Only one in eight men in the same age group as Tim Yeo, 48 - the minister who resigned after he admitted fathering a child outside marriage - has had more than one sexual partner within the last five years. Only about one in 50 has had as many partners in recent years as Steven Norris, the transport minister, also 48, who is reported to have had five mistresses.
But the present generation of young Britons lose their virginity much earlier and have more partners than their elders. The median age at which women have first sexual intercourse has fallen to 17 from 21 in the early 1950s. More than 38 per cent of women born in the 1930s and early 1940s delayed sex until they were married; among women born since the mid-1960s, the proportion is less than 1 per cent. Nearly one in five had lost their virginity by age 16.
More than one in three women aged 16 to 24 say they have already had at least three sexual partners.
The survey questioned nearly 19,000 men and women, who formed a representative cross- sample of the population aged 16 to 59. It was carried out to help doctors, policy-makers and health educators stop the spread of Aids. Margaret Thatcher's government refused to support the survey when four women academics, including a doctor, applied for funding in 1989. But the Wellcome Trust, an independent charity, stepped in. The full results will be published by Penguin and Basil Blackwell later this month.
Nearly 80 per cent consider extramarital sex to be always or mostly wrong, thus echoing Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who denounced adultery as a sin yesterday. But the large majority of people see nothing wrong in premarital sex.
Though the British do not quite live up to their ideals, the survey results suggest that many recent estimates of adultery, gleaned from unrepresentative samples, are highly exaggerated. Fewer than one in 20 married men and fewer than one in 50 married women reported more than one sexual partner in the year before the interviews, carried out in 1990-1.
Among young people, the most common life-style is serial monogamy - they stop sleeping with one person before they start sleeping with another. Excluding virgins, only one in five men in the 16-24 age group has what the survey authors call 'concurrent' relationships.
But a few people report very high numbers of partners. Of men aged 45-59, some 1 per cent said they had had more than 1,100 sexual partners. A similar proportion in the 16-24 age group reported more than 10 partners in the last year alone.
The survey shows that, in a typical four-week period, one in two Britons has sex on at least five occasions. But 5 per cent of 19-year-old women report having sex on 25 or more occasions.
This week's Sunday Review carries the survey's main findings on heterosexual sex. Next week's extract will deal with homosexual behaviour.
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