The Big Issue : Edition 477
THEBIGISSUE6–19FEB2015 23 “Because I think more young people identify as a young person first before they identify as being a young gay person.” Daniel is a case in point. He doesn’t have a great number of gay friends and he’s not particularly active in the gay community, so he didn’t get information about HIV through those channels. He went to a conservative private school where they talked about the risks of pregnancy, but HIV was never mentioned. A lot of sex education in schools mostly addresses heterosexual sex. If homosexual sex is discussed, it’s often treated as a totally separate thing, further marginalising the issue. Targeted messaging can also make heterosexual people think they are immune. And this is becoming a big part of the problem. As Ross says: “What we hear from young people is that HIV is something that only happens to gay men or to African babies. To people in poor countries somewhere else, but not to them. But we’re seeing a large proportion of new cases occurring [from] heterosexual transmission. It’s a significant increase over the last few years.” Not only is the rate of HIV steadily increasing, other sexually transmitted infection rates have catapulted – another indicator of complacency around sexual health. The Kirby Institute’s report suggests Australia is facing an ‘epidemic’ of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) chlamydia, with up to 80,000 people being infected each year. “Chlamydia is largely affecting teenagers, teenage girls in particular, some as young as 12,” Wilson reports. “And we know that there are many more Australians out there who are undiagnosed; they’re not aware of it.” Chlamydia is often asymptomatic, but if untreated can cause long-term damage, including infertility. This dramatic rise in STI rates shows there is a great deal of unsafe sexual behaviour occurring among young people, increasing the likelihood of contracting HIV. The Kirby Institute’s research shows condom use is dropping, especially among young people. The Department of Health website states that almost 40% of sexually active students reported they only used condoms ‘sometimes’. And 13% said they ‘never’ used condoms. With many people believing the danger of the AIDS crisis is ‘over’, using protection is not considered a high priority. Ross says some young people feel pressured by their sexual partners not to use condoms at all. “One of the things we’re hearing is people, particularly young women, saying that they can’t get an STI because they’re on the pill.” Research by YEAH shows a lack of proper education is a leading cause of these perilous attitudes. A joint report with the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition revealed in 2012 that 50% of students receiving sex education in school are dissatisfied with it. And in Victoria, where it’s mandatory to teach sex education, one in 10 young people say they’re not getting any sex education at all. To counteract this, YEAH has started an initiative called Red Aware: providing mentorships for students to run peer-to-peer sexuality education programs in schools across the country. Ross believes the days of the grim reaper fear-based campaigns are over. To get young people to take their sexual health more seriously, they need to change the way that sexuality is discussed. Wilson agrees there is a big disconnect between what young people are being taught and what is actually happening in their lives: “They’re told about sex at school; it seems very clinical or scientific. But for them it’s more about pleasure and romance and having fun. If education was different, it would tell [young people] that sex is a pleasurable, normal thing and encourage them, when they’re ready, to enjoy having a healthy sexual life. And part of that is to practise safe sex for their own health. Then it would be much more effective.” YEAH encounters people who worry that talking about sex will just encourage young people to be more promiscuous. But the evidence suggests that if young people are not educated about sexual health, they are more likely to have sex younger and be engaged in higher risk-taking behaviours – the sort of things that have led to what YEAH labels “a sexual health crisis of epidemic scale”. As Ross says: “If you do care about young people and you do want them to wait a bit longer, feel ready, feel in control of the decisions they make about their sexual lives, then for goodness sake start talking openly, honestly and earlier.” Daniel was not old enough in the 1980s to see how serious the risks of practising unsafe sex can be. If things continue unchecked, the risk of infection will only increase. To protect people – especially young people – from serious threats to their health and future, we cannot afford not to talk about sex. » To learn more about YEAH’s campaign visit redaware.org.au.