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Open communication and emotional closeness linked to fewer low sexual interest problems

British women living with a partner are more than twice as likely to lack interest in sex compared to men living with a partner, according to a new study published in the BMJ Open.

The study found that women in relationships lasting more than a year are more likely to report lacking interest in sex than those in relationships lasting one year or less. Importantly, it also highlighted that a significant number people found it distressing not to be interested in sex.

The findings come from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) which is the largest scientific study of sexual health lifestyles in Britain. Natsal-3 was carried out by researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University College London, and NatCen Social Research. The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of Health.

The nationally representative survey interviewed 6,669 women and 4,839 men aged between 16 and 74 who reported at least one sexual partner in the past year. Overall, 34% of women and 15% of men reported lacking interest in sex. Half of these people – 62% of women and 53% of men – said that they were distressed by their lack of interest in sex. Those who found it always easy to talk about sex with their partner were less likely to report lacking interest. This was true for men as well as women.

Kaye Wellings, co-author from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "The fact that one in five women and one in 12 men are distressed by their lack of interest in sex is a significant discovery and will help those affected to received tailored support.

“Some of our findings are not surprising - having small children can take the edge off the sexual appetite for example – but other findings are less expected. It seems counter-intuitive that men and women with higher numbers of sexual partners are more likely to lack interest in sex - is the explanation that they are seeking to boost a flagging libido? Further research is required to answer this and other important questions.”

The study also revealed other things linked to low interest in sex in men and women:

  • Reporting an STI in the last year
  • Ever experiencing sex against your will
  • Poor mental and physical health
  • Not feeling emotionally close to partner during sex

It also found things linked to low interest in sex among women only:

  • Having three or more partners in the past year
  • Having children under five years old in the household
  • Not sharing the same sexual likes and dislikes as partner

Professor Cynthia Graham, of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton and lead author on the paper, said: “Our findings show us the importance of the relational context in understanding low sexual interest in both men and women. For women in particular, the quality and length of relationship and communication with their partners are important in their experience of sexual interest. It highlights the need to assess and – if necessary – treat sexual interest problems in a holistic and relationship-, as well as gender-specific way.”

Co-author Dr Kirstin Mitchell, at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, commented: “The findings on the strong association between open sexual communication and a reduced likelihood of sexual interest problems emphasise the importance of providing a broad sexual and relationships education rather than limiting attention only to adverse consequences of sex and how to prevent them.”

Publication

Graham CA, Mercer CH, Tanton C, Jones KG, Johnson AM, Wellings K, Mitchell KR. Factors associated with reporting lacking interest in sex and their interaction with gender: Findings from the third British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. BMJ Open 2017. DOI:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016942