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Thursday, 21 December, 2000, 11:10 GMT
Safe sex: Why isn't the message getting through?

Complacent attitudes towards safe sex are being blamed for a dramatic rise in the number of people infected with sexually-transmitted diseases.

According to official government figures, the number of cases in the UK is at its highest for ten years. The groups most at risk of infection are young women and gay men.

Public Health experts say the safe sex message doesn't appear to be getting through.

Why not? Have people become complacent about safe sex? What can be done to change this?

HAVE YOUR SAY The truth is that the "sexual revolution" has been a costly disaster. There is now more sex education than ever before (my teenage daughters say they are fed up with it) and contraception is freely available (I know, I'm a GP), yet the statistics are getting worse all the time. In the US the "true love waits" movement has had some success in reversing the disastrous, failed permissive sex experiment. Why isn't it possible to try something like that here?
SH, England

Maybe it's time to be less subtle in our educational approach. Anti-drink-driving campaigns have steadily become more graphic and much more real. These seem to have had an effect. Drink driving is no longer acceptable, the same needs to be done with unprotected sex. Youngsters need to SEE the effects, graphic pictures of the damage and consequences need to be shown. It's no good telling a teenager you might get a nasty disease, that means nothing; but if you show them pictures of bad infections, people suffering and dying in their own countries/areas then the message will get through.
Jeremy B, UK

An open attitude to sex is not responsible for creating this problem

Tim Saunders, UK
Banning sex from the screens and advertising hoardings will not solve this problem - an open attitude to sex is not responsible for creating this problem. What we need is an attitude towards sex which is as open as it is now, and more educated than it is now. That's the difference between the Netherlands and ourselves - parents and schools (and let's face it- it's their responsibility) there have successfully ensured that teenagers are more likely to be sensible and educated about sex and aren't so irresponsible about it. Whether Dutch teenagers are more likely to abstain/practise monogamy I don't know but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case.
Tim Saunders, UK

Women blame the men and the men blame the women. Usually it takes two to have sex so all that is needed is for one partner to say "No! Not without protection!" Or just plain "No!" would be better if they are not married! Old-fashioned - maybe. Sensible - definitely!
John C, Warwick, England

The comments so far have been interesting especially those about monogamy. STD's are a bi-product of our modern-day world, where there is peer pressure to sleep with a partner within a few dates - otherwise you're seen as frigid or abnormal. I think this conditioning is caused by the media and Hollywood to some extent that desensitises young minds at an impressionable age. I think the answer lies in education - not just on the health aspect but morality too!
Lisa Jane Bacon, England - living and working in Sydney

Monogamy and fidelity are a bit out of fashion, but then so is any form of conscience about right and wrong. This is the New Age in which we're supposed to be able to do as we like, but it seems to be getting us into more trouble than "getting rid of moralist hang-ups" got us out of. I suspect the message isn't getting through because the target audience isn't listening, and they aren't listening partially because in the New Age there is very little reason why they should, and partially because those sending the message have precious little credibility.

There was a huge amount of publicity about HIV and AIDS when I was a teenager. I also saw documentaries about people suffering and dying from AIDS. I took no chances from then on. Luckily I hadn't taken any before either. There were no teachings at school or from parents at the time, but that was enough to get the message across to me. I think showing youngsters the possible consequences of having unprotected sex could be an effective approach. If children (and adults) then choose to have unprotected sex with this awareness, what else can you do, unless it's on an individual-by-individual basis. Maybe schools could be visited by HIV/AIDS victims and given seminars. To some only the real thing is believable.
Elaine, UK

Why are we so defeatist about it?

