For William Wright – a 19-year-old first-year ergonomics student at Loughborough University – and his mates, using condoms isn’t really ‘a thing.’ He may have used them when he was a teenager and in a relationship, but all that changed when he went to university. ‘I never wear condoms and neither do most of the guys I know,’ he told The Debrief. ‘It’s mainly because they’re uncomfortable and make you lose sensation. Also, there’s nothing more unnatural than stopping to strap on a bit of latex.
‘A lot of guys I know from uni brag about not using condoms when they have sex with a girl – it’s like a trophy. Some girls do make a point of asking, but not that many of them insist on it. I’ve got a girlfriend now, who I met during fresher’s week, and we didn’t use a condom the first time we had sex. She’s on the Pill, so why bother? Everything is so easy to treat these days, it’s not that big of a deal if you contract an STI.’
For William and his friends, the only time that condoms are seen as an essential is during fresher’s week. ‘That’s the dirtiest time for sex, so people get a bit more worried,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t, but most of my friends felt like they should be sleeping with anything that moves. And some of them still use condoms when they have one-night stands, but then don’t bother after that, because you kind of feel like it’s OK, don’t you? Like once is enough.’
Everything is so easy to treat these days that it’s not that big of a deal if you contract an STI.
William and his friends are by no means the only ones. A recent study revealed that only 61% of Oxford University students – they’re supposed to be the smart ones – always ensure they or their partners wear protection when they’re having sex. And 19% of young people say they wouldn’t be put off having sex with someone they knew had an STI – 39% of those have already had unprotected sex with someone with an STI.
Victoria Leonard, nurse manager for young persons’ sexual health service Brook in Salford and Bolton, is unsurprised by these stats. ‘We see a lot of university students,’ Victoria told The Debrief. ‘While the number of people who've come into our services enquiring about STI testing has decreased in the last year, the number of tests which come back positive has increased from 6.8% to 7.6%. That’s a worrying trend.’
A spokesperson for Manchester Student Union agrees that attitudes to sexual health at university have changed dramatically in the past few years. ‘STIs have increased because of a combination of factors – lack of awareness, and usage of alcohol and other drugs being the top two,’ they told us.
Linda Ahearne has noticed a similar trend occurring at the London College Of Arts, where she manages the sexual-health clinic. ‘Despite all the publicity and help available, there’s still a massive STI problem among university-aged young people. Students seem to be having more unprotected sex and are slow to get tested when they have.’
You might think that the decline in condom use is a hangover from ‘uni lad’ culture, but the girls we spoke to were pretty lackadaisical with their sexual health, too. ‘Most of my girl mates don’t use condoms,’ said Kate Toller, a third-year student at Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘The sort of guys who insist on wearing condoms aren’t the sort of guys I’d sleep with. The kind of guys me and my mates find attractive wouldn’t bother – and I hate the things, they’re such a massive mood killer.
‘Plus, we all really only sleep with guys in our friendship groups and we don’t sleep around that much. They’re not dirty and we trust each other.’
The problem is education. Our generation just doesn’t understand the importance of good sexual health at the most basic level.
Kate does accept that having unprotected sex comes with risks. ‘We all know, God forbid, that contracting an STI is a possibility, but we don’t really think about it. I’m planning on getting checked soon,’ she concedes.
But when did our attitude to STIs become so blithe? Anyone? If you were cycling you’d (probably) wear a helmet and you’d definitely wear a seatbelt to drive a car, so at what point did we decide that our sexual health doesn’t count?
The problem, according to Victoria Leonard, is education. Our generation just doesn’t understand the importance of good sexual health at the most basic level. ‘I think there’s been a gap in the education provided to young people in the past few years – sometimes, it does feel as if we’ve taken a step back.’
I knew that one of the guys I slept with during fresher’s week had chlamydia, but I slept with him without using a condom anyway.
‘Teachers are crying out for more information to put on their curriculum and students need and want more information – but services like Brook step in where schools are lacking. Lots of young people seem to think they can tell if someone has an STI just from what they look like – one boy came in and said he’ll be OK because he “didn’t sleep with rats,”’ she says. Victoria also fears that too much porn is giving people an ‘unrealistic view of sex.’
Whether it’s ignorance, laziness or an over-exposure to porn, we’ve become a generation willing to take huge risks with our health for the sake of a few moments of passion. ‘I knew that one of the guys I slept with during fresher’s week had chlamydia, but I slept with him without using a condom anyway,’ admits a female 20 year-old Exeter student, who wants to remain unnamed.
‘He was completely honest about the disease – we were even joking about it that night – but I just let the passion get the better of me. I knew that it was easy to treat and there was a chance I wouldn’t get it at all, so I just thought, “Fuck it". I was pretty wasted at the time, which didn’t help. Now that I look back, I can’t believe how reckless I was – what if he had something else? These days, I’m much more careful.’
Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.