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Why are we STILL not using condoms?

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Last week, the news reached us that one in four students contracted a sexually transmitted infection during their first year of university. Yes, that’s right – one in four.

Think about your closest group of friends – if there are eight of you, that means two will probably get themselves infected with something nasty sooner rather than later, if they haven’t already. The scariest part is, they might not even know about it.

So, the facts (warts and all), on STIs for 16-24 year olds in the UK – a demographic that accounts for more than half of all newly diagnosed infections. Ready?

16-24 year olds account for 63% of new cases of Chlamydia, 54% of genital warts, 47% of gonorrhoea, 41% of herpes and 16% of syphilis (which can lead to dementia, incidentally). There has been an upward trend in diagnosis since 1995 – and the biggest rise has been in young women and gay men.  

Chlamydia-wise, 75% of diagnoses in women occurred in under 25s, 35% were in 16-19 year old women, and the number of cases identified at GUM clinics rose by 71% between 2000 and 2009 - when the total number of diagnoses reached an eye-watering 217,570.

Genital warts are the second commonest STI with 91,257 cases diagnosed in 2009. The highest rate of infection occurs among men aged 20-34 and women aged 16-34.

You can also contract HIV from having unprotected sex with an infected partner – and there’s no way to know who is healthy and who isn’t. When data was last collected, in 2010, it was estimated that the number of people living with HIV in the UK (diagnosed and undiagnosed) would reach 100,000 by 2012.

Numbers-wise, the situation is terrifying.

So why are condoms still being neglected, when we know how absolutely essential they are to our health? Is it because most female students are on the pill, and that STIs are more treatable and less potentially life changing than pregnancy - so if they arise we’ll deal with them tomorrow, sober? Is it because we don’t want to break off to fiddle with a bit of latex and lose the sexually-charged momentum, or because there actually still is a stigma attached to carrying condoms around on the off chance that they might be needed? Or is it simply because we’re drunk a lot of the time when we have sex (face it, it’s true) and we just... forget?

The Family Planning Association (FPA) notes that STI infection rates among young people are still going up, suggesting condom use is down – and that education is to blame.

Natika H Halil, Director of Communications, Health and Wellbeing at FPA, says: “New diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have continued to rise and we know that young people remain at highest risk.  

“You don’t need to have lots of sexual partners to get an infection and not everyone who has one has symptoms. Sometimes symptoms don’t appear for weeks or months but you can still have the infection and pass it on to someone else. 

“Condoms are the only method of contraception that can help protect against STIs as well as unplanned pregnancy but the diagnosis figures suggest condom use is on the wane and many young people seem to be relying on treatment rather than prevention.

“We are concerned that the high-profile campaigns which drove a significant upsurge in the use of condoms, particularly in the 1980s, seem to have been forgotten and many young people will not have seen those messages.”

Marie Stopes International’s Contraception and Sexual Health Nurse, Emma Kennedy, agrees that it’s a failure in education that is to blame: “We are extremely concerned about the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK,” she says, “especially in young people. It is clear that some young people are not fully aware of the prevalence of STIs and how they can protect themselves.

"We fear that STI rates may continue to rise, particularly among young people, without increasing access to comprehensive sex and relationships education in all British schools.

"For sexually active couples, the most effective way to prevent STI transmission is to use a male or female condom.”

Maybe alcohol, too, is to blame. The first detailed study of the link between alcohol and risky sexual behaviour was published in 2007, and it found that 86% of the 520 subjects questioned   regularly exceeded the UK Government 'binge drinking' levels. 76% said that they had had unprotected sex as a result of drinking. 29% had an STI, and these patients drank 40% more on a weekly basis than those without an STI. Only 14% of men and 18% of women said that they always used a condom with a new sexual partner. 

The study concluded by saying that "76% of the women had experienced unprotected sex as a result of drinking” and that " we now have clear scientific evidence of the relationship. The government needs to reflect this link both in their sexual health and alcohol strategy - which at present seems not to link alcohol and sexual risk behaviour." 

Editor of the study, Professor Wallace Dinsmore, said: "The young people interviewed in this study frequently said that better access to condoms at the time and place they were needed would have enabled them to practise safer sex. Young people can get free condoms from their GPs, family planning and GU clinics but it might make more sense to give condoms away in pubs, clubs and taxis." 

So - what’s actually happening to change things?

So far, despite the resurfacing of the debate, the government has been infuriatingly quiet on the subject. Currently sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools (outside of biology) is not compulsory and guidelines have not been updated since 2000. Former PSHE teacher and author James Dawson says: “We simply give you facts with none of the emotional literacy. It’s no good telling you what gonorrhoea is unless we also tell you how to tackle the awkwardness of when a partner tries to convince you it’s OK to not use a condom because one of you is on the pill.”

On the up side, Bill and Melinda Gates are promising $100,000 to anyone who can enhance the condom experience and make it all a bit less latex-heavy. But we think that might take a while, and until then we can only advise you to do the sensible thing – make sure you’re always carrying a condom when you go on a night out, think of your health rather than succumbing to someone else as a priority (because, you know, it’s slightly more important)

If you do have unprotected sex (we’re not preaching here – it’s likely to happen), book an appointment with your local sexual health clinic as soon as possible. Because it really is better to be safe than sorry.

If you’re still feeling like you might let the condom slide next time you have sex, bear in mind that vital statistic once again – one in four people has picked up something nasty from doing exactly what you’re about to do. If you sleep with four people this year, one of them IS likely to have something questionable to pass on to you. Food for thought.  

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