Ken Beach, Germany
Campaigning for abstinence can work. Why are we so defeatist about it? If education is the answer, then at least tell the truth - if you have multiple partners, you may well catch a disease that is painful and will seriously affect you, and may lead to your death. Then if people carry on, you have to hand them over to the consequences. It is this "truth" that is missing in education because it doesn't sit easily with our modern notions of freedom.
Ken Beach, Germany

A return to Victorian moral standards as advocated by many contributors is not the answer. After all, many a monogamous Victorian wife died of the syphilis that her husband had caught from a prostitute. What we need to be emphasising is that condom use is an essential for protection against all sexually transmitted diseases. Women have to be confident enough to insist on condom use, and men need to get over their hang-ups about using condoms. This is where the practical educational efforts must be targeted, not in pointless moralistic crusades
E George, UK

Several years ago, there was an outcry in chemists shops and pharmaceutical labs all across France. The then government had decreed that condoms priced at 10 pence (1 Franc) should be available in all chemists. Condoms, especially good quality ones are very expensive in the UK. Yet I know that calling for their price to be slashed will only be interpreted by moral leaders as an incitement for under-age and others to have more sex.
Pascal Jacquemain, UK (French)

Morality is the problem, or rather the lack of it

Richard, England
Morality is the problem, or rather the lack of it - sex education only addresses the symptoms, not the cause. I find it ironic that this report on the increase in sexually transmitted diseases comes out so soon after the Government used the Parliament Act to force through a measure further removing protection from vulnerable youngsters.
Richard, England

It is not that the safe sex message isn't getting through to young adults, but the rise in alcohol consumption by them, that I think is to blame for this rise in sexual diseases. In particular, young women who have traditionally been regarded as sensible when it comes to using protection, are drinking more and this leads to more reckless behaviour by them.
Thom Lloyd, England

Safe sex practices need to be taught at school - maybe using real people's experiences to get the message across. For example, videos of people with sexually transmitted diseases being interviewed and giving their story on how this has affected their lives. I think people are complacent because they think it won't happen to them or because they can't relate to the reality of the consequences. Maybe by having real people talk about the reality might get the message across.
Mair, South Wales UK

As with smoking it would help if the movies and TV did not glamorise and actually pointed out the down side of these activities and go some way to reducing the peer pressure kids are under.
Bob, UK

Education has to begin with the family

Putting up a poster telling teenagers to have safe sex isn't going to solve this ever-increasing problem. Education has to begin with the family. Parents have not been setting the best example for today's youth. Instead we need to teach our children to wait until marriage AND tell them why. Sex is intended to be shared by a monogamous and married couple. Isn't our physical and emotional well being worth waiting for?

"Safe Sex"? 60 years ago, I remember The Daily Mirror and similar media types rabbiting on about the need to get rid of "Victorian attitudes". You are now reaping the whirlwind of such "unsafe opinions".
David, Canada

I grew up in South Africa where safe sex has been a major issue for a long time. I have always seen sexual intercourse synonymous with using a condom due to the fact that we were brain washed, from an early age, to practise safe sex.
Etienne, UK

Unfortunately, sex sells

Chris, UK
Until the media at large stops glorifying and glamorising the idea of promiscuity, removing complacency towards safe sex or monogamy will be difficult. Unfortunately, sex sells.
Chris, UK

Keeping to a single partner reduces the spread of STDs. Why isn't the Government keen to introduce gay marriage rather than keeping gays as outcasts in society?
Jim Watson, UK

I count myself lucky to belong to the generation that is young enough to have grown up with AIDS, but old enough to remember the Government ad campaigns. Casual sex is not the problem - you can have as many sexual partners as you want, as long as you protect yourself. Opting for one partner only as a means of protection is lunacy. Can you guarantee that they've done the same ? If in doubt, get a condom on!!
Gillian White, Scotland

Why blame youngsters for following suit?

