FOCUS: THE NEW DECADENCE: Sex: They want us to be responsible, faithful and safe - but we just want to be naughty

We are endlessly interested in the sex lives of other people, even when the stories are as false, like those surrounding Jude Law and Sadie Frost. But when the Health Secretary urges us to have "responsible sexual relations" we say, "Mind your own business"

How far can a Government change social habits by legislation or advice? This Government has certainly succeeded in demonising smokers by outlawing smoking in some public places. And many believe that the Conservatives' Aids awareness campaign did have an effect on sexual mores at the time it was launched. Before that, condoms were for idiots.

But when a minister like the Health Secretary Dr John Reid says - as he did when launching an all-embracing health White Paper in November - that his aim is for people to have "more responsible sexual relations", isn't that just whistling in the dark?

Isn't what we get up to in the bedroom our own affair?

And anyway, how can his squawking, headmasterly words have any effect against a tide of pornography on the internet, movies and television programmes that show explicit sexual scenes, and a press which, by exposing stars getting up to all kinds of sexual monkey business, as my granny used to say, makes "irresponsible sexual relations" more glamorous?

Despite a hugely expensive warning campaign, the number of sexually transmitted diseases soared to 705,954 last year, an increase of 4.6 per cent on the previous year. Despite the memory of those Eighties Aids campaigns, and a much greater awareness of the true risks and myths of infection, the number of people living with HIV in Britain rose to a record level of more than 50,000 last year.

And despite the existence of the Teenage Pregnancy Unit, set up in 1999, we still have the highest pregnancy rate among the under-18s in the whole of Europe. Sexual health experts say warnings are simply being ignored.

The Commons Health Select Committee has criticised sex education and its chairman, David Hinchliffe, says Britain has a "Benny Hill culture" that resorts to nods and winks rather than open and frank discussion.

I believe there are fashions in sexual activity in the same way as there are fashions in skirt lengths. The Government could legislate until it was blue in the face that men should wear pink hats covered with flowers, but however many billions of pounds they threw into the campaign, men would remain pretty much hatless.

The fashion today is for naughty sex. Welcoming stores sell sex toys on the High Street. Up to a million people in this country have tried swinging - or wife-swapping as it used to be called in the Seventies - and 14 in every 100 of the others say they would like to, apparently. Then there is dogging, the pursuit of al fresco intercourse with a partner while strangers stand in the shadows watching, or with the strangers themselves. The website where arrangements are made are busy. Forest glades and car parks are stirred by the sounds of dogging, which even has a semi-celebrity advocate in the former England footballer Stan Collymore. Until people get bored with all this, which they will (or they get bored, at least, with discussing it or trying it out), it will continue to flourish.

Providing teenage girls with a better education and proper job opportunities might be a more sensible way of cutting teenage pregnancy than simply droning on about how irresponsible it is. And setting a good example might be another.

If Carole Caplin could get pregnant without being married, at the time when she was the Prime Minister's wife's best buddy why shouldn't the rest of us? I didn't notice her being cast out into the snow at the time.

As for Chris Smith - ahem, ahem. Very brave to come out about being HIV-positive, but while we don't know the circumstances of his infection, one question does arise: where was the condom when it mattered?

And don't get me started on the subject of David Blunkett. Irresponsible or what? An affair with a married woman and no condoms was not what Mr Reid was talking about when he wanted us all to have responsible sex. The words "mote" and "eye" spring to mind.

A sexual nanny state will never work. First, because what we get up to in bed is our own private business. But second, it's doomed to fail if the nanny in question is always to be found lying on a bed with her legs apart.

Virginia Ironside is a relationships expert and writes for `The Independent'

THE SWINGER

`I've grown to enjoy it, there's an unspeakable excitement'

Alice, 41, Nottingham

I've always thought of myself as unshockable but the first time I went to a swingers' party, about a year ago, I was stunned by it.

Before I even saw them, I could smell the 15 couples having very public sex in every possible position and configuration, on a series of beds pushed together in an enormous white bedroom. Before I saw them I could hear the grunts, groans, sighs and farts of sex, then the occasional slapped bum or orgasmic moan.

If there were 30 people having sex on the beds, there were probably 20 more standing around watching them, naked or virtually naked, touching each other and themselves, making eye contact with any other spectators they fancied.

A hard-looking bottle blonde wearing a Central Casting rubber porn outfit was strapped into a leather hammock which hung by a rope from the ceiling, pleasuring a queue of about 12 men.

There wasn't a condom in sight. Contrary to all my preconceptions about gorgeous people having gorgeous group sex, like in the movies, everyone there looked fat, tired and just a bit weird.

It was a `private' party in a big, isolated private house in the Midlands countryside. The hosts and hostesses were the two late-40-something couples who own and live in the house together.

I went along, reluctantly, because my partner had been into swinging before he met me and had loved it. I was disapproving but, I have to admit, hugely curious. As I've got more used to the atmosphere - the painful small talk over cheap wine and cheesy dips at the start, the amateur pole- dancing on the dance-floor, the sense of being eyed up from every which way - I've grown increasingly excited by these parties.

They create an emotional turmoil which I find painful at the time but exhilarating in retrospect - resentment that my partner ever wanted to take us down this road, mild self-loathing fury that I've grown to enjoy it myself, unspeakable excitement at having spectated and sometimes sudden sex with some gorgeous stranger while my partner joins in or watches.

Swinging has inspired insecurities, jealousies and petty rows between us (usually when we've been `joined' by someone one of us would probably like to have been in a relationship with). But it also keeps our sex life fresh, and allows us to believe, if only for a few hours, that middle- aged people who drive a Ford Focus, shop at Asda and enjoy power ballads, can still go to the dark side.

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