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Are we directing sex education in the wrong places?

Published : Friday February 3, 2012 | Posted in : Sexual Health
Old couple in bed

The issue of sex education has been in the news a lot recently, thanks in no small part to the campaign fronted by the MP Nadine Dorries, which advocated teaching abstinence to young people in a bid to curb numbers of teen pregnancy and STIs. As controversial as this particular campaign proved to be, there is no denying the fact that the rising rates of STIs in the UK are troubling. A recent report from the magazine Student BMJ has added to the debate with the news that STI rates among over-45s are becoming a huge concern.

The report detailed a series of worrying statistics relating to a number of different STIs, all of which have increased significantly amongst this age group. While instances of infection of chlamydia and genital herpes increased b y more than double over a ten year period, cases of syphilis have increased by a staggering 337%, according to the Daily Mail. What could be to blame for these increases? There are several possibilities.

1. Rising divorce rates

This is a likelihood put forward by the Daily Mail, who state the theory as fact both in the headline and the article’s copy. They claim that STIs are “soaring” in this age group “because rising divorce rates mean more older people are having unprotected sex”. Yes, this is a possibility, but an unproven and untested one. Some form of a causal link may be found between rising divorce rates and increased STI diagnoses in over-45s, but it is misleading to suggest this is the only reason. If nothing else, the theory entirely ignores the fact that divorced individuals are just as capable of using contraception as married couples and unmarried individuals at a younger age. Surely this lack of adequate contraception is the real issue here, rather than divorce rates?

2. Lack of contraception

This brings me to what I consider to be the real problem. Rising divorce rates may be a moral concern for some individuals, but they have no bearing on whether or not anyone is having unprotected sex. Anyone engaging in sexual intercourse with a new partner should use the right kind of contraception, regardless of their age or marital status. The fact is that so many older people have clearly failed to do this and so the question should be why this is the case. It seems clear that ignorance has some kind of a role to play here. Are older people unaware of the risk of STIs? Do they erroneously believe STIs are a problem only for younger generations?

3. A geriatric sex epidemic fuelled by Viagra

If you happened to glance at a certain headline in the Daily Express this morning, you’d be forgiven for believing the possibility stated above. Despite the attention-grabbing headline (“Viagra-fuelled over-40s are in the grip of sex epidemic”), the actual article does little to support such claims. Though statistics show that men taking impotence prescription medications like Viagra are more likely to receive an STI diagnosis in the first year of treatment, this is surely again due to a lack of understanding about the importance of contraception. It is nonsensical to state that the rise of STIs is actually because of the medications. It is perfectly possible to use Viagra and have sex without catching a sexually transmitted infection.

So what can be done to improve these worrying figures? Informed and comprehensive sex education seems to be the answer once again. Rather than attempting to demonise those who divorce or those who continue to have sex at an older age, efforts should be made to ensure the safety of those that do. The original report in Student BMJ suggested that part of the responsibility lies with GPs, who are the first point of contact in regards to health - and, by extension, sexual health - for most adults and can therefore provide important information relating to sex education. This may not be a complete solution to the problem, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

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