Helen, UK
Sex (safe or otherwise) is actively promoted by a media who idolise the worst examples in our society. When teen-girl and boy-bands, footballers, rock stars and TV celebrities are looked on as icons for their unplanned pregnancies and shallow transient relationships, why blame youngsters for following suit? The countries who do not have a problem are those who still retain some moral value in long-term monogamous relationships.
Helen, UK

The main reason people use contraception is so they don't get pregnant. The problem stems from many women on the oral and injection pill. The pill won't stop diseases. If you don't know the person, then you don't know where they've been...
Alex White, UK

I started my sexual career in the pre-AIDS days of the late seventies and early eighties. The AIDS awareness advertising programs scared us all into using condoms, but as the years have gone by, I'm afraid I often slip back into bad old habits of having unprotected sex. I think there should be another advertising campaign to reinforce the earlier message and remind us that the threat hasn't gone away. Complacency could kill.
Richie, UK

The people who produce these appalling publications have a lot to answer for

Alastair Stevens, UK
Adam Lawrence is right. Forget any sort of "sex education" campaign. Until we rid our shelves of vast stacks of trashy, sex-obsessed and shockingly vulgar magazines aimed at teenagers, we're not going to achieve anything. The people who produce these appalling publications have a lot to answer for, and they know it. Stop giving people what they "want" - give them what's good for them.
Alastair Stevens, UK

There are obvious reasons why thousands of years of our societies ethics, and religions teachings, have been that sex is best kept monogamous and within a permanent relationship. And these reasons are becoming even more obvious as disease, unwanted pregnancies and more relationship breakdown results. The consistent message since the seventies (at least) has been that "greater openess and education is required" - but that is not working! And it's a worn out defence to keep on blaming the moralists for somehow interfering.
Dave H, Ex-pat in Belgium

Unfortunately, the one partner principle only works if both partners buy into it- I lived with a boyfriend for 3 years and still contracted an STD, despite being entirely monogamous. He obviously wasn't so responsible.

Better and more sex education

Angus Gulliver, UK
In countries like the USA where abstinence is advocated, the teenage pregnancy rate makes ours look very, very low. Better and more sex education with increased emphasis on how to prevent the spread of disease would be better. Teenagers will always have sex. We need to recognise this fact and educate those who wish to have sex to do so safely and responsibly.
Angus Gulliver, UK

I agree with HA, UK. In addition we should adopt a higher age for sexual consent, say 18 or 21, this WILL discourage unsafe sexual relationships with teenagers who are not mature enough to make such massive decisions.
Paul Taylor, UK

I was very upset to read today that children as young as 11 were being treated for STDs. This surely has gone too far. I myself am rather liberal with regard to my views of sexuality and the age of consent, but this really leaves me baffled. Education is a must, and it needs to be presented by someone respected by these children and not exclusively doctors and parents.
Michael Gahan, Ireland

Scare the hell out of people

It's very simple. Scare the hell out of people by running a campaign similar to the road traffic one in Australia and the smoking one in Canada. Show the reality of the consequences of actions. If people thought having sex (protected or not) could lead to a horrific and painful death then I for one would consider abstention.

I'm always bemused when the popular press gets its knickers in a twist (pardon the pun) over people's sexual habits. The very same people who have the horrors at the fact that too many young people take an irresponsible attitude towards sex are the first to complain whenever schools attempt to institute sex education programmes that deal with the realities of modern day sexual habits.
PS Telford, UK

Too many people are having too much pre-marital sex (if marriage is even considered) and sex at too young an age fullstop, regardless of whether it is safe or not. It's a simple question of morality as much as anything else. Are they not capable of expressing themselves in other ways? There is more sex education and available contraception than ever before yet the problem gets worse, as people's overall morality declines.
Tim, UK

It is ridiculous to expect the government to educate young people when their parents won't do that! I am American, my boyfriend is British. He never had a conversation about sex with his parents. He was 25 when I met him and had 28 lovers before me. He was not the least familiar with any kind of birth control, wouldn't use a condom, would not pitch money for buying my birth control pills ("no girl would ever ask me in England!"). He had had unprotected sex with girls in night clubs in England 10 minutes after meeting them. He is a wonderful guy, but the stories he has about teenagers' sex lives in England make me literally sick in the stomach.
Gabrielle, San Francisco, USA

