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The story of Natsal, the nation’s sex study

Posted on 12 February 2014 by NatCen, Research .
Tags: history, Natsal, guest blog, witness seminar

© Wellcome Trust

A guest blog from Professor Tilli Tansey from the History of Biomedical Research Group at Queen Mary University London.

Late last year, the most recent round of data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) was published. It’s third of its kind, and as well as being a fascinating study, its origins are interesting, too – particularly for those working in my field, the history of contemporary biomedicine. I thought NatSal would make a good topic for a Witness Seminar. These are recorded meetings where we speak to those involved in crucial moments of biomedical history about ‘what really happened’. 

The very first Natsal was proposed in the mid-1980s, in a climate of considerable fear and ignorance at what was seen to be an all-engulfing AIDS epidemic.  Many professionals agreed that detailed knowledge about the sexual behaviour and practices of the entire population was essential to help predict and prevent the transmission and spread of HIV. Despite this broad concurrence amongst medical and social scientists, public health experts and politicians, there was considerable debate as to how it should be organised and carried out; how the results should be disseminated and used; and which body might fund it, an aspect that acquired particular significance when government funding was unexpectedly withdrawn, and the project was dramatically rescued by the financial intercession of the Wellcome Trust.

Thus, there was a wide range of topics to be discussed at the Witness Seminar and we managed to track down several experts who had been involved in these early debates and decisions.  They all readily agreed to contribute to the meeting, including three of the four main authors of the first published survey, Anne Johnson, Kaye Wellings and Julia Field (sadly Jane Wadsworth died in 1997).

The discussions ranged widely. Methodologically, the knowledge and experience of social scientists and statisticians, in conducting and analysing large scale surveys was vital as Kaye Wellings and Julia Field recalled.  An earlier privately funded epidemiological survey run by Gallup had been followed by a feasibility study by the Health Education Authority and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).  By 1988 researchers from these bodies, with additional input from epidemiologists, sex educators, and public health doctors had constructed a proposal for a major survey, and further funding support had been promised from the Department of Health and Social Security. Unexpectedly, this was vetoed at government level on the grounds that such a survey would be an unacceptable intrusion of private life. The Sunday Times first broke the news of this decision and four weeks later, the medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust stepped in to fund it instead. The journalist who broke the story, Mike Durham, and senior staff and Governors of the Wellcome Trust, all contributed new insights into the perceived ‘leak’ and into the decision making processes.

Additionally, field workers who actually conducted the survey spoke of the ‘desensitization’ training they had to go through before being accepted; listening to every word used for any and every kind of sexual activity, so they would not be shocked or react in the interview situation. Intriguingly, Wendy Williams also revealed that at this stage, many male prospective interviewers dropped out of the programme whilst women tended to continue.

Now in its third iteration, Natsal can be said to have entered the mainstream, garnering extensive coverage in the general media, as well as more specialist publications such as The Lancet where the results of this most recent survey were premiered. Few of those watching the news broadcasts or perhaps reading some of the more sensationalised tabloid treatments, will be aware of the controversial history that attended the first Natsal: a heady mixture of politics, money and – sine qua non – sex.

In line with the open access policy of our funders the Wellcome Trust, all Witness Seminar's are available online.  

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