I’ve just seen this article in Teh Grauniad.
In the UK, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise among all age groups, as is the abortion rate. According to Public Health England figures, STI diagnoses rose 5% in 2012, with those under 25 experiencing the highest rates (they account for 64% of chlamydia cases). Public Health England acknowledges that this is in part to due to improved data collection, but also warns that “the continuing high STI rates in England suggest too many people are still putting themselves at risk through unsafe sex, especially young adults and men who have sex with men”.
I was interested to find out whether or not we are seeing a more conscious shift away from hormonal contraceptive methods in favour of the pull-out method. The most recent figures available on contraceptive use are from the Office for National Statistics from 2008-2009. They revealed that the majority of women under 50 were using contraception (75%), with condoms (25%) and the contraceptive pill (25%) the most popular methods. Of those women who weren’t using contraception, just over half were not engaged in a sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex. But that was more than five years ago. Could it be true that women are being turned off the pill and condoms, too?
Scare stories about hormonal contraception hit the newspapers every few months. In January, doctors were advised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to warn patients taking “third generation pills” including Yasmin, Femodene and Marvelon, that they are twice as likely as older medication to cause life-threatening blood clots. (The risk applies to women who are already more likely to develop clots.)
It’s no wonder that women are hyperconscious of potential side effects. Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening The Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control, says that side effects such as depression and loss of libido steer many women away. “I felt oppressed by the pill,” she tells me. It was when she started a blog on the topic that she realised other women felt the same way. “Many women don’t want to be taking these drugs any more,” she says. She endorses a natural family planning method that involves combining a period tracker app with other indications of fertility, such as cervical mucus and body temperature, to work out when it is safe to have sex.
What stands out for me here is how only one woman in the article has tried a form of contraception other than the Pill or condoms. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service lists 15 different types of contraception, half of which are hormonal contraceptives. If you don’t want to use hormonal contraception, and you are one of the women who finds it difficult to insist on condom use, think about an IUD or a diaphragm.
I had an IUD fitted three years ago, but had it removed after a year because 12-day periods are not my idea of fun. I had an IUS fitted instead, and it’s the best contraceptive decision I ever made. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to do anything or remember anything, it’s just there, protecting me from unwanted pregnancy. I really wish I’d done it as soon as I became sexually active; I could have saved myself a lot of anxiety.
Of course, if you’re not having sex within a monogamous relationship, it’s advisable to use condoms too, to prevent both parties from sexually transmitted infections. I wonder why it is so many people in their 20s are putting themselves at risk of disease by not using condoms. I think it’s the same mentality as the people who don’t vaccinate their kids against childhood diseases. The vaccination programmes of the 50s onwards were so successful that many diseases were almost eliminated from Western society – smallpox, polio, measles. Now we have generations of adults who have never seen what measles can do to a child (my grandad survived infant measles, sustaining severe facial scarring and a hearing impairment as a result) and therefore don’t understand the value of vaccinations. When I was a teenager in the 80s, we were terrified of HIV and AIDS. It was a death sentence, and there was no way of knowing who was infected and could therefore infect you. The public information ads seem over the top now, but at the time they were scary and they were effective.
Now, HIV is one of those things listed in the “why you should use a condom leaflets” – to protect yourself against pregnancy and STIs including chlamydia and HIV. Just a thing on list. Maybe the new combination therapies mean that HIV isn’t the scary death sentence it used to be, and people don’t feel the need to be so worried about it. Maybe the government is too busy keeping us scared about Muslim paedo immigrants stealing our children and putting house prices up to mither us about HIV.
If you’re having unprotected sex, you are putting yourself at higher risk of STIs and pregnancy. If you are disorganised at contraception, think about one of the long term methods. If you don’t like hormonal contraception, try a non-hormonal method such as the IUD and diaphragm, or think about an IUS which has lower doses of hormones in a localised area.The Pill is not your only option – if it’s not working for you, invest in your well-being and try something else. And if you really can’t talk to your partner about using a condom, should you be having sex at all?