Safe sex is the politically correct thing, and that's all it is

J. Thiry, Germany
The thing is, many people are not convinced unprotected sex is as dangerous as officials sources would have them believe. Indeed many are even suspicious of official campaigns about safe sex, and rightly so. They know that throughout history, the powers that be have tried to control people's sexual activities - while indulging themselves, of course. Why would things be different nowadays?
Safe sex is the politically correct thing, and that's all it is.
J. Thiry, Germany

As the saying goes "Better to be safe than sorry". I think that in order to prevent the sexual ailments in question, young people need to be well equipped with a plausible sex education in a bid to remain happy and healthy.
Abdullah, Oman

In response to Wendy, UK:
I have to say, in my experience it is women, not men, who are complacent about safe sex. All my male friends and I constantly have a battle trying to get our partners to suit up. It's as though once the little head takes over, logic goes out the window and they think you're just trying to ruin their fun!
Peter, UK

The "message" isn't getting through because too many governmental bodies have a vested interest in "managing" AIDS. All they can do is reduce the rate of incidence of AIDS in a population. Unfortunately, we do not die as populations - but as individuals.
Bob Hamrick, USA

As a teen we learn the hard way, that's unfortunate, but it's the truth

Alex Frey, USA
I do not think many of you understand. Why don't the programs at schools for safe sex work? As a 16-year-old I know why. The people who sit there and tell us to not have sex until we are married are the same ones, who years ago, ran out and exploited people, got STD's and didn't use condoms, and all this when they were not married.
No matter how much you fill our brains, you will never ever be able to get through until you can tell us "I did not have sex till I was married." and "I always use a condom". As a teen we learn the hard way, that's unfortunate, but it's the truth. We don't learn from others mistakes, but we will do what has been done before.
Alex Frey, USA

Safe sex is like a "safe cigarette". The only true safe sex is no sex. Both can kill, but not as quickly. When will people wake up ?
Tom Vannini, USA

During the 80's we were sensible enough to keep electing a government that brought a campaign of sex education to our television screens. They were ridiculed for taking this responsible action. The current government has decided not to continue the safe sex advertisements and this is at the cost of lives and health. The youth of today do not have the safe sex message broadcast to them and there is no good reason why the campaign should not be bought back, it was the right thing to do. I want my four children to live long, rewarding and safe lives. If this means the government spending a few million quid on sex education broadcasts, then for the sake of the children: SPEND THE MONEY!
C J Hendrick, Sri Lanka

I have to say, in my experience it is men, not women, who are complacent about safe sex. I and all my female friends constantly have a battle trying to get our partners to suit up. It's as though once the little head takes over, logic goes out the window and they think you're just trying to ruin their fun!
Wendy, UK

I think maybe a different approach from the "scare" one of the 80s is necessary now

Li, USA, ex-Ireland
During the AIDS campaign of the 80s, I was approaching puberty. It really did instil fear in me, and I have always been extremely careful about sex. I've enjoyed myself, but never allowed myself to take risks. I'm sure this had a similar effect on many other young people. I think maybe a different approach from the "scare" one of the 80s is necessary now, but sticking the message right in young people's faces is what needs to be done.
Li, USA, ex-Ireland

Why are we always blaming the Government and expecting them to solve all of societies problems on one hand - and then complaining that we have a Nanny State on the other? Surely everyone must know of the risks they take with unprotected sex just as they know the risks involved in smoking? The message is there but as usual, people ignore it.
Gill, UK

More information should be relayed around to people, in some kind of advertisement, like they do for cigarettes and other things, that if you do not take care of yourself nobody will, think twice before having sex without a condom! People should be made more aware of the dangers of sexual diseases as some are really in the dark.
May Kabanda, UK

Fear as a tool to achieve what an individual or organisation is wrong, very wrong

G White, UK
I got the impetus to write after reading Phil Saum's comment. Scare people about sex! That is an outrageous form of repression. Fear as a tool to achieve what an individual or organisation is wrong, very wrong. It is a tool used by dictators, religious fanatics and control freaks. If a so-called civilised society has no resort to achieving its aims by fear, then the society is not civilised at all. Informed choice. Truth and facts. Leave people to make their own decisions armed with the correct knowledge. True, we don't want a proliferation of STDs - we have to do something. But controlling people by fear demeans democratic choice.
G White, UK

