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Sex has lost its space

· Kaye Wellings and sexuality in the internet age ·

Fifty years after the arrival of the pill. Thirty years after the discovery of HIV. What is sexuality like today in the internet age? Is the world is becoming more promiscuous? We spoke with Kaye Wellings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Author of the first comprehensive study on sexual behaviour, co- leader of the British periodical survey (Natsal) that served as a model on an international scale, “a pioneer of sexual health”, as the Lancet defines it.

Not all scholars use the word revolution, but certainly in the last half century, the manner and timing of physical love have changed. In western countries, the age in which intercourse first takes place has decreased, while there has been an increase in the number of sexual partners during a lifetime, the differences in the behaviour of men and women have been reduced. But the category of promiscuity does not help to understand the phenomena taking place now, Wellings points out.

Kaye Wellings shows her global study

"There have been demographic changes. In the fifties two-thirds of women were engaged to or married to their first man, this is no longer the case". If the sexual life for western girls and boys begins at the age of 16 and the birth of the first child is at 30, during the period in-between many people will experience a change of partners. Monogamy is the dominant model, but has become a serial monogamy. Even before contraception it was the greater equality between girls and boys in terms of education and employment that modified the relational dynamics. And then what happened? Certain taboos have gone but sex has lost rather than gained space in people's lives.

“In the last decade sexual practices have become more diversified, there have been an increased number of women who have reported experiences with other women, while there has been a decreased frequency of sexual intercourse." In short, the connection with procreation continues to weaken, while the emotional value of physical contact is emphasised. Reliable data does not yet exist, but according to Wellings the Internet has contributed to the decrease of consummated relationships. Tablets, smartphones and laptops have other effects, too: "The encroachment between public and private space, and the spread of pornography” which, in turn, changes our way of thinking about the body and of entering into a relationship.

Are these phenomena destined to spread with globalization? In part, yes, of course, but countries and subgroups of the population will continue to be distinguished by key factors such as religion, level of well-being, the empowerment of women and mobility. Rural or urban residence, wealth and ethnicity now count more than nationality. For now, there seems to be a universal tendency to wait of the first sexual experience. In traditional societies the decreasing number of child brides has lifted the average higher, while the higher sexual freedom of a minority of single girls reduces it. The problem, however, is not only statistical.

The concept of sexual responsibility, which the English scholar has helped to develop and which has been adopted by the World Health Organization, revolves around the fact that sex should be consensual, protected and informed. If the moment is right or not, depends on the individuals and their moral and religious traditions, to what extent they feel free and ready, a condition that cannot be taken for granted even in the West.

Often the data belie the stereotypes. The fact that the proportion of men and women who have had more than one partner in the last year is much higher in rich countries than in poor ones, in particular, has surprised even Wellings. “It was believed that sexually transmitted diseases were widespread in Africa because of promiscuity. Instead, the most plausible explanation is poverty, which leads to poor use of protection". In developed regions of the world between the eighties and nineties the threat of AIDS has curbed risk-taking behaviour and the spread of other pathogens, but now the effect has passed. "I believe that respect for people can be a more effective and long lasting motivation then fear, even with regard to sexual behaviour", says Wellings.

Studying human sexuality from a secular perspective in 2014, however, can longer mean focusing solely on diseases and early pregnancies: the quality of sexual experience impacts on self-esteem, mental health, on the stability of loving relationships and on the expectations of happiness and the desire for fertile ties. The pleasure of physical contact is well-being and therefore health, but not only. Sexuality changes and should also widen the perspective of those who observe its evolution.

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