Natsal-3 defined sex and sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite-sex as vaginal, oral, or anal sex, while sex with someone of the same-sex was defined more broadly as any genital contact.
The question in Natsal-3 about age at first sex with someone of the opposite-sex was asked by the interviewer using a showcard, followed by a number of questions about the circumstances of that first occasion, such as the age of their first partner and whether contraception was used. In contrast, the questions about first sex with someone of the same-sex were much more limited in Natsal-3 and asked in the Computer-Assisted Self-Interview section. To address this difference, Natsal-4 will ask all the questions about first sex in the same part of the survey, regardless of the sex of the participant’s first sexual partner.
The question asks about the number of sexual partners by the time of the interview and so it follows that older participants are likely to report a larger number than younger participants, basically because younger participants have had less time to ‘accumulate’ sexual partners. In contrast, the number of sexual partners reported by younger people in a recent timeframe (e.g., the past year) is likely to be larger than that reported by older people during that same time period, as on average younger people have higher rates of sexual partner changes and shorter partnership duration than older people.
All three rounds of Natsal have asked the same question about sexual frequency and so we can look at how this has changed over time for people aged 16 to 44 years – the common age-range eligible for Natsal-1, Natsal-2 and Natsal-3. In Natsal-1 in 1990, the median was five occasions, while a decade later in Natsal-2 it was four, and then most recently in Natsal-3, the median was three occasions in the last four weeks. One reason proposed for this decline was the increase in the proportion of people who were not living with a partner, as people who live with a partner tend to report more occasions of sex, in part because they have more of an opportunity to have sex. However, when the analyses were limited to just those living with their partner the data showed a similar decline in sexual frequency over time.
Natsal-4 will again ask about penis-in-vagina sex to participants who report sex with someone of the opposite-sex, but women who have sex with women will also be asked about vaginal sex, specifically vaginal sex involving fingers, hands, and sex toys.
Over the three rounds of Natsal to date, there has been an increase in the reporting of ever having had heterosexual anal sex. However, it’s important to recognise that these data do not tell us about the frequency with which heterosexual people have anal sex; for example, it could be a sexual practice that they try just once, or it may be part of their regular sexual experiences. It is also important to remember that the observed increase may in part reflect an increased willingness to report engaging in this particular sexual practice.
This question is asked in the Computer-Assisted Self-Interview part of Natsal-3, and follows a broader question that asks participants if they have ever had any kind of sexual experience or sexual contact with someone of the same-sex. Participants are asked to say 'yes' even if it was a long time ago or did not involve contact with the genital area, so for example, kissing someone of the same-sex. Only those participants who say ‘yes’ to this first question are then asked about whether they have ever had same-sex sex, in part to reduce the burden on participants so that they are only asked questions relevant to their experience.
This is one of the few instances in Natsal-3 where a question uses colloquial wording or language. However, the expression ‘one-night stand’ was carefully tested (using a process called cognitive testing) with the public during the development phase of the study, that is, the researchers asked a range of people what they understood by this phrase to ensure that participants interpreted the question largely in the same way – and as intended by the researchers.
This question has been revised for Natsal-4 reflecting how there has been increasing recognition of consensual non-monogamy, that is, relationships where both people in a couple relationship (and all other individuals concerned) consent to engage in romantic, intimate, and/or sexual relationships with other people. As such, it cannot be assumed that ‘extra-marital sex’ equates to unfaithfulness, infidelity, or adultery.
The five response options for the attitudinal questions in Natsal are all presented in the same order from ‘Always wrong’ to ‘Not wrong at all’ with an additional response option of ‘Depends/Don't know’. Along with other social surveys, Natsal has shown significant increases over time in the proportion of the population who consider sex between two adult women (and similarly two adult men) to be ‘not wrong at all’. It might therefore seem more logical to show this response option first , but to make comparisons over time as valid as possible the order cannot be changed.
The proportion of women who consider sex between adults of the same-sex to be ‘not wrong at all’ has been consistently higher than the proportion of men who do so. For example, in Natsal-3 around 60% of women aged 16 to 74 years old reported they thought this, both for sex between two men and sex between two women, but among men this was lower at around 43% of men aged 16 to 74 years.’
Sexual violence is increasingly recognised as an important issue that needs to be urgently addressed. Questions on this issue were first asked in Natsal-3 in the Computer-Assisted Self-Interview and began with: “Has anyone tried to make you have sex with them, against your will?” If a participant responded “yes” then they were then asked whether this had actually happened – the question that the data in the chart correspond to. The term ‘non-volitional sex’ is used as the most literal translation of the question asked. Irrespective of the degree of coercion or force used, it still represents a violation of sexual autonomy and is therefore a form of sexual violence.
It is important to remember that the age of consent in the UK is 16 years for everyone and therefore having sex with someone under the age of 16 is a criminal offence even if young people aged 13-15 give their consent. According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, children under 13 are not considered able or competent to give consent to sexual activity and penetrative sex is classed as rape. The law isn’t designed to punish those aged 13-15 of the same age who both agree to sex (consensual sex), but the law is there to protect young people who might be being abused or taken advantage of by someone older.