A study of how 166 young people, aged between 16 and 24, viewed a significant sexual relationship highlights their real anxieties about sex and the cultural obstacles to condom use, according to researchers.
Valerie Kent, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths' College, London, and joint director of the study said that for some young people, going on the pill was symbolic of commitment to a 'serious' relationship, while condoms were viewed as suitable for an 'occasional frolic'. Some were reluctant to discuss condoms in case it was seen as 'insulting' to their partner, and implied that he or she was considered promiscuous.
The risk of HIV infection was seen as remote, Ms Kent said, because the young people tended to have relationships with people drawn from their own circle, people they knew something about.
'Heterosexual teenagers do not believe that people they know have HIV,' she told a press conference in London yesterday to launch Promoting Sexual Health, a book produced in conjunction with the British Medical Association and the Health Education Authority.
'In terms of HIV, the drift to the pill is of great concern. A very small proportion use the pill and condoms together, thus addressing both risks,' Ms Kent said. 'It is certainly difficult to fight teenage pregnancy and HIV at the same time unless dual protection is suggested, because all those really concerned about pregnancy will use the pill, which is perceived as safer, more pleasant and symbolic of a long-term relationship.'
The Goldsmiths' study also found that young people are often confused about how a physical relationship progresses, which further complicates the condom issue. 'Very often each partner operates on private assumptions about what is going on and does not particularly wish to make matters more explicit,' she said. They had to be taught to 'negotiate' sex in an environment where condom use was accepted as normal.
Hilary Curtis of the BMA's Foundation for Aids called for 'openness and honesty' in sex education. 'If people are happy talking about sex . . . they will find it much easier to say they want safer sex. The message is carry on, enjoy it - but do it safely.'
Promoting Sexual Health; BMA Foundation for Aids, BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP; pounds 12.50 plus pounds 1.50 p&p.