With the constant barrage of sexually suggestive advertising to sell the most diverse of products, girls magazines aimed at 14 year olds telling them how to keep their boyfriends happy, and the likes of role-models like DJ Sarah Cox talking about other men as a "great shags" should anybody be surprised at these figures?.
Adam Lawrence, UK

This government is making morning after contraception even easier! All this has done is result in more teenage pregnancies, abortions and sexual disease. Government needs to bite the bullet and have an ethical personal sexual relationship policy. I suggest it starts with giving abstinence and marriage automatic tax allowances. It will save the country money and reduce this unnecessary misery and cost. Especially that spent on these morally bankrupt, self interested, medical service providers who would not be needed.

This problem has always been with us, its not a modern thing

B Thompson, UK
This problem has always been with us, its not a modern thing. For Gods sake, some very famous people in history have died from Syphilis. At least today we have the medical know-how to easily deal with it. What's so bad about promiscuity, staying with one partner for life is boring. I'm not convinced Human Beings are naturally monogamous anyway - in fact all the evidence is against it.
B Thompson, UK

Julian Haywood: condoms can break, yes...
but fall off?
Are you sure you're an Englishman?
Simon Gould, English in Germany

STD's, promiscuity, unwanted pregnancies, alcohol and drug abuse, family break-down, child abuse, homelessness, petty crime, violence, vandalism, low productivity etc etc. While each one of these deserves our attention, we also need to realise that they are all symptoms of a general social and moral decay. The UK, as with many countries, appears to be battling to fill the vacuum that's been created as traditional values and institutions have been swept away. It is time to promote a re-discovery of morality at all levels of society, a sense of worth, identity and pride as individuals and as a community. There is no quick-fix.
Chris Meyer, South Africa

Education is the only long-term option. Look at Holland, which has some of the most open and frank sex education courses (and general attitude to sex), and yet has the lowest teen pregnancy and STD rate in the western world. Don't try and imagine STDs weren't a problem amongst other generations either.
Paul, Netherlands

As somebody said the ice age is over

Mandi, England
You can not tell young children whose hormones are bursting, that one partner is the answer to safe sex. As somebody said the ice age is over. Advertising in Youth Magazines and TV will be the only time a young child/teenager will listen. Start the campaign at a level so as not to scare before the watershed and then hit the older children hard after the watershed. Tombstones don't work but pictures showing what you look like when infected might hit the vanity factor. I have two children, one of them has just turned seventeen and although we have a very open attitude to sex (I have always promoted Durex) I still worry about the fact that this is a growing problem.
Mandi, England

We know we should use condoms - we just don't do it. I think we should look to South Africa where hundreds of NGOs are developing and having success with projects aimed at getting word to action and promoting not only spreading knowledge, but also change of behaviour.
Vegard Hole, Norway

Comments like those given by HA are not really helpful. Today's teens and young people, like all teens since the 60's are not interested in hearing this message. We need to ensure that they are aware of other prevention methods such as condoms and are aware of the consequences if barrier methods are not used.
Steve, UK

Drunk yes, ignorant no!

Andrew Reid, London, UK
The problem, like many others in the UK today is drink related. The government needs to spend more time on discouraging binge drinking and we may see a drop in related problems such as unsafe sex and street violence. I do not believe that in this day and age people are ignorant about safe sex. Drunk yes, ignorant no!
Andrew Reid, London, UK

We have clear evidence that people who have numerous sexual partners are at higher risk from disease. We also know that a long-term monogamous relationship represents about as low a risk as you can get. Government insist that telling kids to use a flimsy piece of rubber every time, as long as they can find one, they don't forget and don't get bullied because "it spoils it for me", they'll be OK. It's not entirely surprising this is happening.
John B, UK

