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Finding sexual partners online: prevalence and associations with sexual behaviour, STI diagnoses and other sexual health outcomes in the British population
  1. Melissa Cabecinha1,
  2. Catherine H Mercer1,
  3. Kirsten Gravningen2,
  4. Catherine Aicken1,
  5. Kyle G Jones1,
  6. Clare Tanton1,
  7. Kaye Wellings3,
  8. Pam Sonnenberg1,
  9. Nigel Field1
  1. 1Research Department of Infection & Population Health, University College London, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Microbiology and Infection Control, University Hospital of Northern Norway, Norway
  3. 3Department of Social & Environmental Health Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Melissa Cabecinha, Research Department of Infection & Population Health, University College London, Mortimer Market Centre, off Capper Street, London WC1E 6JB, UK; m.cabecinha{at}


Objectives Online venues might facilitate sexual encounters, but the extent to which finding partners online is associated with sexual risk behaviour and sexual health outcomes is unclear. We describe use of the internet to find sexual partners in a representative sample in Britain.

Methods The third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) was a cross-sectional probability survey of 15 162 adults (aged 16–74 years) undertaken 2010–2012. We estimated prevalence of, and identified factors associated with, finding sexual partners online among those reporting ≥1 new sexual partners in the past year.

Results Finding sexual partners online in the past year was reported by 17.6% (95% CI 15.6 to 19.9) of men and 10.1% (8.5–11.9) of women, and most common among those aged 35–44 years. After age-adjustment, those reporting a non-heterosexual identity were more likely to report this. Finding partners online was also associated with reporting sexual risk behaviours: condomless sex with ≥2 partners (adjusted OR (aOR) men: 1.52 (1.03 to 2.23); women: 1.62 (1.06 to 2.49)), concurrent partnerships (aOR men: 2.33 (1.62 to 3.35); women: 2.41 (1.49 to 3.87)) and higher partner numbers (reporting ≥5 partners aOR men: 5.95 (3.78 to 9.36); women: 7.00 (3.77 to 13.00)) (all past year). STI diagnoses and HIV testing were more common among men reporting finding partners online (adjusted for age, partner numbers, same-sex partnerships), but not women.

Conclusions Finding partners online was associated with markers of sexual risk, which might be important for clinical risk assessment, but this was not matched by uptake of sexual health services. Online opportunities to find partners have increased, so these data might underestimate the importance of this social phenomenon for public health and STI control.


This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon this work, for commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited. See:

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  • Handling editor Jackie A Cassell

  • Twitter Follow Nigel Field @fienige

  • Contributors MC, CHM, KG and NF conceived this study. MC wrote first draft of the manuscript, with further contributions from CHM, KG, CA, KGJ, CT, KW, PS and NF. MC did statistical analyses, with support from CHM, KGJ and NF. CHM, KW and PS, initial applicants for the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, wrote the study protocol and obtained funding. All authors contributed to data interpretation, reviewed successive drafts and approved the final version of the manuscript.

  • Funding The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles was supported by grants from the Medical Research Council (G0701757) and the Wellcome Trust (084840), with contributions from the Economic and Social Research Council and Department of Health.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles study was approved by the Oxfordshire Research Ethics Committee A (reference: 09/H0604/27).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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