More to be done to help with ‘sexual function’ as well as advice on STIs and pregnancy, say authors of survey
Large numbers of young people experience sexual problems such as pain or anxiety during sex, the inability to climax and finding intercourse difficult, a study has found.
A third (33.8%) of sexually active teenagers and young men aged 16-21 and 44.4% of sexually active young women the same age experienced at least one problem, which lasted for at least three months, with their ability to enjoy sex in the past year, according to the research.
Experts say the results, from the latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) study of sexual health in Britain, show that young people need help with their “sexual function” as much as advice on avoiding sexually transmitted infection or unintended pregnancy. They experience problems almost as much as older people, it emerged.
For women, the most common problem was difficulty in reaching climax, which 21.3% of female participants said they experienced. The next most common problems were: lacking enjoyment in sex (9.8%), feeling physical pain as a result of sex (9%), an uncomfortably dry vagina (8.5%), feeling anxious during sex (8%) and no excitement or arousal (8%).
Among men, the biggest difficulty was reaching a climax too quickly, which 13.2% had experienced. Smaller numbers reported difficulty in reaching a climax (8.3%), difficulty getting or keeping an erection (7.8%), lacking enjoyment in sex (5.4%) and feeling anxious (4.8%).
The Natsal surveys, the funders of which include the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health, are seen as the most in-depth portraits of sexual behaviour in Britain. This latest edition has been carried out by academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), University College London and NatCen Social Research. Natsal-3 is based on 1,875 sexually active and 517 sexually inactive men and women aged between 16 and 21.
“Our findings show that distressing sexual problems are not only experienced by older people in Britain”, said Dr Kirstin Mitchell, the lead author of the study. “They are in fact relatively common in early adulthood as well.
“If we want to improve sexual wellbeing in the UK population, we need to reach people as they start their sex lives, otherwise a lack of knowledge, anxiety or shame might progress into lifelong sexual difficulties that can be damaging to sexual enjoyment and relationships,” she added.
Among the sexually active, 9.1% of young men and 13.4% of young women said that they had felt distressed about a sexual problem that had troubled them for at least three months.
Natsal-3 found some significant differences between men and women in the sexual problems they encountered. Far more women (9.8%) than men (5.4%) lacked enjoyment in sex, felt anxious during sex (8% compared with 4.8% of men) and experienced no excitement or arousal during sex (8% compared with 3.2% of men).
The same stark gender divide was also apparent in those who professed no interest in having sex. One in five (22%) of women said they lacked interest, while far fewer men – 10.5% – said the same.
Young people are very unlikely to seek professional help for their problem. Although 36.3% of women and 26% of men said they had sought help, this was usually from family, friends, the media or the internet. Just 4% of young men and 8% of young women had turned to an expert such as a GP, psychiatrist or sexual health professional about their sex life.
Prof Kaye Wellings of LSHTM, a co-author, said: “UK sex education is often silent on issues of sexual satisfaction, but these are clearly important to young people and should be addressed. Sex education could do much more to debunk myths about sex, discuss pleasure and promote gender equality in relationships.”
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