Harriet Walker: Time to make STDs taboo again

With infections among the young on the rise, where's our sense of shame?

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As a certified hypochondriac, I'm constantly worried about catching dropsy or bubonic plague from toilet seats. It stops me thinking about the big things, like rain and recession. But with the news this week that serious – forsooth, archaic – STDs are on the rise, maybe my fears aren't that laughable after all.

Almost half a million new cases of sexually transmitted infections have been reported in the last year, mostly among women under 25 who are contracting chlamydia, gonorrhoea and – gulp – syphilis. Syphilis: the disease which gave us the codpiece (developed by Tudor gents who wished to keep their pustules away from their French velvets); the disease that sent emperors round the twist; the disease which is coming to a town near you, having already caused health alerts in Liverpool and Nottingham. Wipe every toilet seat before you sit down, wash your hands thoroughly – and whatever you do, don't wear your velvet doublet on a night out.

Toilet humour aside, this is a regression on many counts, not least public health. It marks a reversion in attitudes to something bordering on Victorian, when everyone was riddled with genital nasties but politely ignored the fact, and instead got worked up about the indecency of having table legs on display. Sounds familiar. Look over there! We're horrified about the sexualisation of pop music! Lady Gaga's too-tight PVCs might be a source of crotch rot in themselves, but at least they mean we don't have to talk about the real state of our sexual mores.

In the 1960s, STIs were "the clap", a happily generic name that sounded like a modish musical four-piece. But despite this jocular soubriquet, they were still a source of chronic embarrassment that unmanned the school jocks, made the Frank Spencers in the waiting room blush and the Sandra Dees of this world avoided like, well, the plague. By the time the 1980s came along after oodles of free love and, presumably, a rash of rashes, opinion was a little more pointed. With the onset of Aids, the stigma of HIV and mass panic at a potential epidemic, the public conception of sex was that having it meant taking your life in your hands.

I remember the posters and TV ads from my childhood; they were scary. And while I wasn't really the sort of teenager that anyone particularly wanted to have sex with (a terrible haircut and braces are safer than a million condoms, let's not forget), my inner hypochondriac became convinced that even holding hands with someone was a sure-fire way to contract this most inscrutable of diseases. It's a little extreme to make young people scared of sex – and it's hard to believe that preaching abstinence has led to anything but a drought of practical knowledge – but a pinch of terror isn't always harmful.

Aids has lost some of its stigma these days – and thank goodness for that – but young adults having sex right now (as they read this column, no doubt, the racy young dynamos) don't have the same fear of these infections. The scariest thing about sex these days is pregnancy, and you can avoid that without avoiding STDs. Our clap-conscientiousness has subsided as teenage sex has increased and today's NHS-savvy shaggers know that another prescription will always be forthcoming. That's no doubt the reason for a 10 per cent re-infection rate among the same demographic, but such is the reliance on re-treatment that these medieval bugs are starting to outwit our modern medicines, with rogue strains becoming more persistent than boys at a school disco.

What's the answer? I don't advocate paranoic levels of sexual anxiety – the full-length rubber bodysuits in The Naked Gun spring to mind – but why not make STDs a taboo again? Raising awareness has made us more open about these things, but maybe we should close them down a bit, make them less talky-talky and more snigger snigger. Getting people hot under the collar about things between the sheets isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's time to shame the syphilitics, not just shut up about them.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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