Every 10 years, researchers in the United Kingdom publish the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal). The first survey, Natsal-1, was conducted from 1990 to 1991. The second, Natsal-2, took place from 1999 to 2001. The third, taken from 2010 to 2012, was published today in The Lancet. It shows significant increases in the reported prevalence of anal sex, lesbian activity, and female intercourse before age 16. Let’s look at the numbers. William Saletan William Saletan
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.
1. Lesbian sex. In Natsal-1, fewer than 4 percent of British women aged 16-44 said they’d had any sexual experience or contact with a partner of the same sex. In Natsal-2, that number rose to nearly 10 percent. Now it’s 16 percent. By any measure, that’s an enormous increase, more than doubling the reported rate among men. Even if you attribute most of it to changes in candor or interpretation, the willingness of so many women to admit to same-sex activity represents a big cultural shift.
That doesn’t mean these women are going all the way. When they’re asked more specifically whether they’ve had a same-sex experience that includes genital contact, only half as many say yes. But the trend line is identical, rising from 2 percent in Natsal-1 to 5 percent in Natsal-2 and 8 percent in Natsal-3. The same holds true when women are asked whether they’ve had a same-sex partner in the last 5 years. On that question, the percentage who say yes has climbed from less than 1 percent in Natsal-1 to more than 2 percent in Natsal-2 and nearly 5 percent in Natsal-3.
When you break down the latest sample by age, you see the same effect. When asked whether they’ve had any sexual experience or contact with another female, only 3 percent of women aged 65-74 say yes. That number rises to 7 percent among women aged 55-64, 9 percent among women aged 45-54, 12 percent among women 35-44, 18 percent among women 25-34, and 19 percent among women 16-24. If the prevalence of lesbian sex were constant and evenly reported, you’d expect it to increase with age, based on the accumulation of experience. Instead, the trend runs sharply the other way. Apparently, in later cohorts, it’s more common, more honestly reported, or both.
One result of this surge is that reported same-sex activity between women has eclipsed reported same-sex activity between men. The stated prevalence of same-sex experiences between men increased from Natsal-1 to Natsal-2 (the researchers note that Natsal-1 was taken at the height of the HIV epidemic), but in Natsal-3, it’s slightly down on some questions and slightly up on others. The proportion of men who report having had a same-sex experience is only about 7 percent—half the rate among women—and the share who say they’ve had a male sex partner in the last five years is only 3 percent. You can argue that lots of gay or bisexual men are concealing their experiences. But then you have to explain why so many women, at the same time, aren’t.
The numbers we’re talking about—nearly 20 percent of women younger than 35 say they’ve had a lesbian experience—are higher than I can recall in any national survey. Even if you restrict the sample to women who report having had same-sex genital contact, we’re still talking about more than 8 percent of young British women. And yet, the rate of lesbian self-identification hasn’t changed. In the latest sample, between the cohort of women aged 55-64 and the cohort aged 45-54, there’s a jump in self-declared bisexual identity. Beyond that, in younger cohorts, there’s not much difference. Among women as well as men, a fairly steady 2 to 3 percent say they’re gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Another half a percent classify themselves as “other.”
2. Anal sex. I’ve written about this topic way too often, so I’m giving it a back seat here. The British data confirm that anal intercourse, or at least willingness to report it, is spreading. From Natsal-1 to Natsal-2 to Natsal-3, the percentage of men aged 16-44 who reported having had anal sex in the last year rose from 7 to 12 to 17. The percentage of women rose almost in tandem, from 7 to 11 to 15. When you break down the Natsal-3 data by age, anal sex is the only act whose prevalence increases steadily as you move from older to younger cohorts.
On an annual basis, compared with other sex acts, the rate still isn’t very high. In Natsal-3, among all age groups (up to age 74), only 13 percent of men and 11 percent of women say they’ve had heterosexual anal intercourse in the last year. In the 16-24 age bracket, 19 percent of males and 17 percent of females say they’ve done it during that time. But the percentage who report having done it at least once in their lives is higher. Among the cohort born between 1946 and 1955, the proportion of men and women who said yes to this question by the time they were 35-44 was 20 percent. Among those born between 1956 and 1965, it was 30 percent. Among those born between 1966 and 1975, it’s nearly 40 percent. How high will it go? We just don’t know.
3. Teen sex. In Natsal-3, only 4 percent of women aged 65-74 say they had intercourse before they turned 16. Among women aged 55-64, 10 percent say they’d had sex by that age. From there, the rate rises steadily: 14 percent of women aged 45-54, 18 percent of those aged 35-44, 25 percent of those aged 25-34, and 29 percent of those aged 16-24. Maybe older women are less candid or have forgotten their wild years. (Among men, the pattern is far less dramatic.) But it’s hard to believe that a steady seven-fold increase from the oldest cohort to the youngest doesn’t reflect a real change in teen behavior.
4. Frequency. Despite the stated increases in lesbian, anal, and early teen sex, the frequency of sex overall seems to have declined. In Natsal-1, the median number of heterosexual intercourse episodes reported by men and women in the previous four weeks (that’s vaginal, oral, or anal) was 5. In Natsal-2, it was 4. Now it’s down to 3. People may be getting more adventurous, but they don’t seem to be getting hornier.
What could explain this paradox? Here’s a thought: Maybe, thanks to cultural relaxation or better survey techniques (Natsal-3 was done in people’s homes and “computer-assisted” for privacy), more people are telling the truth. They’re admitting to teen, anal, or lesbian sex. And they’re admitting that they don’t get it on as often as they once pretended. Sexual infrequency is just another secret we’re finally letting out.