Women more likely than men to lose interest in sexPosted by Olderiswiser Editorial
Has biased reporting of a recent report into lack of interest in sex unfairly treated women? NHS Choices Behind the Headlines investigates.
"Women get bored of having sex with their partner after just a year together, a new study suggests," is the rather crass story in the Mail Online.
The news is based on research that actually found multiple factors increased the likelihood of both men and women reporting a lack of interest in sex.
The findings come from interviews with more than 10,000 men and women in the UK about their sex lives.
Lack of interest in sex was associated with being in poor health, being in longer relationships (for women), and living with your partner – and varied with age.
Those who found it easier to talk about sex were less likely to report a lack of interest.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Southampton, University College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Glasgow.
It was funded by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Department of Health, and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.
As you'd expect, the study was covered widely in the UK media. The reporting was generally accurate, though statements like "how women get bored of having sex with their partner after just 12 months" in the Mail Online generalise the findings somewhat.
We don't know why some people lack interest in sex – boredom isn't mentioned in the study, and the majority of women in relationships lasting longer than a year didn't actually report a loss of interest in sex.
What kind of research was this?
This cross-sectional survey looked at factors associated with reporting a lack of interest in sex and examined if – and how – these differ by gender.
This type of research is good for looking at the attitudes and behaviours of a large number of people, but only investigates them at a single point in time, so trends over time and longer term outcomes can't be assessed.
And it also doesn't show cause and effect – in other words, it can't show that any one of the factors investigated can on its own lead to a lack of interest in sex.
There may be many personal reasons for a lack of interest that weren't investigated in this study.
What did the research involve?
The research used data taken from the third UK National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3).
The survey involved 4,839 male and 6,669 female respondents aged 16 to 74 who reported having one or more sexual partners in the past year.
This study looked at factors associated with a lack of interest in sex.
The computer-assisted interviews took place in participants' homes with professional interviewers. Computer-assisted self-interviews were used for more sensitive questions.
Participants who'd had one or more sexual partners in the past year were asked: "In the last year, have you experienced any of the following for a period of three or more months?". They were given a list of difficulties, including "lacked interest in having sex".
Those reporting lacking interest in sex for at least three months were then asked how they felt about this, from "not at all distressed" to "very distressed".
Those answering a little, fairly or very distressed were defined as lacking interest in sex and having distress about it respectively.
The researchers then looked at the likelihood that reporting a lack of interest in sex lasting three or more months was associated with a range of factors, including:
- leaving school at 16
- poor health
- current depression
- frequency of sexual activity
- recent masturbation
- relationship status
- ease of communication about sex
- being pregnant or having children
- previous sexually transmitted infection diagnosis
Analyses were then broken down by gender and age groups.
What were the basic results?
Overall, 15% of sexually active men and 34.2% of sexually active women reported lacking interest in sex for at least three months before the interview.
- Having sex five or more times compared with not at all in the past four weeks reduced the likelihood of reporting a lack of interest in sex by 61% in men (odds ratio 0.39, 95% confidence interval 0.30 to 0.51) and 59% in women (OR 0.41, 95% CI 0.34 to 0.49).
- Compared with women who'd been in a relationship for less than a year, women in a relationship for 1 to 5 years were 45% more likely to lack interest in sex (OR 1.45, 95% CI 1.2 to 1.76), and those in relationships for 5 to 15 years were almost 2.5 times more likely to lack interest in sex (OR 2.37, 95% CI 1.96 to 2.86). These findings were only true for women, with no significant increase in likelihood found for men.
- Women in a steady relationship but not living with their partner were 41% less likely to lack interest in sex compared with those living with their partner (OR 0.59, 95% CI 0.49 to 0.71). There was no significant difference for men.
- Men were most likely to lack interest in sex between the ages of 35 and 44, with 17.2% reporting a lack of interest (95% CI 14.5% to 20.4%), and women were most likely to lack interest between the ages of 55 and 64, at 38.8% (95% CI 34.5% to 43.2%).
- Finding it difficult to talk about sex, having depressive symptoms, being in "fair" or "bad" health, and not feeling emotionally close when having sex all increased the likelihood of a lack of interest in sex for both men and women.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers concluded: "Both gender similarities and differences were found in factors associated with lacking interest in sex, with the most marked differences in relation to some relationship variables.
"Findings highlight the need to assess and, if appropriate, treat lacking interest in sex in a holistic and relationship-specific way."
This study appears to suggest that many factors increase the likelihood of both men and women reporting a lack of interest in sex. Overall, women seem to be more likely to lose interest than men.
While this large study provides some insight into the possible reasons behind having a lack of interest in sex, it has a few limitations:
- As so many factors were considered, there were bound to be some that showed statistical significance – this could just be by chance.
- The cross-sectional nature of the study means we can't be sure if the specific factors reported on caused the lack of interest, or vice versa.
- People self-reported their sexual activity – this might lead to biased reporting, as people might under- or over-report certain factors.
If your sex life isn't fulfilling, there are steps you can take to make it better. A good start is talking to your partner about how you feel about your current sex life in an honest and open way.
Read more advice about improving your sex life.
Analysis by Bazian | Edited by NHS Choices
Links to the headlines
BBC News, September 14 2017
Mail Online, September 14 2017
Metro, September 14 2017
The Sun, September 14 2017
The Daily Telegraph, September 14 2017
The Times (subscription required), September 14 2017
Links to the science
Graham CA, Mercer CH, Tanton C, et al. What factors are associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and how do these vary by gender? Findings from the third British national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles.BMJ Open. Published online September 13 2017
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