British people have something of a reputation for being reserved, especially when it comes to talking about sex and relationships. While some parts of society, especially the media, can feel very sexualised, we know that lots of people still feel awkward when it comes to talking openly about sex and sexual health.
The Family Planning Association (FPA) runs Sexual Health Week in the UK each September. To prepare for this year’s campaign, we carried out a survey of 2,000 people* to find out what they knew and thought about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), testing and condom use. The UK has some of the highest STI rates in Europe and we still don’t have statutory comprehensive sexuality education (CSE).
The results of our survey were shocking, but perhaps not surprising. Nearly one-third (31%) said they thought it is easier to have sex than to talk about it. Further, more than two-thirds (68%) told us they had never had an STI test, and more than one-quarter (26%) of 16-24-year-olds told us they had avoided an STI test out of embarrassment.
Stigma around STIs and sex is clearly still having an impact on people’s attitudes, and in some cases may be leading to poorer health outcomes.
So for Sexual Health Week this year we decided to take a back to basics look at STIs, in the hope that people who don’t feel particularly confident about their knowledge and options will be able to find evidence-based information, like we provide through our website, patient information leaflets and projects. We particularly want to help people overcome barriers they experience to using condoms and getting tested.
Condoms are widely available and in many cases for free, but some people still see them as a barrier to enjoying sex, and much more work needs to be done to set condoms in the context of pleasurable sex. We heard through the survey that some people think that women buying and carrying condoms is taboo, an attitude we want to banish. It is of course everyone’s responsibility to look after their sexual health, and everyone has a right to enjoy safer sex.
In the UK, people can access sexual health services in many different places, including clinics, general practices, pharmacies and increasingly online services, but many people may not be aware of their options. We have chosen signposting these choices as one of the main themes of the week, so even if people are too embarrassed to visit a service in person, or they don’t want to bump into someone they know in the waiting room of their family doctor, they know there are other options.
Although it is really important to make testing as simple as possible, we also need to look at the stigma that still surrounds sex, especially when it can stop people from accessing help when they need it.
CSE is incredibly important to tackling discomfort when it comes to talking about sex. We support IPPF’s Know It, Own It campaign because sex and relationships education in the UK just isn’t consistently effective at the moment. Our current education system means only certain schools have to teach CSE, and even then they only have to cover the bare minimum about the science of infections and reproduction. While some schools do a good job, it effectively leaves young people in a postcode lottery for how their sex education will be.
Only 9% of the people in our Sexual Health Week survey said they learned how to confidently talk to a partner about using condoms at school, and only 8% learned about dealing with situations where a partner puts pressure on you to have sex without using a condom.
CSE has a central role to play in empowering young people to make informed choices about their own sexual health and wellbeing and FPA will continue to campaign for their rights until they are universally acknowledged.
FPA’s Find a clinic tool can help you to find your local services in the UK
Our Sexual Health Week campaign page includes the full results of our survey, practical tips for health professionals and members of the public, and the facts behind some common STI and condom myths.
Laura Russell, sexual health charity FPA’s senior policy and public affairs officer.
*Survey of 2,079 people in the UK aged 16+ who have ever been sexually active. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from Atomik Research. Fieldwork was undertaken between 27 July and 1 August 2016. The survey was carried out online. The survey was representative of all UK people aged 16 and over.