I try to be liberal minded about issues, but I really think people are complacent about sex. Britain has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies as it is. This point alone is not being heeded - let alone the point about STDs. I'm not sure that allowing the Morning After pill to be readily available over the counter is such a good idea - it might prevent unwanted pregnancies, but it could encourage people to have sex without any contraception, leading to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.
Anna, UK

There's never going to be a way to stop young people experimenting with sex (without tying them to a tree until they're 21)

Steve Mac, England
There's never going to be a way to stop young people experimenting with sex (without tying them to a tree until they're 21). However we must keep them informed of the risks. When I was growing up we had what seemed like millions of AIDS and STD adverts on TV. You'd have to be stupid not to know the risks of unprotected sex. I enjoyed my teenage years, but never took risks. Nowadays the government leaves it to schools and parents to inform children, but since when have kids listen to them? The government must pull its finger out and use the most powerful information tool in the world, the TV, to reverse this terrible trend.
Steve Mac, England

"Safe sex" is synonymous with "educated sex": until we teach our children and teenagers to treat themselves and sex with respect both STDs and unwanted pregnancies will continue to increase. Better sex education is paramount. The answer is not to attempt to exert control over the personal choices of the individual, but to promote individual responsibility in making those choices.
Hannah, UK

Really, is this such a surprise? Our teenagers seem to be running wild with little parental/adult guidance, sex is constantly glorified on TV and the message that seems to be filtering through is that it's OK for us to live our lives in whatever way we want! No one seems to talk about responsibility and the consequences of one's actions, life is just about being as hedonistic as possible! Well, as the saying goes, you reap what you sow!
Farah, UK

For once, I think some elements of the media have got it bang on. The AIDS campaign of the 80s instilled real fear into my generation, to the extent that most of us wouldn't even consider sex with a stranger without a condom.
However, nearly a decade has gone by since that excellent public education program. The government carried on educating people about drink driving, which is excellent, but forgot about STDs. We need another advertising campaign post-haste. It works. We now know that for sure.
Phil Saum, UK

My Personal Education teacher at school always told us that safe sex is no sex at all. The idea of safe sex is also not helped by pornography and the media (esp. Hollywood).
Stuart Bowlerwell, UK

The term "safe sex" lies at the very heart of the problem. There is, quite simply, no such thing

Julian Hayward, UK
The term "safe sex" lies at the very heart of the problem. There is, quite simply, no such thing - condoms can break or fall off, other devices can fail, infection can be spread via other parts of the body. There are ways of keeping the risks small, but we cannot overcome them altogether. Would we allow, say, low-tar cigarettes to be marketed as "safe" simply because there is a more dangerous alternative?
Julian Hayward, UK

Look into the history and look at our parents way of life. Did they have boy/girlfriend every other month? I kind a doubt that! The problem with STD will always be there unless we start to living with one and only one person. That's the most safest way to avoid them. Furthermore, more education is necessary for young generation to understand the pros and cons of having early sex. Take US for example and learn how we have managed to reduce the risks of STD's.
Riz, USA

I don't know why safe sex, is not understood by teenage people. I thought that they were taught sex education at school. This should cover foreplay, intercourse, pregnancy, STD's, relationships and parenthood.
Colin, Netherlands

We need a campaign that will cross cut all society. The government is not doing much about it

Steve Carr, London, UK
One partner for life eh? Marriage? You really think that will stop HIV and STD's from spreading? Like, hello ... what century are we all living in? Narrow-mindedness and blinkered vision does not solve this problem. Targeting safe sex messages to particular groups will not help either. We need a campaign that will cross cut all society. The government is not doing much about it. And please, Mr Blair - no more tombstones eh? That didn't work either.
Steve Carr, London, UK

It has been said time and time again that the way to prevent STDs is to stay with one partner for ever. Call it marriage or what ever you like. Until we except that it is promiscuity which spreads STDs and actively campaign against "random sex" the problem will always be with us.

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