Men have twice as many sexual partners as women over the course of their lives, research suggests.
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The Health Survey for England found that men reported having 9.3 different partners on average, with a quarter of men boasting of more than 10 conquests.
However a third of those questioned admitted they were only estimating the number of notches on their bedposts.
By contrast, women had a mean average of 4.7 sexual partners in their lives so far, with a quarter having just one. They were more likely to be certain of the number of lovers they had had.
“More women than men reported having sexual intercourse with only one partner of the opposite sex in their lifetime (24 per cent of women compared with 17 per cent of men), and conversely more men than women reported having sexual intercourse with 10 or more partners of the opposite sex (27 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women).”
Among older women, monogamy was even more common with 40 per cent of those aged between 55 and 69 saying they had only ever had one sexual partner.Older women were also far less likely to be sexually active, with 36 per cent saying they had not had a partner in the past year. Overall a fifth of respondents aged between 16 and 69 had been chaste.
The poll of 14,000 people, published by the NHS Information Centre on Thursday, suggested that younger generations were losing their virginity at ever earlier ages and taking more risks.
Its chief executive Tim Straughan said the annual report, which asked questions about sex for the first time, "paints a picture of sexual behaviour which is changing over the generations with younger women tending to begin having sex younger".
A fifth of men and one in seven women said they had had sex before their sixteenth birthday, and the median age for first sex was 17. Overall fewer than one in 10 of those questioned were still virgins.
But among 16 to 24 year-old women the proportion who had lost their virginity before 16 – which would mean their partners were breaking the law – rose to 27 per cent.
Although most said they used contraception, a fifth of young women had had to turn to the morning-after pill in the past year and 17 per cent of those aged between 16 and 34 had been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection.
In addition, 15 per cent of young women had had between two and four different sexual partners in the past year.
The report noted that the teenage pregnancy rate in England, although falling to a 20-year low in 2009 of 40 conceptions per 1,000 under-18s, “is still high when compared with Western Europe”.
“The prevention of unplanned teenage motherhood is a public health priority as it can have detrimental effects on the health and socioeconomic status of both mother and child.”
The Public Health Minister, Anne Milton, said: “Young people should think carefully before having sex - it's not something to rush into. Consider seriously if it's right for you, what contraception to use and the best way to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections.”
Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Health Minister, said: “The rising numbers of girls having under-age sex is alarming. It is not a cost-free phenomenon. It poses public health policy challenges and social challenges. The underlying cause must be the ‘pornification’ of British culture and the increasing sexualisation of pre-adolescent girls.