Seven Deadly Sins

The past half-century has seen distinct changes in our sexual behaviour, and these changes have been considerably more marked among women than men. Analysing data from the 1990 and 2000 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles for ESRC's new report Seven Deadly Sins, Professor Kaye Wellings observes a series of significant trends in sexual activity:

  • There has been a progressive reduction in the age at which sexual intercourse first takes place and an increase in the proportion of young people who have had sexual intercourse before the age of consent. For men and women reaching sexual maturity in the 1950s, the average age at first intercourse was 20 and 21 respectively; by the mid-1990s, it was 16 for both sexes.

  • In parallel with this trend, the proportion of young people who are sexually active before the age of 16 has increased. At the end of the twentieth century, a quarter of young women had intercourse before the age of consent compared with fewer than 1% of those becoming sexually active in the 1950s. Here too, the gap between the sexes has been narrowing over time, and by the 1990s had closed.

  • Despite the convergence of men and women's age at first intercourse, there remain gender differences in the experience of the event. Women are twice as likely as men to regret their first experience of intercourse and three times as likely to report being the less willing partner.

  • Among women becoming sexually active in the 1950s, the majority lost their virginity to their husband or fiancé, though only a minority of men lost their virginity to their wife or fiancée. 39% of women and 14% of men born in the early 1930s married before having sexual intercourse and a further 14% of women and 6% of men were engaged to be married before doing so. By the 1990s, fewer than 1% of men and women had their first experience of sex with someone they were married or engaged to, and the gender differences had all but vanished.

  • Men live up to their stereotype in being more likely to report large numbers of partners and less likely to report having been monogamous. Yet while one partner for life is still a more common pattern for women, the proportion who had had only one partner halved between 1990 and 2000. At the same time, the proportion of women reporting concurrent relationships has increased.

  • There has undoubtedly been a relaxation in social attitudes towards sexual behaviour, particularly towards the sexual behaviour of the young. Attitudes towards homosexual behaviour, non-exclusive sexual relationships and sex outside of marriage have all softened over recent decades.

  • The exception is monogamy. Whatever our practices and for all our interest in the peccadilloes of celebrities, in principle, the UK public are firmly in favour of sexual exclusivity. There is near universal condemnation of sexual relationships outside of regular ones, with the majority of people of both sexes – four out of five – strongly disapproving of sexual infidelity.


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