Often, when confronted with a problem, it is easier to choose an appealing but ultimately futile solution, rather than determine and tackle the real cause - there is always a sexy option. So is the case with our response to our STI and unplanned pregnancy crisis.
Between 1995 and 2006 there has been a trebling of STI cases in Ireland, while in the last decade cases of Chlamydia have skyrocketed eightfold. True figures are almost certainly far higher as many infections go undiagnosed. It goes without saying that our recently liberated sexual culture has also had massive implications for children and our notion of what a family is.
The last Census in 2006 counted 189,213 one parent families. This means that well over 189, 213 children is this country do not live with both their father and mother, usually the former.
And of course, we all know the answer to this growing crisis, don’t we? More condoms! Condoms for all! Free for every man, woman and child!
Hold on a minute. The sale of condoms here was fully deregulated 15 years ago, and yet STI rates have not so much as remained steady, but in fact risen astronomically. In the historically more liberal UK, they have the highest teen pregnancy rates in Western Europe. Some will argue that this is due to ignorance surrounding contraception, but the 1993 Education Act made sex education in UK schools statutory.
In other words, something is clearly amiss in the debate on how to tackle the problem. While organisations such as the Dublin AIDS Alliance and The Irish Family Planning Association constantly advocate so-called safe sex as the means out of our own STI epidemic, a larger, more vital element of the debate is constantly ignored.
That is the issue of our values and attitudes regarding sex.
Look, in my altogether limited experience I know of two occasions personally, and another a friend told me of, where the girl involved was perfectly willing to have unprotected sex (my friend and I graciously declined). It is also worth pointing out that in the first two incidences both girls were completely sober. Now, what this tells us is not that there needs to be a greater availability of condoms, or a reduction in their cost, but that there is a shockingly blasé attitude to sex among many people. That isn’t to say that women are more culpable than men; I am speaking only from experience (I am one of those quaint, old-fashioned fellows who only swings one way, so I wouldn’t know much about the joys of having a man between the sheets).
The point here isn’t that no one had a condom to hand – people will always be caught unprepared on occasion – but that these girls, who really had so much more to lose than any man ever could, were happy to take such a stupid and irresponsible risk. People in Ireland 30 years ago didn’t have access to contraception, but they didn’t contract the myriad of exotically-named infections on the scale we do today. They didn’t bring so many children who will never know their father into the world either. Clearly, what kept them from the predicament we now face was their attitude to sex and the value they placed on it. Now the sentiment seems to be if you wear condom anything is acceptable. It no longer matters who you have sex with, when, or why.
Now, of course I know that the Ireland of yesteryear was apparently bleak and repressive, a land where the local priest roamed, village by village, striking down the peasantry with biblical versus of fire and brimstone. We’ve heard all that, I know no one wants to go back, and I’m not suggesting we should. But why can’t progress and the wisdom of the past co-exist? I also know that the sexual and social revolution, from which much good admittedly has come, is a sacred cow for most of the media in this country. But it must not go unquestioned.
Perhaps there is much to be learned from the gravity that previous generations attached to sex. The meaning that they gave to sex was more powerful in so many ways than any contraceptive. When sex became meaningless and casual, contraception alone could not stop the rise of STIs because self control and restraint became redundant, while risk-taking became inevitable. When something becomes easily obtained and is demystified, why suffer the annoyance of its refusal, irrespective of the circumstances? And what about when contraceptives fail? Condoms have a 3% failure rate when used correctly - try selling trips abroad where the flights crash only 3% of the time.
Perhaps our attitudes to sex are just another product of our consumerist culture where saying ‘no’ simply isn’t an option anymore. Whatever the case may be, we are going to need a lot more than simply condoms to shake us out of our current sexual health crisis. Instant gratification is the dogma which we now live by and no piece of latex will ever change that.