FPA on Sexual Health Week and STIs in the 21st century

This week is Sexual Health Week, a campaign which we're supporting for our second year. This year we've invited the campaign founder, sexual health charity, FPA, to explain a bit more about this year's theme and their new research, which shows why Sexual Health Week is still needed to start national conversations on safe and pleasurable sex...

The impact of new technology on our sexual health, and whether it is a good or a bad thing, is a pretty divisive issue.

We know that new technology can increase opportunities for people to access information and support about sexual health, and it can help make screening and treatment easy and convenient through online services.

At the same time, lots of column inches have been dedicated to asking if apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, are responsible for us having more sexual partners and/or more unprotected sex.

The truth is that we still don’t really know if dating or hook-up apps are even partially contributing to sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates. Research conducted internationally has shown that app use is associated with an increased number of partners and (in some studies) an increase in sex without a condom.

However, we still don’t know whether apps actually encourage unprotected sex, or if they just make it easier to set up encounters that people would still have sought out in a different way for example, by going to a club.

Concerns about STI rates are not unfounded – in the UK we still have higher rates than other countries in Western Europe and, while young people and men who have sex with men are most at risk of infections, people of all ages who are sexually active need to know how they can keep themselves safe.

For Sexual Health Week this year (12–18 September) we’re taking a back to basics approach to STIs with the hope that people who don’t feel particularly confident about what they know and understand, will take a look at the evidence-based information that is out there, like on our website. We particularly want to help people tackle barriers they are experiencing to condom use and getting tested.

In a survey* we have carried out for Sexual Health Week, more than two-thirds (68%) said they had never had an STI test, and more than one-quarter of 16-24-year-olds told us they had avoided an STI test out of embarrassment.

There are so many options available when it comes to testing now, there is hopefully somewhere for everyone to get the help they need. For some young people, especially if it’s difficult to find time or pluck up the courage to visit a clinic, digital services which offer a home testing service are a great option.

Of course it’s not just about making it easier for people to get tested in a way that suits them, though that is really important. We need to also look at the stigma which still surrounds sexual health, not just with infections, but also around sex in general, even though we all know it’s a really pleasurable thing most of us like to do.

In our survey, around one-third of people said they think it is easier to just have sex than to talk about it – it’s something we come across quite a lot at FPA, even some couples who have been together for years can find it difficult to talk about what they like or don’t like, or have conversations about condoms or safer sex.

An obvious solution, but which the government continues to ignore, would be to have statutory sex and relationships education in the UK, through which young people would be able to develop the skills that they need to discuss condom use. Only 9% of the people we surveyed said they learnt how to confidently talk to a partner about using condoms at school, and only 8% learnt about dealing with situations where a partner puts pressure on you to have sex without using a condom.

SRE also has a role to play in making sure that people know about all of the options there are for STI screening. Whether it’s online, at your local clinic, pharmacy, young people’s service or GP practice, there are lots of options for STI testing and support for using condoms.

For more information on how to get tested and what we’re up to for Sexual Health Week, visit us at www.fpa.org.uk

Laura Russell is Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at sexual health charity, FPA.

*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.