Attempts to cut sexually transmitted infections will fail unless this 10% is encouraged to change its behaviour, the John Moores University team said. They told the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health how poor sex education and sex on TV was to blame. But a growing minority of people are abstaining from sex, say researchers.
According to research published in New Scientist, a small percentage of the population - 1% - have absolutely no interest in having sex with men or women. This group of 'asexuals' are coming together and forming virtual communities via the internet to insist on their right not to have sex, the report said.
The opposite is true of the "promiscuous 10%" who started their sex lives at an early stage and have multiple partners, according to Professor Mark Bellis and his colleagues in Liverpool. Figures show one in 10 young people has already had sex by the time they are 14.
About 10% of UK adults have had an STI and 13% have visited a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic. Overall, 708,083 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were diagnosed with an STI in 2003.
Professor Bellis and colleagues say society is ignoring the problem for fear of upsetting a vociferous minority.
"Perhaps a greater level of statutory, pertinent and timely sex education is now required despite the complaints of a few. At national level, the choice to guarantee the delivery of high quality sex education is evaded, often to avoid offence to a sensitive but vocal minority," they said.
A BBC poll, conducted by ICM, of 1,010 adults in England, Wales and Scotland found most people would like measures to change people's behaviour to cut rates of sexually transmitted infections. Professor Bellis and his team also criticised the portrayal of strong sexual images in films and television, where there was usually no attempt to promote safe sex.
"More realistic portrayals of sex, condom use, and safer sex practice in the media may, again, upset a few but may also help counter the sexual innuendo that currently promotes promiscuity but provides no hint of safe sex behaviour," they said.
Long waiting times at GUM clinics due to underresourcing is only adding to the problem, they said.
A spokesman for the Terrence Higgins Trust said: "This research reflects some of the reasons for the rises in STIs that we have seen in the UK over the last few years, and we support its calls for consistent, well delivered sex education in schools.
"However, we would caution against using the term 'promiscuous' when describing anyone who has an active sex life. Labelling people in such a way isn't helpful - we need to listen to people and give them the information and support they need to ensure their sexual well-being."
A spokeswoman from the Family Planning Association said: "Anyone can be unlucky enough to get an STI.
"Current high levels cannot be blamed on one group alone. I do not think this 10% rule holds up."
Paul Burstow MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary, said stigmatising those who seek help could drive the problem underground instead of solving it.
The Department of Health said it was committed to tackling the rise of STIs and that millions of pounds had been allocated to the sexual health strategy.
A spokesman said: "This sets out the work we are doing with young people to help them resist pressure to have early sex, improving sex and relationship education to increase their awareness of risk and knowledge of how to protect themselves."
He said the government's investment in GUM clinics clearly reflected the importance of sexual health, which would be a key issue addressed in its imminent Public Health White Paper.