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Free condoms would help reduce the ill effects of sexual ignorance
Irish Examiner 22/06/2007

by Diarmaid Ferriter

I have frequently heard my parents' generation express astonishment at the high level of unplanned and crisis pregnancies in contemporary Ireland.
Their puzzlement is understandable; from their perspective, there were hard-fought battles from the 1960s onwards for a liberalisation of the laws relating to contraception, battles that were eventually won, meaning younger people would presumably be less likely to find themselves surprised by pregnancy.

But it has become clear that greater access to contraception and information about sex does not automatically result in greater care being taken or the eradication of confusion, ignorance and mistakes when it comes to sexual activity.

Every year, the Crisis Pregnancy Agency releases reports that make for sobering reading in relation to sexual behaviour, as do the reports of the National Disease Surveillance Centre in relation to sexually transmitted infections. Nor is this just an issue for women and young people.

This week, for example, a report from the Crisis Pregnancy Agency suggests that boys need to be educated much earlier about sex, pregnancy and safe patterns of sexual behaviour, and that condoms should be promoted from first sexual activity and made more widely available.

The men who were consulted for this survey were aged betwen 18 and 57 and had experience of a partner's crisis pregnancy.

While it was clear that "men under 35 years of age demonstrated a growing liberalisation of sexual attitudes and behaviour", men of all ages spoke of a lack of open sex education to prepare them when they were growing up, and een to some extent as adults.

A fifth of them never worried about using contraception. Another finding was that some men are still embarrassed to ask for condoms in shops. There are easy ways to counteract such bashfulness; in a supermarket in Belgium last year I saw a small basket at the end of each checkout that contained free condoms.

In Ireland the cost of condoms, and the retention of VAT on them, is a farce. They should be free.

People may desagree on whether or not condoms are more important than education in preventing sexually transmitted diseases; the simple answer is that both have a part to play.

We have surely moved beyond the mindset that produced a headline in the Irish Catholic newspaper in 1974, when the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government was countenancing legislation on contraception: "How can any TD smooth the way towards the spread of VD?"

Everyone, of course, has sex education anecdotes; the reliance on the supposedly more streetwise classmates at the back of the bike shed, the embarrassed biology teachers who sought to skip particular pages dealing with impregnation and parents too embarrassed to confront the subject. A craving for information goes to the heart of all such anecdotes, but the infomation is still, it appears, not being fully imparted in contemporary Ireland.

As a schoolboy in the 1980s, I found Hot Press magazine - now celbrating its 30th anniversary - to be invaluable in this regard not just because its articles on sex were informative, irreverent and written in a language a teenager could relate to, but because it had a problem page in which you could discover that whatever fears, doubts and confusion you had, you were not alone, and your feas were entirely normal. Such reassurance is vital to young people coming to terms with their sexuality.

It was more difficult for the previous generation; they could, if they wished, write to agony aunt Angela McNamara in the Sunday Press about how far they could advance their sexual appetite in the absence of contraceptives.

A typical reply from 1963 was in response to a question concerning abstention from sex. According to Angela, the best thing to do was to compare the appetite for sex with the appetite for food. Both, she wrote, were "natural appetites". If you felt hungry, you got food, cooked it "and a climax of pleasure is reached when you eat it".

If you liked meat, she continued, you could buy a steak and cook it appetisingly, but if you were on a diet and forbidden meat, you would be ill as a result of breaking your diet. If you decided not to eat it, you would experience the disappointment of a frustrated climax, but you would not be ill. The same, she said, applied to sex.

It is easy now to sneer at Angela McNamara's convoluted replies, but that would be to do her a disservice, and divorce here from the environment in which she was writing and the strict moral code that was a feature of that era. Ms McNamara was in fact pushing out boundaries; the very fact that she was addressing these issues in the Sunday Press and in schools, however tame here replies now seem, was a brave new departure, and she understood that teenage hormones were not to be scoffed at or ignored. It was also significant that she was a woman. For decads, far too much of the debate about contraception and sexuality was controlled by men. In a contribution to a debate about liberalising the contraception laws in the 1980s, Senator Michael O'Toole, in decrying any such reform, made the following unintentionally hilarious interjection: "I come from a part of the country where we have our own natural family planning methods and they have worked reasonably well up to now. I have eight children. I know something about the subject."

By the following decade those of us interested in the wider availibility of contraceptives sensed that the wind was behind us. In my second year at college in 1990, during the presidential election campaign, I recall defiantly placing a poster of Mary Robinson above an illegal condom machine in the students' union corridor. Two symbols of the futrure, I smugly thought. Maybe they were, but what did not cross my mind to the same extent was the degree to which, whatever about greater availibility, there were other factors that would continue to complicate attitudes to contraception, including excessive drinking, drug abuse and lack of knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.

In another study carried out for the Crisis Preganancy Agency a few years ago, 45% of men and 26% of women agreed that drink had resulted in them having sex without contraception. By the early years of this century, figures from the National Disease Surveillance Centre were alarming: in 2001, 9,703 sexually transmitted infections were notified. In 2002, the figure rose to 10,471. There was a further 5% increase between 2002 and 2003. The dramatic increases have been going on since the 1990s; the figures jumped by 157% between 1994 and 2002, and by 370% between 1989 and 2002.

According to data collected by the Well Woman Centre, the incidence of sexually transmitted infections among those aged over 50 also increased. These are not just problems associated with the recless abandonment of youth and they need to be addressed.