy these newly labelled eggs will therefore help tide the industry over this present crisis. But the scramble to explain the flu crisis to consumers is also showing up the sector’s wider cracks. "Free-range systems have the greatest potential to provide high welfare conditions for hens, but this potential is not always achieved,” says Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol. 

Cage-free brands thus compete to attract consumer attention with promises of various welfare add-ons – from “woodland” egg to “happy” hens. But what difference do these provisions really make to a hen’s wellbeing? And are the big brands really best placed to decide?

Pressure to save on costs is also pushing some free-range and organic producers into ever larger economies of scale, says Susie Macmillian. And while the UK’s major retailers have committed to becoming cage free by 2025, they have not yet specified what will replace caged eggs as the value option.

Taken together, these trends suggest an urgent need for new ways of evaluating hen wellbeing.

EU categories currently divide eggs into four levels -  colony (caged), barn-produced, free-range and organic - and each level entails higher welfare standards than the last.  With free-range hens, for instance, there must be no more than nine birds in a square metre, while for organic hens it is no more than six.

But what about hens who enjoy roomier conditions but not the organic diet? At present there is no independently certified "free-range plus" to help distinguish such cases. The RSPCA Assured label (previously known as freedom Foods) ensures that hens' welfare has met standards above the legal minimum. Yet in an effort to help lift all hens out of the caged-sector, it is also very inclusive. In fact it currently covers almost all of the non-caged market.

Yet a sunny-side is in sight for further independent certification.  The Soil Association has already added an extra layer of conditions that organic producers must meet to gain its seal of approval: from free-range conditions for pullets (young hens), to smaller colony sizes, more pop-holes, and a ban on beak tipping. And some European welfare bodies have introduced new, multi-tiered systems of independent assessment across the cage-free spectrum. In Holland, the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals awards its “Beter Leven” (Better Life) seal on a rising scale of one to three stars.

So could a similar system be introduced for UK free-range?  The RSPCA is not currently considering tiering its mark but the possibility for further differentiation in the future does exist. The RSPCA already conducts “welfare outcome assessments,” says Mia Fernyhough, who writes the RSPCA’s standards for laying hens. These take into account indicators of birds’ comfort  – such as their levels of feather cover - and allow assesors to place each individual farm on a sliding scale of success.

More streaming within free-range could also benefit farmers. According to Ben Pike of Bfrepa, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, producers fear that if free-range becomes the norm, they will lose the small price differentiation that has kept them afloat.

The present flu crisis is expected to recede by April, and when it does the biggest welfare gap will still be between caged and non-caged hens. But if consumers are to help British egg prodcution continue to improve in sickness and in health, then more ambitious independent certification should be top of the pecking order.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.