Science: In Brief

Conor O’Donovan 

Deputy Science Editor

Sex survey – a decade of changing habits and opinions

The results of the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) in the UK, published recently in the Lancet, provide for stimulating reading. In the past 10 years, the rates of two high-risk sexually transmitted subtypes of human papillomavirus (HPV) fell from 11.3% to 5.8%, and attendance at STI clinics increased from 9.2% to16.9% in men and from 8.7 to 27.8% in women. Women reported increased numbers of male partners over the lifetime, and increased sexual experiences with female partners. There was expansion of oral and anal sex in the heterosexual population. Acceptance of same-sex partnerships, and intolerance of non-exclusivity in marriage also both increased. Low sexual satisfaction and function were associated with the end of a relationship, inability to talk easily about sex with the partner, and not being happy in the relationship. The rate of “completed non-volitional sex” was 9.8% in women (median age 18), and 1.4% in men (median age 16). In most cases, the perpetrator was known to the individual. Younger participants surveyed were also more likely to have told someone about it, and to have reported it to the police.

HIV vaccine no closer

A trial of a potential HIV vaccine, involving 2,504 participants at high risk of contracting the virus has been halted early. Reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) the trial’s data and safety monitoring board, found no effectiveness at preventing infection. Vaccine- and placebo-recipients had no significant difference in HIV-1 acquisition rate, or viral load set point (level of HIV-1 in the blood at 10-20 weeks following diagnosis). Though the trial failed to demonstrate efficacy for this vaccine strategy, it is encouraging that negative results have been published in the NEJM. This may be indicative of the growing appreciation of the importance of publishing negative data to direct future clinical trials and prevent unnecessary trial duplication and the inherent harm to patients involved.

The power of subconscious love

In the journal Science, strong evidence is presented for the power of implicit, automatic (non-expressed) attitudes towards one’s partner for prediction of change in marital satisfaction over time. 135 newlywed couples answered questions that measured their explicit, conscious attitudes toward their relationship, and underwent an assessment of implicit attitudes (association of positive or negative words with brief images of their partner or control individuals). Couples were followed up for four years. Expressed and implicit attitudes did not correlate with each other, suggesting inability or unwillingness to accurately self-report one’s attitudes toward the partner or relationship. Automatic measures predicted changes in marital satisfaction over time, i.e. those with net positive implicit attitudes from the start experienced less decline in marital satisfaction in the long run. This association was significant despite controlling for several other variables. These findings lend support to the theory of automatic cognitive processes, and also to their role in practical social interactions. We may be able to predict, but not expressly articulate, the outcome of our long-term relationships.