One in ten women report having had sex against their will

woman lying down

This is the stark headline of the latest British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL). It’s the first time this regular ten-year survey, now in its third cycle, has looked at non-volitional sex.

They also report a huge range of data about the prevalence of sexual activities and attitudes.  So the Lifestyle Elf had a good rummage through it on your behalf.


NATSAL has been collecting data every ten years since 1990, and their latest report is presented across several papers in the Lancet.

Its first breakthrough finding is in the methods section:  older people have sex, and it’s worth including them in the survey!  Lead author Cath Mercer is quoted as saying:

as men and women are living longer, have healthier lives, and continue to have active sex lives well beyond their reproductive years, we need to view sexual health and well-being as an issue of lifelong importance.

The addition of questions about non-volitional sex was also new.

The survey uses a stratified random sample of the population based on postcodes.  Individuals in the sample are invited to take part in interviews.  All responses are confidential (the interviewers don’t know what answers people are giving) and anonymised.

The survey was run three times:  in 1990-1, 1999-2001 and 2010-2.

Now for the data

Graphic showing breakdown of persons committing acts of nonvolitional sex

Click to view the full video infographic on the Lancet website.

The most startling data to emerge is that about non-volitional sex.  9·8% (95% CI 9·0–10·5) of women (compared with 1.4% of men) reported having been forced to have sex against their will at least once since they were aged 13.  Roughly double that number reported suffering an attempt at non-volitional sex.

This represents a very large number of sexual assaults.  The latest survey was the first time this question  was included , so we can’t compare it with previous decades.  However, it is consistent with  high levels of sexual assault reported in official estimates.

The majority of occurrences involve people already known to the individual, as the graph on the right shows.

The survey reports many other notable findings about the prevalence of sexual attitudes and behaviour in Britain.  Amongst them are:

  • Most adults are sexually active, with the frequency of activity declining with age
  • Younger people are having less sex now than 10 years ago. People aged 16-44 reported having sex on average fewer than five times a month, down from an average of over six times a month 10 years ago.  The researchers put this down in part to demographics, with more people living singly.
  • One in six pregnancies in the UK are unplanned. In the 1990-1 survey, fewer than one in four people said that same sex partnerships were “not wrong at all”. In 2012, 50% of men and 66% of women gave this response.
  • People are now much more accepting of same-sex relationships.
  • They are less accepting of non-exclusive relationships.
  • Over the period of the study, the percentage of women reporting same-sex partners has gone up from 1.8% to 7.9%, with the equivalent data for men being from 3.6% to 4.8%,
  • No significant change since 2001 in the proportions of men and women having sex before age 16 (31% and 29% respectively)
  • An increase the number of people reporting anal intercourse in the last decade.
Lesbian couple

In 1990-1 fewer than one in four people approved of same sex partnerships. Now 50% of men and 66% of women do.

There is a wealth of other data on sexual attitudes and behaviour, along with very nice, if rather intenstive, infographic presenting  many of the key points.  In summarising, researcher Professor Kaye Wellings said:

“The change in women’s behaviour across the three surveys has been remarkable. In some areas of sexual behaviour we have seen a narrowing of the gender gap, but in others we have seen women overtaking men in the diversity of their behaviour. These trends need to be seen against the backdrop of the profound changes in the position of women in society, the norms governing their lifestyles, and media representations of female sexuality.”


  • The survey is based on self-reports.
  • Because the same methods are used with each sample every ten years, the researchers minimised the risk of these differences being due to the way they gathered the data.  However, they did sample different people in each survey and it’s likely there would be some differences between  the samples and the methods.
  • The response rate was 57.7% from potential participants, suggesting there might be some self-selection in the sample.  My mum would have slammed the door in their face, for example.  Furthermore, changes in social attitudes may have changed participants’ willingness to respond comprehensively and truthfully.
  • Some of the comparison data are quoted without confidence intervals.  This makes it hard to judge how much uncertainty there is around these trends.