Thomas Sutcliffe: The perilous joys of middle-aged sex

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The Independent Online

Do you remember herpes? You'll need to be of a certain age to conjure the particular memory I have in mind, which is of the spasm of sexual anxiety that went round when the disease first really made it into the public consciousness, after the incidence of infections leapt in America. Yikes, I can remember thinking. Weeping sores (routinely described as "agonising"), no prospect of a cure, the perpetual moral duty, ever after, to inform prospective sexual partners of your potentially hazardous condition.

It was attended by the whole paraphernalia of a modern media health scare – first person confessions by "anonymous" sufferers, dire predictions of future spread. And then herpes was upstaged by a much more frightening disease – Aids effortlessly taking top billing as spectre at the orgy. And for a while you could have been forgiven for thinking that herpes wasn't a problem any more.

It wasn't true, of course. A recent study by New York City's health department suggested that an astonishing 26 per cent of the city's adult residents are infected with the herpes virus and the ailment also turned out to be well represented in the Midlands study which has just revealed that sexually transmitted infections are on the rise among older people. Genital warts took the top spot, apparently, accounting for nearly half of the cases, but herpes came second in driving patients over the age of 45 to attend their local genito-urinary clinic. These people were certainly old enough to remember the public health campaigns that attended the first big wave of herpes infections – before it got pushed into the small print of the health warnings – but it didn't seem to have done much to protect them.

I couldn't help wondering whether there might be a psychological connection, in fact – between the endemic wariness of disease that such health campaigns attempt to promulgate and the kind of irrational relief that occurs when the gloomier predictions don't seem to be borne out. Could it be that sexually transmitted infections among over-45s have increased because these patients have survived at least two big sexual disease scares and – unfortunately for them – wrongly assumed that it is safe to unclench?

The Health Protection Agency speculated that at least one possible cause for the doubling of infections was that as the fear of pregnancy disappears, it takes with it one of the most powerful motives for condom use. The other possibility, of course, being that older people are not having more unsafe sex than they used to – just having more sex full stop, an increase in activity that you would expect to bring a proportionate increase in infections.

I suspect it is the latter – and it isn't just the arrival of Viagra and online chat rooms that have done it (as some reports suggested) but a sustained and unyielding behavioural campaign that dwarfs the impact of sporadic health education programmes. The latter we're inclined to forget as soon as the advertising fades from the mind, assisted by the human instinct to ignore unpleasant truths. But nobody could have missed the diffuse lobbying operation which exists to persuade us that it is our duty to have more sex, more often and later in life than our parents did.

The social obligation to have sex responsibly – intermittently conveyed by educational campaigns – is barely audible beneath the blizzard of messages, in commercials, fiction and the general culture, which encourage us simply to have sex, and imply that retirement from the game isn't any longer an option.

How very big of you, Jane

"Doing TV commercials has allowed me to take stage roles for which I'm paid very little," said Jane Horrocks, left, in a recent newspaper interview. Give us a break, Jane. The logic of this seems to be that if Tesco hadn't come calling, Horrocks would have been forced wistfully to turn down leading roles on the London stage, which seems implausible to say the least.

I wonder what her fellow actresses will make of her suggestion that accepting excellent parts in interesting plays constitutes a kind of charitable outreach programme.

The truth is surely exactly the other way round: doing the stage roles allows her, with a clear conscience, to take advertising jobs which earn her a small fortune.

* People rightly dislike the idea that politicians are just a set of pre-programmed responses, and yet politicians seem deeply reluctant to abandon the set plays of political life. The other day, for example, David Cameron greeted the result of the Henley by-election by pointing out that it had been "disastrous" for Labour. Thanks for that insight, Mr Cameron. Even our dog understood that much. Wouldn't it have been more entertaining, just for once, to sidestep the clichés?

If I had been Mr Cameron, I would have congratulated my own candidate on his victory and then smiled sympathetically and said that, in the circumstances, the Labour candidate had really done awfully well. Indeed he should be congratulated, given his party leader's recent poll ratings, on staying 223 votes clear of the UKIP candidate.

Right now, Mr Cameron's condescension would be far more devastating than his contempt.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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