More than 1,000 men applied to appear on Men Talk and discuss sex and body image. “There was a strong cultural factor,” Ms Stephens says. “Northern men tended to be happier boasting about their sexual exploits and would be less squeamish about saying a woman’s place was in the home. The liberal southern man tended to be more influenced by the new man image and would be very conservative in his estimates of how many women he had slept with.
“Men often say they practice safe sex when what they mean is they would like to practice safe sex but somehow haven’t got round to it.”
No survey can give a reliable definition of British sex life, according to Ms Stephens, but they are important because they stimulate discussion and can point to national trends. “The British are far too squeamish about discussing sex, which causes a lot of unhappiness and confusion. Sex education is vital if we are to stop HIV and teenage pregnancy.
“If people can have fun reading these surveys with their friends and chatting about the issues, then they are worthwhile,” she says. “And if they prove certain trends, they provide ammunition for those trying to predict and prevent the Aids epidemic.”
Dr Janet Holland has spent the past four years carrying out a qualitative in-depth investigation with 150 young women aged 16 to 21 in London and Manchester for Women Risk and Aids Project (Wrap), at a cost of Pounds 77,000.
Each woman was interviewed for up to two hours on sexual practice, feelings and what they knew about HIV. “Our main findings were that there is a lot of unsafe sexual activity among young people. They want sex to be spontaneous and romantic and condoms don’t fit the image. So now we know what areas we need to tackle.”
As a social scientist Dr Holland believes she has to operate as if the women are telling the truth. “We weren’t going in there to trick them, and if they felt embarrassed by any question we would stop. You have to use the language they are used to otherwise you can get into all sorts of awkward situations,” she says. “Even the national survey had problems at the beginning. When one man was asked whether he was heterosexual, he replied, `Heterosexual, bisexual, they’re all bloody queers as far as I’m concerned.”’
Dr Peter Davis, a sociology lecturer at Essex University and the co-founder of project Sigma, agrees with Dr Holland that the phraseology of questions is vital. Sigma has been running since 1987 and has involved interviewing 1,000 homosexual and bi-sexual men, each for ten hours in total, about their sexual behavior in the light of HIV. “Instead of asking them, `Have you ever had sex with a woman?’, you must say, `When did you last have sex with a woman?’ otherwise people are less likely to admit to things. Aids and illegal activities are the subjects that must be approached most sensitively.”
Sigma has tried to work out likely biases. “In our study we assumed that the number of people who admitted to having stigmatized experiences would be lower. Whereas things that reflect well, like athletic sex, tend to be over-estimated,” Dr Davis says.
He is concerned that the national survey’s results are not going to be accurate enough. “I believe they had problems getting participants and I can see why. When I asked my group if they would like to participate, over half of them said no. And of those who said they wouldn’t mind a third said they would not admit they were homosexual.”
Dr Davis says the type of interviewer used is also critical. “Some people only admit something to a woman, others to a man. We found that the people we interviewed were far more forthcoming if the interviewer was gay.”
And what of Cosmopolitan, the magazine that launched a thousand sex surveys and, in 1990, conducted one of the largest to date? Fifteen thousand people responded to the questionnaire and almost everyone took it very seriously, according to Marcelle D’Argy Smith, Cosmo’s editor.
“The problem about all sex surveys is that they are seen as being salacious and only good for a titter,” she says. “Our main reason for carrying out this survey was to know about our readers and the way trends change from decade to decade. We found out that a fifth had lost their virginity by 15, and that 8 per cent had experienced incest, mostly involving brothers. The statistics are fascinating. They reassure groups of people that they are not alone while providing serious sociological data.”