Half of British women 'have poor sexual health'

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

Almost half of women in Britain have poor sexual health – almost three times the rate in men – researchers have said.

Women’s sexual problems have been found to be more varied than those experienced by men. Nearly a third of all women were found to experience difficulties rooted in a lack of interest in sex – a problem associated with distress and dissatisfaction with their sex life.

Dr Alison Parkes of the University of Glasgow, a co-author of the research, said: “We think [the wider range of problems in women] may boil down to women’s general lesser agency when it comes to negotiating more pleasurable as well as safer sex with their partners.”

While 83% of men were deemed to be in fine sexual fettle, 48% of women had poor sexual health. The team said the figures highlighted both the higher prevalence and greater range of sexual health problems experienced by women, and stressed that lack of desire should not be overlooked by sexual health services.

However, experts have previously warned that cuts to sexual health services have left many in need of support with fewer options, particularly those experiencing problems with sexual function.

Related: Sexual dysfunction cuts risk 'leaving thousands in UK without help'

Writing in the journal BMC Public Health, Parkes and colleagues report how they analysed data from the most recent national survey of sexual behaviours in Britain conducted in 2011 and 2012. The data covered more than 5,000 men and more than 7,000 women aged 16-74 who were sexually active in the previous year.

Participants were asked about many areas of their sexual health, from unplanned pregnancies to STIs and problems with sexual function. The team then used computer models to explore whether various problems clustered together, revealing four categories shared by both men and women.

About 83% of men and 52% of women fell into a “good sexual health” category, which encompassed those with a low probability of any sexual health problems. However, 4% of men and 2% of women were “wary risk takers” – with a higher probability of having unprotected sex but a greater savviness about the risk of STIs – and 4% of men and 7% of women were “unwary risk takers”, shunning condoms with little awareness of the risks. The fourth category was dominated by those more likely to report sexual function problems, such as difficulty reaching orgasm, and encompassed 9% of men and 7% of women.

The computer models generated two extra categories for women. The first was predominately characterised by having a “low interest” in sex – the most common form of sexual dysfunction in women – and comprised 29% of women surveyed. The second, encompassing 2% of women, was a “highly vulnerable” category – with characteristics including a greater probability of sexual coercion, STI diagnoses, various aspects of sexual dysfunction and abortion.

For women, all five categories of poorer sexual health were linked to distress and lower satisfaction with their sex life, relative to having good sexual health, while for men only sexual function problems were linked with higher distress.

“Men don’t seem to be similarly affected by exposure to STIs,” said Parkes. “That doesn’t seem to bother men quite so much as women.”

Some characteristics were found to be common to different categories of poorer sexual health, such as depression, while drug and alcohol use, and first sexual experiences at an early age were linked to many categories of poor sexual health across the sexes.

There were also specific differences between categories: for example women with low interest in sex tended to be older, while the prevalence of different relationship styles varied across categories.

While the study does not reveal cause and effect, the authors say it suggests that policies that tackle issues underpinning many categories may improve a broad range of sexual health problems, and that particular interventions could be tailored to certain groups.

Dr Peter Greenhouse of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV said it was not surprising that women experienced a more diverse and higher rates of sexual health problems, not least because of unwanted pregnancies, painful conditions including endometriosis, greater risk of sexual coercion and STIs usually being transmitted more easily from men to women.

He also pointed out that the data for the new study was collected several years ago, and therefore it did not capture the impact of dating apps such as Tinder on sexual ill-health.

But he said the scale of the disparity between men and women’s sexual ill-health “screams out” of the study, highlighting the need to reverse cuts to sexual health services.

“The clinics have never been weaker than they are now, just when they need to be stronger, and even better resourced for women because of this disparity,” he said.

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