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Study reveals changes in young people’s sexual practices

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There has been an increasing diversity in young people’s heterosexual practices over the past two decades, according to UK researchers.

They argue that having a new understanding of the current sexual trends could help guide education policy and safeguard young people’s health and wellbeing.

“Keeping pace with current trends in sexual practices is crucial”

Ruth Lewis

Their research involved looking at data from the three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), the largest scientific studies of their kind in the UK.

The surveys have been carried out every 10 years since 1990, and have involved interviews with more than 45,000 people to date.

The new analysis found that, while vaginal intercourse and oral sex remained the most common combination of practices experienced in the past year, there had been changes among the young.

For example, the proportion of sexually active 16 to 24 year olds who said they had vaginal, oral and anal sex during the last year had risen, said the researchers in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

They found it had gone up from around one in 10 women and men in 1990-91, to one in four men and one in five women in 2010-12.

Some of the largest increases in the prevalence of oral and anal sex over the past decade were observed among those aged 16 to 18, noted the researchers.

Lead author Dr Ruth Lewis, who conducted the work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine but is now based at the University of Glasgow, said: “Keeping pace with current trends in sexual practices is crucial so that curricula are tailored to the realities of young people’s experiences.

“By shedding light on when some young people are having sex and what kinds of sex they are having, our study highlights the need for accurate sex and relationships education that provides opportunities to discuss consent and safety in relation to a range of sexual practices,” she said.

“The changes in practices we see here and are perhaps not surprising”

Kaye Wellings

Senior study author Professor Kaye Wellings, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The changes in practices we see here are consistent with the widening of other aspects of young people’s sexual experience.”

She suggested the changes observed in the data were “perhaps not surprising”, given the rapidly changing social context and the ever increasing number of influences on sexual behaviour.

“It is important to keep up to date with trends in sexual lifestyles to help young people safeguard their health and increase their wellbeing,” she added.

The researchers found that median age at first heterosexual experience, including kissing, had not changed much in recent decades.

In the most recent survey, the median age of reported first heterosexual experience among men and women born during 1990-96 was 14, with age at first intercourse – oral, vaginal or anal – being 16.

The researchers acknowledged that, as with most surveys, their study was limited by the fact that it was self-reporting of behaviour, which may be influenced by prevailing social norms.

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