I have a vague recollection of a television programme on BBC1 at 8pm one Friday night when the presenter took a condom and slipped it on a dildo saying: “If you’re going to have a shag, make sure you put a johnny on your dick, like this.”
It was some time in the eighties – about the time when health researchers were issuing doomsday predictions about the spread of Aids. The Government – going against its Thatcherite anti-sex instincts – gave the go-ahead for the BBC to devote an uninhibited evening to public education on HIV and how to avoid it.
After this, together with a leaflet drop to every household in the land and a series of TV ads featuring tottering tombstones and the phrase “don’t die of ignorance”, there could be no-one in the whole country who didn’t know that safer sex, with condoms, could save your life.
Maybe because of the success of that campaign, the death toll in Britain ran into thousands rather than the millions that had been foretold, and the politicos lost interest. But at least a whole generation was armed with the knowledge they needed.
Now a new generation of sexually active citizens have arrived, and they didn’t see the tombstone’s crashing down or hear Claire Rayner telling us how to have a good, safe fuck. And since that time, there has been the miracle of anti-retroviral drugs that have made Aids – for the time being, at least – a containable condition.
In the eighties most of us had friends who succumbed to HIV. That doesn’t happen so much today. Those infected with HIV can live with it, albeit very uncomfortably, aided by these new medications. And so the generation who didn’t see the tombstones are also not having to go to the funerals of their best friends.
The consequence is that 2,942 people found that they were HIV positive in 1999, as compared with 2,761 in 1998.
Research into why young people are not very interested in practising safer sex yields more questions than answers. Is it that they are just plain ignorant about how disease spreads or how condoms work? Is it that they think HIV and other sexually transmitted infections happen to other people – dirty people – and not to them? Do they think that because there are now drugs that suppress HIV that it is no longer a fatal infection? Is it because they ingest so much booze and drugs that inhibition and common sense or – even taking responsibility – have become alien concepts to them?
As The Guardian reported: “Sexually transmitted diseases are rampaging through the UK unchecked as a new generation of young people fail to protect themselves.”
According to a report from the British Medical Association, cases of HIV/Aids, gonorrhoea and syphilis have soared by almost 300,000 cases between 1995 and 2000.
There have been syphilis “hotspots” identified in different parts of the country – namely north London, Manchester and Brighton. The worst place was Manchester, and around three quarters of the cases there were young gay or bisexual men, typically in their twenties or early thirties. The heterosexual clusters were mostly linked with overseas contacts. As The Guardian said: “What the outbreaks told public health officials was that fear of Aids was dissipating.”
Many of the gay men in Manchester were not practising safer sex, even though some had HIV.
As one spokesperson said “More research is needed in to why people are not heeding safer sex advice, particularly in relation to unprotected anal sex.”
Of course, there are some people who know the answer without the need for research. One of these is Lynette Burrows, the “family values” harridan who never tires of telling us that we must STOP IT THIS INSTANT!
Writing in The Daily Telegraph about these latest figures she says that it is all the fault of permissive sex education. If people hadn’t been “seduced” by progressively more explicit information about their bodies and their carnal desires, they wouldn’t be tempted to have sex so early and with so many people.
But she is in something of a cleft stick with her argument. On the one hand she says too much knowledge simply makes young people curious about sex and anxious to “experiment”, but on the other she says: “Their biggest problem at the moment is that they are almost completely ignorant of the risks of casual sex, having been reassured since primary school that science can make it safe.”
She then goes on to talk about the failure rate of condoms, which she claims is 15 per cent. If condoms fail sometimes, goes her logic, then they are no good as a means of protection from disease and children shouldn’t be told (or “misinformed”) that they are.
Well, where do we go after that with Ms Burrows argument? Doesn’t even her 15 per cent claimed failure rate mean an 85 per cent success rate? Surely these are better odds than not knowing about condoms at all. And If Lynette Burrows seriously thinks that the majority of young people are going to join the ridiculous “just say no” chastity movement that some churches are pushing, she’s barmier than even I thought she was.
And anyway, that doesn’t work either, as Simon Blake of the Sex Education Forum pointed out in a letter to The Daily Telegraph. The figures for teenage pregnancy in the USA, where the so-called abstinence programmes are most prominent, are exactly the same in the 1990s as they were in the 1970s.
Much better, says Simon Blake, to acknowledge “the reality of young people’s lives today, enabling them to develop the skills they need to manage those lives.”
The “reality” of a lot of young gay men’s experience is that they start their sex lives without any support and very little knowledge. They think that their parents and friends and siblings will not approve of their sexual preferences, so they keep their relationships secret and conduct their sexual lives clandestinely. Anybody who has worked in this area will tell you what trouble these young people can get themselves into when they are being exploited by older people or living a life stressed out by guilt and constant fear of disapproval.
The damage that this kind of start to a sex life can have on people’s self-image, their confidence, their health and the way they value themselves can be profound. Reckless behaviour becomes normal – even more reckless than the young straight men and women who are also starting their sexual lives earlier and earlier. And because the number of partners that are available to gay men – particularly in smaller towns – is restricted, sex diseases can rampage through the community like a bush fire.
It’s generally accepted that scare tactics don’t work. Because teenagers don’t see any evidence of it in their own lives, simply telling them that they could die if they don’t look after their sexual health won’t work. How can you have a good time when you’re messing about with johnnies? That sort of thing is for the old folk.
There is no incentive to find out the facts about STDs, let alone do anything about them.
So how do we get round this lack of interest in having a responsible sex life?
David Aaronovitch in The Independent is certain that franker and earlier sex education is the only way forward. He says that we live in a highly sexualised culture, but not an educated one. “Unbelievably”, he says, as a by-product of the schizoid Tory years, “parents have the option to withdraw their kids from school sex education… and maintained schools have the right to provide no more sex education than the bare minimum currently specified in the national curriculum.”
He suggests that: “TV and newspapers have a special responsibility, for we are the people who actually tell the kids what sex is. The BBC had an NHS day, and it wasn’t bad. Now we need a similar sexual health day, with the same kind of billing. Or else we should give up moaning, and surrender the young to the diseases that some of us were too stupid to avoid.”
But we can’t give them up – not to HIV. We must keep trying. Let’s have another plain-talking evening on TV like the one I saw in the 80s – and another and another. The ghastly “family values” loonies, though, seem to have the Government in thrall so there is little hope of this happening in the near future.
Mike Bor – who was once principal examiner at the British Board of Film Classification – made another practical suggestion in a letter to The Independent. “Over 600 hard-core porn video titles (R18s) have been passed by the BBFC in the last year. If one really wanted to warn the British about unprotected sex, one could advise the BBFC to pass only videos which features porn actors using some form of protection for transmitted diseases.”
This is an excellent idea, and the BBFC should act on it immediately. Not only should the porn actors be seen to be using condoms, they should be seen to be putting them on.
If condoms could be eroticised and made into objects of desire in their own right, then we might make some progress.