Sex. Yes that’s right, sex. That’s probably grabbed your attention. As a nation we are obsessed with it. Everything from the music videos we gawped at as teenagers, to what we chat about on a Saturday night. Even our mobile phones come with apps in the form of Tinder and Grindr that have the promise of sex with the ideal partner. Yet all this chat isn’t getting my generation anywhere, in terms of understanding the risks of sex, in particular for young gay and bisexual men.
While waiting on friends last Saturday evening I found myself reading a gay lifestyle magazine in a pub just off Trafalgar Square. What can only be described as utter juxtaposition on the part of the editors, there featured a sobering piece on rates of HIV among young gay men which was followed by an advert for cruising spots in the city. This for me highlighted everything that’s wrong about the gay community: the preaching of safety mixed with the appeal of promiscuity.
The HIV figures showed that in 2012 there were 3,250 gay men diagnosed with HIV in the UK, 1/3 of which were in their 20s or teenage years. Yet it is more and more accepted that casual sex is part and parcel of growing up gay or bisexual, particularly in large cities such as London which is home to 42% of those being treated for HIV.
A recent survey by the MAC AIDS Fund found that of 1,000 young people aged 12-17 who were surveyed, 1/3 of them wrongly thought you couldn’t catch HIV through unprotected sex. These are worrying figures, that if left without no action could leave a whole generation ignorant of the facts.
Unlike other STIs which can give someone the odd itch or result in an embarrassing trip to the doctor, there is still no known cure for Aids which is caused through the HIV virus. Although much progress has been made in treatment for the virus which is estimated to have infected 35 million people across the globe, the only solution remains long-term treatment.
It would indeed be foolish to misrepresent HIV as something only gay or bisexual men can only be infected with as it does concern the heterosexual community too. HoweverNHS figures have shown that men who have sex with men now account for approximately 50% of new cases of HIV.
When we look at the poor sex education we receive in schools, it is little wonder that rates of sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. A recent report by the Sex Education Forum found that there are so many opt-outs in the curriculum that it allows schools to teach sex education from a purely scientific perspective. More worryingly it highlighted that academies and free schools do not need to teach the standard curriculum on reproductive health.
Daisy Ellis from the Terrance Higgins Trust said: “In the 21st century approaching sex education exclusively as a biology lesson simply won’t cut it”
If we aren’t even getting the basics right, in answering ‘where babies come from’, how can we expect to educate our young people on same-sex relationships? I recall from my days at school almost nothing was said about gay relationships, apart from that sometimes a man and another man may ‘make love’. Even when action is taken to amend this and make learning about same-sex relationships compulsory, the House of Lords recently voted against this and scuppered any attempts to guide our education system to reflect the modern day society.
Our hesitancy to have a frank and honest discussion about an activity all of us will participate in at some stage in our life is resulting in young people potentially making silly mistakes through for example thinking HIV isn’t something to concern themselves with.
My generation inherits a society where a man marrying other man is nothing out the ordinary and where we see public displays of affection such as John Barrowman and his Gretna Green lover on Wednesday evening. These changes in public opinion and extension legal rights are a credit to the work done by older generations within the equality movement.
For people my age, we may not be able to pass on huge swathes of new rights, but what we can do is pass on is improved awareness of how to be safe and most importantly greater openness when it comes to talking about sex. That’s something worth fighting for and a legacy we could be proud to leave.