One of the few things I like about supermarkets is the fact that they sell condoms. I never minded asking for them in pharmacies, but I've always wondered how many unwanted pregnancies have been caused by simple embarrassment. Under current rules, condoms can't be advertised on radio and television before the 9pm watershed (except on Channel 4, for some reason), revealing a vestigial squeamishness about sex. Massive billboards urging men to visit clubs such as Spearmint Rhino are apparently OK, as are adverts for "massage parlours" in local newspapers. But there are tight restrictions on adverts for contraceptives, and the broadcast media aren't allowed to accept adverts for pregnancy advisory services.
Now that may be about to change, following the announcement of a public consultation on the rules. The rethink has been prompted by increases in teenage pregnancies and STDs, including figures which show more than 11,000 under-16s being diagnosed with chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhoea, syphilis or genital warts between 2002 and 2006. The fact that schoolgirls are being infected with the human papilloma virus (which causes genital warts) is alarming because of the link with cervical cancer; sexually active boys and girls who haven't been vaccinated need to use condoms, which also protect against a range of other infections including HIV.
Showing adverts in between their favourite programmes on early-evening television is obviously an effective way of getting the message across; it will help normalise sex, sending teenagers the message that taking precautions is sensible and straightforward, rather than something to snigger about.
Equally important, television adverts for agencies which offer abortion will be clear and honest, unlike those posters that appear on the London Underground offering help to unhappily pregnant women without admitting that they're from anti-abortion organisations. They're just about the only people who are up in arms about these proposals, but abortion is legal in this country and there is no reason why information on where to obtain a safe termination shouldn't be broadcast.
This is an important public health issue, and it's absurd in a culture where sex is used to sell just about everything that accurate advice on contraception and abortion is treated so gingerly. Visitors from another planet would scratch their heads on discovering that lap-dancing clubs and sex shops are allowed to operate on high streets, but products and agencies that aim to protect people from the unwanted effects of sex are subject to these regulations. It's a signal that we don't take sex seriously enough, suggesting that regulatory authorities are more relaxed about page 3 girls and laddish magazines than STD clinics, sex education and prophylactics. It's downright bizarre that newspapers like the Daily Sport are free to push their message that men should have as much sex as possible, but condom manufacturers are treated like social pariahs.
Nor is it just a question of people being denied essential information. Earlier this month, the Pope made a wholly unfounded attack on condoms, suggesting that they aren't reliable and "can even increase the problem" of HIV. People aren't going to abstain from sex, no matter what the Pope says, but they might decide against using condoms because an international figure has challenged their efficacy. If I have to choose between taking advice from the Vatican or a condom advert, I'll go with Durex any day.