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Substantial numbers of British adults find new sexual partners while travelling abroad

Researchers say sexual health should be included as a standard part of travel advice for all.

Substantial numbers of British adults including older men and women find new sexual partners while travelling abroad, according to a new study published online in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The authors call for safer sex information to be routinely provided in pre-departure travellers' health advice regardless of age, destination or reason for travel.

The study was co-authored by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and led by UCL. It analysed responses to the third British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes & Lifestyles (Natsal-3), carried out between 2010 and 2012 among more than 15,000 16-74 year olds living in Britain.

In all, 12,530 people said they had had at least one sexual partner within the preceding five years. Of these, one in 10 men and one in 20 women-1,071 altogether-said they had had sex with a new partner while travelling overseas during this time. Among those aged 35 and older, the equivalent figures were one in 20 men and one in 40 women-numbers which are likely to rise in tandem with the increase in 'healthy ageing' and partnership break-down, suggest the researchers.

Reporting sex with a new partner while travelling overseas was strongly associated with higher numbers of partners overall and other 'risky' behaviours, such as not using a condom, illicit drug use and excess alcohol. Furthermore, both men and women who had sex with new partners while overseas were more likely to say they have been to a sexual health clinic, had been tested for HIV or been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection within the past five years.

Of those with new partners overseas, nearly three quarters of the men (72%) and over half of the women (58%) reported having sex with at least one new partner from outside the UK while abroad. This group was more likely to report higher numbers of partners and concurrent partnerships, and men in this group were also much more likely to report paying for sex.

Around one in four (26%) men who reported new non-UK partners said they had paid for sex within the past five years and had ever paid for sex outside the UK. Older men (35-74) were more likely than younger men (37% vs 19%) to report this. They also averaged more (three) partners than those not paying for sex (average of one).

The researchers emphasise that the survey did not include information on condom use or the acquisition of sexually transmitted infections while overseas, but they nevertheless conclude that their data indicate little change over the past decade.

Co-author Wendy Macdowall from the School said: "Previous research into travel and sex has often been limited by a narrow focus on certain destinations or on certain age groups. Our findings challenge the often perpetuated stereotypes and suggest that a wider focus is warranted, and that sexual health should be included as a standard part of travel advice for all.

"People may be returning home with more than a sun tan, and it is plausible that 'holiday sex' may be associated with the seasonality that has been observed in STI and abortion rates. Further research is needed to investigate this possibility."

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), the largest scientific study of sexual health and lifestyles in Britain, carried out by UCL, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and NatCen Social Research. 

Natsal was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with additional funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and Department of Health.

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