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The naked truth about young people's sex lives

Posted on 08 August 2016 by NatCen, Research
Tags: National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, Natsal, sex education, sexual functions, young people

Problems with sexual function are often considered an older person’s problem, and the assumption still lingers that young people are willing and able to get it on at the drop of a hat. Interest in young people’s sexual behaviour tends to focus instead on preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies and non-consensual sex.

But a new article drawing on data from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), published last week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, paints a different picture.

The research, conducted by NatCen, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and UCL, revealed that a sizeable minority of young men and women have experienced sexual problems.

More than a third (34%) of sexually active men in this age group had experienced one or more problems with their sexual function, of which over a quarter (27%) said they felt “very” or “fairly” distressed about it. Their most commonly reported problems were reaching climax too quickly, experienced by 13% of men, and lacking interest in sex, experienced by almost 11% of men.

Natsal men

More than a third (34%) of the men who reported reaching climax too quickly were distressed about it, whereas only 13% were distressed by their lack of interest in having sex. Around 8% told us they experienced difficulty getting or maintaining erections, of which 42% were "fairly" or "very" distressed about it. Overall 6% of men said they had avoided sex in the past year due to a problem with their sexual function.

Compared with men, women in this age group were more likely to have experienced problems with sexual function, and more likely to say they were distressed by it. As many as 44% reported experiencing one or more problems with sexual function, with lack of interest in sex (22%) and difficulty climaxing (21%) the most common problems reported by young women.

Natsal women

Overall, one in three young women who had experienced one or more sexual function problems in the past month said they found this problem distressing. The most distressing problems experienced were among the least common: whilst 8% of young women said they felt anxious during sex, 35% of them reported feeling very or fairly distressed about it. Similarly, 9% of young women reported feeling physical pain as a result of sex, 36% were distressed by it. Around 7% of women reported avoiding sex because of a sexual problem; lack of interest, lack of enjoyment, anxiety and pain were the main reasons given for this.

Despite this, both young men and young women were unlikely to seek help for these problems. Just 36% of men and 42% of women had sought help about their sexual function problems in the past year. Those who did seek help were most likely to turn to family members and friends; just 4% of men and 8% of women with sexual function problems had visited a doctor or other health professional.

This is unsurprising – seeking help for sexual function problems is uncommon even among older adults – but concerning. Studies have also shown that fears about erectile problems among young men contribute to inconsistent condom use and other risky behaviours.

It’s also possible that some of these problems, such as anxiety, lack of enjoyment and difficulty in reaching climax, arise due to a lack of positive sex education. A programme of sex and relationships education which emphasises not only the biology of intercourse but also the emotional demands of sexual intimacy and how to make sex pleasurable for everyone involved could go some way to reducing some of these problems.


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