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History of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles

May 7, 2012

Book review – by Henrice Altink

The publication of this Witness Seminar report coincided with the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV/ AIDS. It brought together people involved in the first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL), carried out in the UK in 1990 to provide data about sexual behaviour, partner change, transmission and sexual networks to those working in STDs in general and HIV in particular. The survey was repeated in 2000 and 2010, with changes to allow for information more relevant to preventing the spread of STDs.

The seminar started with a discussion of the background. It was not until 1986 that the government began to take HIV/AIDS seriously. Around the same time, a small survey on sexual attitudes was carried out by Gallup, which triggered debates about the need for a larger survey. A successful feasibility study, funded by the Health Education Authority and the Economic and Social Research Council in 1988, led the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) to join the two bodies in funding a large survey.

The main question asked by the seminar was why the DHSS changed its mind and withdrew funding. In particular, it explored the role played by a Sunday Times article in September 1989, which alleged that Margaret Thatcher had personally intervened to stop the survey (supposedly because she was sceptical about the social sciences and saw herself as the defender of moral values). The principal investigators of the survey mentioned that in the months leading up to the article, by the health journalist Mike Durham, the DHSS had failed to release funding and forbidden them from publicly speaking about the survey. Yet none of the seminar’s witnesses, who included one former DHSS official, actually confirmed the allegation about Thatcher. In the end, the seminar merely concluded that the DHSS had blocked the survey and that by October 1989, the government had informed the research team that it would not “allow the use of public funds for this study”. The discussion then moved on to examine when, how and why the Wellcome Trust became the sponsor. Former Wellcome Trustee Professor Sir Stanley Peart firmly denied that antagonism to Thatcher had underpinned the Trust’s decision and argued that the scientific trustees had made a convincing case that the survey was essential to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Yet the seminar did not only assess Thatcher’s involvement in the loss of government funds for the first NATSAL: it also explored the survey’s methodology and impact. In doing so, it has shed much light on the moral climate of late-1980s Britain. Witnesses involved in designing the paper questionnaire mentioned the problems they had in deciding what sexual terminology to use and how open to be about sex, while those who carried out the qualitative interviews said that they had to take a course to become desensitised to every possible term denoting sexual activity and that many male interviewers dropped out after this course. That it was less difficult to find interviewers and interviewees for the second and third NATSALs and that funding for these was secured from the Medical Research Council clearly illustrate that the first NATSAL not only provided essential data about HIV/AIDS but also helped to make research into sex become more mainstream and more generally facilitate greater openness about sex in society.

If more DHSS and other government officials had participated in the seminar, greater light would probably have been shed on the role of No. 10, including that of the Prime Minister, in the blocking of the survey. Yet by including the principal investigators of the first NATSAL, most of whom had a degree in the social sciences, and some of the leading scientists on HIV/AIDS at the time, and by addressing both the short- and long-term impact of the survey, the seminar has done much to emphasise the message that major epidemics can only be effectively combated if the natural and social sciences work closely together.

Overy C, Reynolds LA, Tansey EM (eds). History of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. London: Queen Mary, University of London; 2011.

Henrice Altink is Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, University of York.

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