Taking the sex out of STIs


Many teachers feel uncomfortable tackling the issue of STIs within PSHE education. Al Campbell from teen health website Doctor Wellgood suggests a new approach.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are still on the increase. Statistics show that the most “at risk” group is those aged 15 to 24, with girls in that cohort representing up to two-thirds of new diagnoses.

In part, responsibility for this is attributed to poor practice when it comes to sex and relationships education. Yet many teachers feel uncomfortable in the STI space – as do the students they try to talk to about this issue.

Talk to young adults outside the classroom and they agree that in general the discussions can be excruciatingly embarrassing. The idea of anybody older talking to them about sex, and being judgemental with regard to what their behaviour might lead to, is a total turn-off. They see it as patronising, rather irrelevant and “preachy”.

There is a simple answer: stop talking about “sex” in the context of transmitting infections. 

The problem is that the “old school” opinion is to consider any infection contracted through a “sex act” as something clandestine and unpleasant. The “norm” until now has been to make people who contract an STI feel guilty and even dirty.

It is time for education to wake up and smell the coffee, get real and appreciate that getting an infection that way is no different than catching a common cold. More importantly, in most cases it is not that dangerous and other things you catch in the same way come at a much bigger cost to the health and economy of the nation.

By the end of this article I will hope to convince you that chlamydia is much less serious and dangerous than the flu.

And that, in teaching young adults to avoid the flu, and more importantly to not pass it on, we would be laying essential groundwork to start reducing the incidence of all infectious conditions, sexually transmitted or otherwise.

But first a parable...

There’s nothing like a good parable to help explain concepts. The first half of this one is true because it happened to me. 

One lovely summer’s day earlier this year, in shorts and trainers, I took my dog for a walk through long grass on the South Downs in a place we had never been before. Because my legs were bare I was jumped on by a deer tick, got bitten and ended up being diagnosed with Lyme disease.

I ended up on antibiotics and actually feeling pretty ropey for 10 days. When I told people I was on antibiotics they were not at all judgemental expressing enormous sympathy for the “accidental” infection. Nobody suggested I was stupid. Nobody made me feel guilty. Nobody told me I should know better. 

The fact is I was stupid and should have known better because a few weeks previously it had been Lyme Disease Awareness Week – something we had written a feature about at Doctor Wellgood (from which I could have at least self-diagnosed the problem and gotten early treatment!).

We had advised the world to wear long trousers in long grass and I had ignored the advice. I didn’t think it would happen to me.

...and a parallel

I have no case evidence for this part of the story but let us image that very same weekend and a 16th birthday party at which two young people, complete strangers, hook up, have a few drinks and end up having sex. 

One of them, unknowingly, has chlamydia and passes it to the other one. Let’s assume they are responsible people, realise something might be wrong, get checked out and end up on antibiotics. But they never thought it would happen to them.

The fact is that chlamydia is more easily cleared up than the Lyme disease and they don’t even feel ill. But you can bet your life they won’t tell their friends or parents that they are taking antibiotics or what they are for. Because if they do the chances are that people will judge them, call them stupid and make them feel guilty.

The law of unintended consequences

The fact is that having sex is as natural as walking your dog. There is nothing wrong with doing either. 

The thing you have to realise is that under the law of unintended consequences things can happen unexpectedly. People get struck by lightning. By all accounts people get killed by falling coconuts (although even Google is not too sure about the evidence for this).

So, on the basis that nobody presumably ever sets out to contract any disease, every case of every infection is an accident of life. In part that’s what the immune system is all about. As we go through life there are many things we catch and then build a natural response to. But there are some things we cannot. These are the things we have to think about more carefully

Kissing is a sex thing too

If you have to talk about sex how can you not include kissing. Most sex starts with a kiss and there are a huge number of infections you can pass on by having a drunken snog during the last dance at the school disco – or behind the bike sheds if you prefer. These include everything from mumps, glandular fever and the common cold to cold sores.

Even people in a steady relationship are subject to this. Any school teacher kissing their husband or wife goodnight, when they’ve picked up whatever low grade virus starts going round school in November, can be guilty of spreading disease.

At the Doctor Wellgood office we have a rule that if you come into work and cough more than three times in a couple of hours you get sent home and told to get under a duvet, take paracetemol and keep taking fluids until you’ve recovered.

Flu is more dangerous than chlamydia

Just over 200,000 cases of chlamydia were diagnosed in 2012. On the basis that each diagnosis cost the infected person a trip to the doctor, it may have cost the economy 100,000 days off work. 

In comparison a study in 2010 suggested that flu and colds cost the loss of 7.6 million working days. There is no estimate for how many school days were lost to colds and flu but children tend to suffer worse.

The simple fact is that – if you get on the number 29 bus with chlamydia, it’s your problem, and it’s not going to kill you. Get on the bus with flu, sneeze all over 30 people on the top deck, and you can cost the economy 50 or more days off work. If the old lady in the corner has asthma and is “at risk” you could quite possibly kill her.

We’re all infectious & we’re all exposed

Let’s teach young people about infection, but let’s lose the focus on sex. We’re all infectious and all guilty of passing things on. Let’s get rid of the taboos and instead teach kids not to go out in lightning storms, to wear a crash hat to sleep under a coconut tree, and to take duvet days for the good of all if they have the flu. 

By all means also teach them to wear a condom when they have random sex but let’s not make a big thing of it – let’s put it in context.

  • Al Campbell is CEO of Doctor Wellgood, a free online lifestyle and wellbeing magazine for young adults.

STIs and Lust Diseases
Doctor Wellgood has just launched a new microsite with a new spin on STIs called Lust Diseases. A tutor guide will also be published shortly. Visit www.doctorwellgood.com/lustdiseases


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