Lads' mags blamed for crisis in male sexual health

Men's magazines give tips on seduction but clam up about sexually transmitted infections. Steve Bloomfield reports

They warn that young males are creating a crisis with more than 750,000 people a year acquiring a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Young men know far less about safe sex than young women, according to a report to be published tomorrow by Brook, the national network of sexual health advice centres. Researchers point the finger at men's magazines.

Editors of women's magazines said the lack of sexual health information found in their male rivals was "shocking". But editors of lads' mags hit back last night, claiming it was not their responsibility to educate readers about STIs and contraception.

The four magazines highlighted by Brook are the monthly lads' mags FHM and Loaded, and the two weeklies, Zoo and Nuts. The latter pair, despite being launched only last year, now sell 500,000 copies a week between them and are aimed squarely at young men. Niall McKinney, publishing director of Loaded, the original monthly "lads' mag", which was launched in 1994, said: "Our job is to connect young men to a lifestyle they aspire to. Unfortunately genital warts is not a lifestyle they aspire to."

Zoo editor Paul Merrill said information about sexual health could not be found in his magazine because readers did not want to read it. "Zoo is all about what blokes talk about down the pub, which tends to be football, girls and taking the piss out of each other," he said. "Women's mags talk sexual health because women are more prone to comparing yeast infections over their Bacardi Breezers. Men are more interested in finding out how to be better in bed. Most probably think an STD is a dialling code."

But sexual health groups warned that this attitude would only make matters worse. The Men's Health Forum (MHF) said men's magazines had a responsibility to provide young men with sexual health information. "It has reached crisis point," said MHF's spokesman Nigel Duncan. "It is one of the major health problems facing the country today. There is room in those magazines for a more serious approach to sexual health."

Women's magazines have a long history of covering health issues, and all the mainstream women's glossy magazines will include features concerning sexual health on a regular basis. The current issue of Glamour includes an article on the "Secrets of your cycle" which dispels myths of when it is safe to have unprotected sex. Cosmopolitan offers its readers a book offer on sexual health, as well as information about smear tests and gynaecologists. There is a "real-life" story in Company about a girl who found a lump in her boyfriend's testicle that turned out to be cancerous.

But in the men's magazines, the only references to sex concern what to do and how to get it. Zoo - the cover line promises a "boobs bonanza!" - gives readers advice from a series of models about seduction techniques. In Nuts, readers are shown a series of fully-dressed women and asked which one they want to see undressed.

The number of people contracting an STI has risen dramatically in recent years. The latest figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) showed an increase in cases of chlamydia of 8 per cent from 2003 to 2004. Syphilis increased by 37 per cent over the same period, and cases of genital warts rose by 4 per cent. Overall, there were 750,000 new diagnoses of STIs in 2004.

A survey published earlier this year revealed that 73 per cent of young people have unprotected sex, despite the risks from chlamydia, HIV and other diseases.

While men can carry chlamydia, it has little effect on them. However, it can make women infertile. Health experts argue that one of the main reasons for the rise in cases of chlamydia is down to the failure of enough men to get themselves tested.

Sexual health has traditionally been seen as a "women's issue", said Jan Barlow, chief executive of Brook. "While women's magazines give very good sexual health information, men's magazines are not doing that. It is a problem. They are not putting sex into context.

"Young men need to know about this as much as young women. I do not believe basic health promotion advice is going to alienate the readership. It will help normalise discussions about sexual health."

Victoria White, editor of monthly women's magazine Company, said that men's magazines should make more effort to combat men's lack of knowledge of sexual health issues. "If they could devote a page here and there to sexual health it would be a step forward," she said.

"The difference between men's and women's magazines is quite shocking."

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