If you love me, bring a condom

STDs are soaring in Britain. And it's little wonder, says New Yorker Catherine Townsend, when we have such a messed-up view of se

Monday 05 July 2004 00:00 BST

I woke up from the first night with my new British boyfriend with a mixture of elation and dread. It was a storybook romance: he was a 30-year-old, public-school educated, charming Brit. The night before, after a champagne dinner at Hakkasan, we had headed back to his east London flat and torn each other's clothes off.

I woke up from the first night with my new British boyfriend with a mixture of elation and dread. It was a storybook romance: he was a 30-year-old, public-school educated, charming Brit. The night before, after a champagne dinner at Hakkasan, we had headed back to his east London flat and torn each other's clothes off.

So far, so perfect - except that we never used, or even mentioned, condoms or talked about STDs.

Having lived for eight years in Manhattan - where the testing conversation is as much a relationship milestone as leaving a toothbrush at a new beau's apartment - the subject was still burning in my mind two weeks later when I blurted out: "Have you ever been tested for STDs?" one Sunday morning over coffee.

He looked at me as if I had just suggested inviting the entire Arsenal team into our bed. "Why would I do that? I've never had anything wrong with me in my life," he said, fumbling for a cigarette. I gently pointed out that many diseases, such as chlamydia, the most common and easily spread, can be asymptomatic for months or years.

Not only was he completely unaware of the symptoms of chlamydia and gonorrhoea, but I also got the feeling that he thought they were some type of tropical storm. "Well, I don't know what kind of people you've been hanging around with, Catherine," he declared, "but believe me, I know the type of girls I've gone out with and that's never been a problem."

I have discovered that, unlike in the US, where for the most part the safe sex message has become completely absorbed into the cultural Zeitgeist, London mating rituals are as steeped in 1950s nostalgia as the retro fashions dominating the high street.

As a student at New York University, I carried condoms in a chic and discreet vintage Gucci purse, and felt looked after rather than shamed if a man provided one.

But since I arrived in the UK just over a year ago, I have had flings with a string of successful, charming, university-educated men - not one of whom has ever mentioned safe sex or used a condom without my insistence.

Which begs the question: in a town where unbridled hedonism is becoming the norm and group sex makes front-page news, what has happened to the Aids conversation?

"There is a lack of awareness among young people, and the belief that 'this won't happen to me', that STDs are something only dirty people get, is unfortunately quite a typical view," says Jan Barlow, chief executive of Brook Advisory, a charity that provides free health advice to people under 25.

Which is scary, because Britain has the worst sexual health in Europe. According to data from Brook, the rates of chlamydia identified at UK GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinics increased 139 per cent between 1996 and 2002 - one in 11 sexually active young women is now believed to be infected - with gonorrhoea up 106 per cent over the same period. And HIV hasn't gone away: the Health Protection Agency estimates that there are just under 50,000 people living with the virus in the UK, a third of whom have not been diagnosed.

To get a glimpse inside the British male's head-in-the-sand attitude, I met my dashing 39-year-old journalist friend Michael for cocktails at Soho House. Though he is successful and - again - well-educated, I found his answers alarming. "Darling, if you move in the right sort of circles, that type of thing just doesn't happen," he said.

In lieu of latex, he relies on a system of "social vetting" to weed out potential dangers. "I don't go out to bars. I go to member's clubs like Soho House, where you know two things about the people you meet: that the membership committee has approved them, so they most likely work in a field like arts or the media, and they can afford to spend £600 a year to belong. Otherwise, I tend to meet people at friends' parties, so it's not as if I'm picking up women in a random bar."

British men also seem to associate condoms with illicit affairs, more suitable to a one-night stand than a proper girlfriend. "I think that if a man carries condoms in his wallet here, women think: 'Right, this is obviously a one-night stand, and he does this a lot,'" says one twentysomething film producer who met her latest fling at The Wellington pub in London. By that warped logic, not having the STD discussion implies a sense of trust - and therefore greater intimacy.

Unfortunately, the illusion of romance ends when the painful urination begins. My friend Victoria, a 31-year-old investment banker with a boyfriend who adores her, found this out the hard way recently when he confronted her about a strange liquid leaking from his nether regions.

"He had me meet him at this out-of-the-way pub, and said: 'I have a sexually transmitted disease, and it can only have come from you, since I haven't slept with anyone else'," she told me. "He hadn't even been tested - but he basically suggested that I was the whore of Babylon."

After I calmed her down, we spent the whole afternoon poring over websites to identify her symptoms. Meanwhile, her boyfriend was incommunicado - apparently he found declaring undying love less daunting than discussing abnormal discharge.

"I was dating this gorgeous doctor who treated this type of stuff every day, and we never used condoms, or had the discussion until after we broke up," says Nick, a 40-year-old PR executive. "It was pretty ironic, but she said later she didn't want to ruin the romance."

John, a 32-year-old City trader, blames the government's overzealous scare tactics in the Eighties for the laissez-faire attitude of late twenty- and thirtysomething professionals today. "A lot of us became sexually active back then, when the government launched this massive campaign with things like tombstones falling over, and we were all convinced that we were going to die," he says. "Later, we found out that the chances of catching Aids were minuscule, and stopped being so careful."

"I got genital warts from my boyfriend, who had no idea he had them for a year because they were so small," says 28-year-old Emma. "I got drunk one night in a bar with some mates and told them - turns out two of them have them as well."

"The British have a very prurient attitude toward sex that is riddled with hypocrisy," says a spokesperson for the FPA (Family Planning Association). "We are bombarded with explicit imagery, yet fail to have open and honest discussions about the basic facts of life and talk to our children about sex." She adds: "American culture seems to be more upfront in some ways, with people talking more openly about STDs."

Couples in other countries do not seem to believe that safe sex and romance have to be mutually exclusive. "Carrying condoms is much more socially acceptable in France, and they can be bought behind the counter of a local tabac with no shame," says Sophie, a 25-year-old freelance writer. James, a 33-year-old Australian banker, tells me that Australians are quite used to having the STD conversation. "I have had it with past girlfriends, though women don't tend to bring it up here," he says. The most similar country to Britain seems to be Japan, where, one Japanese postgraduate student tells me, "like in England, the Japanese tend to avoid that type of conversation; the general view is that HIV/STDs are something you bring from abroad."

The day after the fallout, Victoria's boyfriend calmed down and told her that the way forward was for both of them to go to the clinic together. As it turned out, the mystery infection was nothing nastier than thrush.

As for me, Victoria's little health scare reminded me that I need to be loyal to myself, rather than worrying about loyalty to a man. Now, if I could just dig out that Gucci wallet...

All names have been changed


CHLAMYDIA: Known as the "silent epidemic": 50 per cent of male and 75 per cent of female sufferers have no symptoms. Very common among young adults. Can lead to infertility in women. 2002: 81,680 cases - a 14 per cent increase since 2001

GONORRHOEA: Early symptoms include painful urination and discharge. If untreated, men may get fevers, chills and swelling of the genitals and prostate. Can affect fertility in men and women. 2002: 24,953 cases - a 9 per cent increase since 2001

SYPHILIS: Starts with a single sore, usually painless. Can lead to organ damage, paralysis, blindness, dementia and death. 2002: 1,193 cases - an 870 per cent increase since 1996

GENITAL WARTS: Small, flat or cauliflower-shaped, flesh-coloured bumps. Can lead to cervical cancer and cancer of the penis. Condoms will not always prevent infection - the only sure way to avoid them is to avoid sex. 2002: 69,417 cases - a 17 per cent increase since 1996

Adam Vulliamy

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