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Sex myths put to bed

Maria Cheng

November 01, 2006 11:00pm

In the first comprehensive global study of sexual behaviour, British researchers found that people aren't losing their virginity at ever younger ages, married people have the most sex, and there is no firm link between promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases.
The study was published as part of a series on sexual and reproductive health by the British medical journal The Lancet.

Professor Kaye Wellings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines and her colleagues analysed data from 59 countries worldwide.

Experts say data gleaned from the study will be useful not only in dispelling popular myths about sexual behaviour, but in shaping policies that will help improve sexual health.

Professor Wellings said she was surprised by some of the survey's results.

"We did have some of our preconceptions dashed," she said, explaining that they had expected to find the most promiscuous behaviour in regions like Africa, with the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

That was not the case, as multiple partners were more commonly reported in industrialised countries where the incidence of such diseases were relatively low.

"There's a misperception that there's a great deal of promiscuity in Africa, which is one of the potential reasons for HIV/AIDS spreading so rapidly," said Dr Paul van Look, director of Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organisation, who was unconnected to the study. "But that view is not supported by the evidence."

Professor Wellings said that implied promiscuity may be less important than factors such as poverty and education – especially in the encouragement of condom use – in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

The study also found that, contrary to popular belief, sexual activity is not starting any earlier. Nearly everywhere, men and women have their first sexual experiences in their late teens , with younger ages for women than for men.

Researchers also found that married people have the most sex, and that there has been a gradual shift to delay marriage. While that has meant a predictable rise in the rates of premarital sex, experts believe this doesn't necessarily translate into more dangerous behaviour.

In some instances, married women may be at more risk than single women.

"A single woman is more able to negotiate safe sex in certain circumstances than a married woman," said Dr van Look, who pointed out that married women in Africa and Asia are often threatened by unfaithful husbands who frequent prostitutes.

There is much greater equality between women and men with regard to the number of sexual partners in rich countries than in poor countries, the study found.

For example, men and women in Australia, Britain, France and the US tend to have an almost equal number of sexual partners.

By contrast, in Cameroon, Haiti and Kenya, men tend to have multiple partners while women tend only to have one.

This imbalance has significant public health implications.

"In countries where women are beholden to their male partners, they are likely not to have the power to request condom use, and they probably won't know about their husbands' transgressions," said Professor Wellings.

Because of the diversity of sexual habits worldwide, Professor Wellings warned that no single approach to sexual health would work everywhere.

"There are very different economic, religious and social rules governing sexual conduct," she said.

Associated Press

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