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Communication and emotional closeness linked to better sexual appetite, new study finds

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 yesterday in the BMJ Open.

The study also found that men and women in relationships lasting more than a year are more likely to lack interest in sex than those in newer relationships lasting one year or less.

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 University College London, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and NatCen Social Research. The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with support from the ESRC and the Department of Health.

The nationally-representative survey interviewed 6,669 women and 4,839 men aged between 16-74 who reported at least one sexual partner in the past year. Overall, 34% of women and 15% of men reported lacking interest in sex. But those who found it easy to talk about sex with their partner were less likely to report lacking interest. This was true for men as well as women.

Professor Cynthia Graham, of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton and lead author on the paper, said: "When it comes to understanding low sexual interest in men and women, our findings show us that it’s all about how the relationship works. For women in particular the quality and length of the relationship - and how good communication is with their partners - are what really matters. 

"Our research also highlights the need to assess and – if necessary – treat sexual interest problems in a holistic way, taking relationships into account and the different needs of men and women."

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

  • Reporting a sexually transmitted infection in the last year 
  • Ever experiencing rape
  • Poor mental and physical health
  • Not feeling emotionally close to partner during sex

It also found factors 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

Co-author Dr Kirstin Mitchell, at the 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."

Further information

  • Peter Franklin, Senior Media Relations Officer
    University of Southampton
    Telephone: 023 8059 3212
  • Cynthia A Graham, Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health
    University of Southampton

Notes for editors

  1. 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.
  2. The study was supported by grants from the UK Medical Research Council (G0701757) and the Wellcome Trust (084840), with support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department of Health. Since September 2015, Kirstin Mitchell has been supported by the UK Medical Research Council grant MC_UU_12017/11, and Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office grant SPHSU11.


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