A new survey illustrates there have been distinct changes in our sexual behavior and attitudes over the last fifty years. The researchers say that those changes have been considerably more marked among women than men. Conducted by the Economic & Social Research Council in the U.K., the survey found there has been a progressive reduction in the age at which sexual intercourse first takes place and an increase in the proportion of young people who have had sexual intercourse before the age of consent. For men and women reaching sexual maturity in the 1950s, the average age at first intercourse was 20 and 21 respectively; by the mid-1990s, it was 16 for both sexes. Mirroring this trend, the proportion of young people who were sexually active before the age of 16 has increased. At the end of the twentieth century, a quarter of young women had intercourse before the age of consent compared with less than 1 percent of those becoming sexually active in the 1950s. The researchers said the gap between the sexes has been narrowing over time, and by the 1990s had closed.
Although there is convergence of men and women's age at first intercourse, there remain important differences in the experience of the event. Women are twice as likely as men to regret their first experience of intercourse and three times as likely to report being the less willing partner. For women becoming sexually active in the 1950s, the majority lost their virginity to their husband or fiancé, though only a minority of men lost their virginity to their wife or fiancée. Nearly 40 percent of women and 14 percent of men born in the early 1930s married before having sexual intercourse and a further 14 percent of women and 6 percent of men were engaged to be married before doing so. By the 1990s, fewer than 1 percent of men and women had their first experience of sex with someone they were married or engaged to, and the gender differences had all but vanished.
Sowing wild oats was still in evidence with men being more likely to report large numbers of partners and less likely to report having been monogamous. Yet while one partner for life is still a more common pattern for women, the proportion who had had only one partner halved between 1990 and 2000. At the same time, the proportion of women reporting concurrent relationships has increased.
The researchers said there has undoubtedly been a relaxation in social attitudes towards sexual behavior, particularly towards the sexual behavior of the young. Attitudes towards homosexual behavior, non-exclusive sexual relationships and sex outside of marriage have all softened over recent decades. The exception is monogamy as it seems the public are firmly in favor of sexual exclusivity. There is near universal condemnation of sexual relationships outside of regular ones, with the majority of people of both sexes - 80 percent - strongly disapproving of sex outside of marriage.